Focus: Why Limit Your WIP VII

Jim BensonExpert, Primers2 Comments

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. ~ Mark Twain


Eldred comes into work on Monday. He is instantly besieged by requests for work, information, meetings, and product from all five of his teams. His co-workers, his bosses, his clients all need things from him now.

Eldred cannot judge the relative importance of these requests. It’s possible, in fact, that they are all equally valuable. Therefore, there is no clear direction for him to take.

Eldred calls his five bosses together and cries out, “Just tell me what to do!

Eldred’s Got No Focus

Knowledge work happens within our brains. It is a product of the mind. Without imagination, without insight, without inspiration, it is simply work.

Value creation includes the work creation for a reason. It’s not value reproduction. Or value copying. Knowledge workers create. They invent. The innovate.

When we lose our ability to focus, we greatly impair our ability to do these things. We become reactive. We begin to ask bosses things like: “tell us what to do.”

What’s worse, we believe that’s what we want.

As a boss, if your employees or team members are asking that question – you know they have no focus.

Learned Helplessness

When people specifically ask someone else to tell them what to do, one thing is quite clear:


As the person who is directing knowledge workers, I have bad news for you.

This is your fault, and you need to fix it.

Eldred’s bosses all start to argue. They all have the highest need for Eldred right now. Things are behind and they, personally, cannot abide any more delays.

Not only does this create an unnecessary meeting of people to argue about Eldred’s time – it also is a playhouse of something psychologists call “Learned Helplessness.”

Learned helplessness comes from situations where we feel we are utterly powerless to act.

An example of this for me comes from the 7th grade. We had an algebra teacher who was a tyrant. After I had the flu, I sat for an exam that I utterly bombed. When I went to him for help, he told me I should study harder. When I said that I had been sick, he told me that wasn’t his problem. I had nowhere to turn and my shame made me not approach my peers. Whenever I talked to the teacher, he let me know this was my problem. My lack of understanding of things at the beginning of the class led to me falling farther and farther behind, ultimately I failed the class – believing it was all due to my inability to learn algebra.

I was convinced this was my substandard brain.

My parents were concerned, but also were under the impression that this was just Jimmy “not applying himself.”

But then they went over to Fred and Donna’s for dinner. They were eating with a group of parents of my friends. Someone mentioned their kid had failed algebra and they were disappointed. My parents said, “Really, us too!” Soon the whole table was filled with the parents of apparent algebra dunces. Coincidence?

Root cause discovered, they went to the school and demanded to have us re-tested at the end of the summer.  The school, who apparently didn’t notice the flood of failing grades before, said, “Sure, whatever.”

And the lot of us found ourselves getting algebra tutoring over the summer. … and oddly enjoying it.

We all tested at the end of the summer, got our A’s and went on with our lives.

But to this day, math upsets me. I still feel that learned helplessness and can’t shake it.

Why Eldred Can’t Read

Learned helplessness is insidious. Eldred and his bosses and his co-workers have been buried under a mountain of work. They can not see the mountain. They would not have the authority to react to the mountain even if they could.

Lucy is not going to just sit up and say, “You know, this company has too much work. I’m going to kill my project and give my people to the other projects.” First, it’s her job on the line. Second, why her and not someone else? Third, she likely believes her project (as do the others) is the most important. Fourth, she simply lacks the authority to make that kind of determination. And fifth, she and the other project managers are not paid to sit around second guessing corporate decisions.

Eldred is in an even worse situation. He cannot get away from any of his five projects. He knows they are all doomed. He is also quite convinced that nothing he can do will improve the situation – because he is also convinced of the necessity of all five projects and his role in them.

Learned helplessness here means that rather than attack the root cause of the company’s problems (too many projects in flight) – the groups work on treating symptoms as if they are problems.

We see Eldred and his colleagues exhibiting new traits: they appear anxious, less talkative, or depressed. They begin to say things like, “Just tell me what to do.” Managers often like this and will give them direct orders. The workers will then merely do their task – never ask for the context and never work to make things better.

This means that tasks begin to more and more be done without an understanding of the actual end goals. The tasks may be completed in a way that meets the description of the work – but does not actually fit into the final product. This creates more work at the end of a project to make ill-fitting work fit into a final product – causing more delays, rework, and shoddy product.

That, in turn, creates more learned helplessness.

Limiting WIP as a Cure for Learned Helplessness

Eldred comes to work on Monday and finds that the company has been bought by a new CEO. His name is Markus Blume. Blume walks into the office and declares, “My word! This company has a lot of goals and no products!” Everyone fidgets.

Markus says, “You know what? I think it would be a capital idea if we all shelved about half this stuff for Q1 and just focused on completing some things.”


This guy is clearly mental.

Everyone, from the project managers to the rank and file, are aghast. “You can’t postpone projects C, D, and E! They are important!”

Eldred gives an impassioned speech for D especially.

Markus looks simultaneously disgusted and amused.

“Of course they are important. But .. just say for a second we actually finish something. Wouldn’t that be important?”

Blank stares greet him. Everyone knows that this company doesn’t actually release things. They’ll just lay people off.

But, learned helplessness works in Mr Blume’s favor. Everyone goes and does what they are told.

Teams are re-formed. Lots of work is put on the back burner, but the front burners are turned way up.

Two new, larger and dedicated, teams are directed at projects A and B. A third team, called the Deming team, is built to look around the company and notice where things can be improved. Years of panic-driven management has resulted in tons of bad process, horrible systems, and neglected tasks. The Deming team is there to remove the bad constraints, create healthy ones, and clean up the mess.

Eldred is steaming mad for losing project D, the fact that it is scheduled for later in the year is of little comfort. He knows his project, project B, will be delayed just like always.

Tuesday, Eldred shows up and gets to work on Project B. At the end of the day, he is still dealing with the loss of project D. So much so that he hardly notices that he was very productive that day.

Wednesday, the B team gathers and talks about strategy. They haven’t even been given a deadline! They feel rudderless. How are they going to finish without a deadline? Surely this will take forever.

Maybe they need to invent their own goals, someone suggests.

And they do.


This is post 7 in a 10 part series on Why Limit Your WIP.  Read post 8 Awareness: Why Limit Your WIP VIII in the Why Limit Your WIP series.  Also, see the index for a list of all of them.

Jim BensonFocus: Why Limit Your WIP VII

2 Comments on “Focus: Why Limit Your WIP VII”

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

  2. Pingback: Healthy Constraints: Why Limit Your WIP VI | Personal Kanban

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *