Creating an Economy: Why Limit Your WIP V

Jim BensonExpert, Primers3 Comments

“Stop starting and start finishing.” – David Anderson

You, right now, are disrespecting your ability to create amazing things.

You, right now, are doing more than you should, for more people than is optimal, and in an environment that is too distracting.

Well, odds are you are doing those things at any rate.


Because right now, odds are (overwhelmingly) that you have no idea the full extent of the tasks you’ve taken on, what you’ve actually left incomplete, and what the costs are for taking something else on.

Odds are also (overwhelmingly) that you’re a pretty decent person. You want to help people, you want to do a good job, and you are interested in interesting things.

With no penalty for saying, “no” – why would you?

Why would we ever say no to interesting, helpful incoming work. Especially when it’s just a little more? It’s just five or ten minutes. It’s just a little bit more work. And it’s sooooooooo delicious…..

Just like that one little Hershey’s Kiss won’t kill our diet … one more task surely won’t overload us.

But we have a scale – that shows us the impact of those chocolates. And we have a diet which regulates the flow of those chocolates. We built a system, with an economy, that shows that there is an exchange rate between chocolate eating and weight gain.

Limiting WIP creates that economy for our work. It shows us that there are direct penalties we pay for taking too much on. That our cognitive system degrades faster than our productivity improves. That the more work we take on, the less we complete.

Ignoring an Economy

In the global economic sense, we have seen that it is easy to overheat an economy and have it burn out with terrific penalties. So, too, can we see this in our daily lives. When there is no penalty to over-use a resource, we tend to do exactly that. In this case, it’s our own time.

In our personal lives and in knowledge work, we see regularly that we take on too much, we get bogged down, everything becomes an emergency or a missed opportunity. After a while, panic feels like the order of things, which is neither fulfilling personally nor professionally.

Whether we are individuals, teams, or companies, we see the opportunities available to us and want to exercise them. Now, if these opportunities all took up physical space, after a while we’d run out of room.

Each opportunity would come in a box, we’d store it in our To-Do room, and after a while the room would fill up. “I can’t fit anything else in,” we’d say, “come back later and I’ll get that done for you.”

Well, bad news for us. Promises are ephemeral. We can sit and make promises all day long. They take up no space.

Like carbon monoxide, promises are odorless, gaseous, and when they mount to dense enough concentrations – they kill us.

Like bundling bad B & C loans into tradable packages, we gather up these promises and shuffle them around, each promise initially buying us good favor – until their debt load becomes so great that our economy collapses around us.

Building an Economy

Economies actually work better when they have minimal, but responsible, constraints.

When we treated Eldred’s time as a limitless resource, we quickly overutilized him. Logical utilization based on Eldred’s time, simply didn’t work. Eldred’s time is more valuable, it seems, than we thought. Initially, we thought that time was important and Eldred simply plugged into it. Now we see that Eldred’s ability to think requires sensitivity to how he processes information.

Therefore, we have some elements to build an economy.

We understand that Eldred is an awesome knowledge worker and can produce a great stuff – as long as Eldred and those around him understand his work.

Our work economy needs to understand a few things:

1. Eldred interacts with his co-workers, his products, his bosses, and his clients. These interactions have rules, needs, and transaction costs.

2. Eldred’s work is knowledge work. Some days things go as planned. Some days things require him to put his head down and work out a problem. Some days, he needs to gather his co-workers and really pound on a sticky problem. Often these states change without notice.

3. Eldred is constantly needing to take in information, learn new things, process changes in context, and discuss this information with others. This means he needs to be able to focus, to build coherence in his work, and to complete.

4. Eldred is human. He gets weary (you know he do get weary). He interacts with other humans in and outside of his team. The interactions, information, and changes in context he is experiencing impacts his and others mood, psychological state, and ability to perform.

When our economy understands these things, we can begin to alter our working systems to support these parameters.

Limiting WIP in the New Economy

While there are many other elements to managing this economy, limiting work-in-progress is right at the forefront.

In this new economy, work-in-progress is a sacred element. We now understand that limiting Work-in-progress provides time to communicate, creates work coherence, and allows us to finish.

Further, we are beginning to understand the hidden costs of hyper-productivity. We are beginning to realize that understanding the nature of the work being done creates a more effective work force.

Lastly we are becoming aware that creating high quality products is preferable to creating low quality products.

What we are surprised to learn is that doing fewer things at the same time means we complete more things over the course of a year. Managing our working economy means we are able to release more, while doing less. Simply because we are spending more time working and less time context switching, status meeting, and reacting to delay.

This is post 5 in a 10 part series on Why Limit Your WIP.  Read post 6 Healthy Constraints: Why Limit Your WIP VI in the Why Limit Your WIP series.  Also, see the index for a list of all of them.

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Jim BensonCreating an Economy: Why Limit Your WIP V

3 Comments on “Creating an Economy: Why Limit Your WIP V”

  1. Pingback: Why Limit Your WIP: A PK Info Series | Personal Kanban

  2. Trent

    “Now we see that Eldred’s ability to think requires sensitivity to how he processes information.”

    This is key to the whole set of posts in this series. One of the difficulties I often encounter is with the very basic assumption that knowledge work is inherently different from more traditional approaches, such as manufacturing work. There is still a topic that needs explanation in some circles – what is knowledge work and why is it different?

    I think there is an assumption in engineering disciplines to treat people as “resources” which can be described, allocated, and managed, rather than the human beings that we actually are. Getting past this is essential to moving things forward in the direction this series outlines.

  3. Pingback: Context Switching: Why Limit Your WIP IV | Personal Kanban

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