Finding Hidden WIP

Jim BensonExpert3 Comments

Can you find the hidden WIP in this picture?

Can you find the hidden WIP in this picture?

Limiting Work in Process (WIP) is not easy.

Our work is largely invisible, which means it’s hard to notice. It creeps up on us. Well, heck, it’s invisible, it just walks right up – bold and unabashed. It doesn’t have to sneak – we’re simply blind to it.

Then, one day, we notice it is there.

Over the last three weeks, we’ve worked with several groups that are shocked when we’ve found hidden WIP. To them, we seem like ghost hunters finding inefficiencies and overload where there was previously only air.

So, how can you find hidden WIP?

It’s easy: always assume it’s there.

When you start from a position of knowing that there’s more WIP lurking, you examine the shadows more closely. Here’s three common shadows:

Big Tickets – People are always asking about ticket sizing. If your tickets are too big they have lots of room in them. Lots of room for WIP to hide. Lots of tasks that you can start and not finish. Lots of ways for the ticket to get stuck. Ultimately, the big tickets have lots of shadows for WIP to hide. Tickets get bogged down because one or more of those hidden tasks is hard to complete. (Note to some: user stories are usually pretty big tickets).

Overfocus on Team Work – Time and again we see teams limit their WIP on a team board, but overlook the individuals. So the team will have a WIP limit of 5 or 6 and be meeting that limit just fine. Upon examination, however, one or two people are involved in every ticket. Since our work is completed by people, overloading them defeats the purpose of the Personal Kanban in the first place.

Self Deception – We put things on the board that we want to put on the board. Everything else … hmm. We’ve seen software teams overloaded with unboarded support tasks because they weren’t “real work”. We’ve seen researchers overloaded with unboarded administrative tasks because they weren’t “real work.” We’ve seen people with dozens of incomplete tasks that were “too small for the board.”

Tonianne and I now look for these things out of habit. We immediately look for oversized expectations, individual overload, and unreported work every time we see a board.

Image from Cecil Goes Wild … which could be used to teach kids about hidden WIP.

Jim BensonFinding Hidden WIP

3 Comments on “Finding Hidden WIP”

  1. Nick Crosby

    Another insightful and very applicable post. Thank you! My one issue with WIP limiting in the past was the accusation by a superior that ‘You can’t cope’ with the implicit jibe that I was not up to the job/ weak. Some bosses seem not to want to respect limits!

  2. Jim Benson

    Hey Nick,

    People in general don’t respect the WIP of others. We inherently believe that other people do the easy work and our work is much more complex. The most effective way to get the message across to people who are in that state is to show them proof. The only proof I’ve found (a test that shows causality) is to create a kanban, show flow, and show the impacts of disrupted or overloaded flow.

    One must show, not tell.

    And I might also question the use of the word “superior”. 🙂

  3. Paul Osborn

    It’s fitting for the analogy/metaphor that you are making, Jim, that all the “hidden” items are on the prickly cacti!! (sorry for the spoiler, folks!)

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