Slack: Why Limit WIP Series, Post 3

Jim BensonPrimers4 Comments


The word conjures up images of slothfulness, of days spent lazying about in a seaside hammock beneath the fronds of a blowing palm tree.

But relaxation is not necessarily sloth. Just because someone or something appears to not be fully utilized is not an indication of their disutility.

Consider the belts in your car’s engine. In order to operate effectively, they can’t be too tense, they must have some give. Engine optimization relies on belts having the appropriate amount of slack.

It’s the same with our work. We need slack for our own optimization. In our work, we’d like to have a degree of slack to:

    1. Make sure we are able to focus on the tasks at hand;
    2. Make sure we have the capacity to deal with unforeseen events;
    3. Make sure we can stop periodically to allow our brains to perform vital functions in memory, processing, and regeneration; and especially to
    4. Make sure we don’t work ourselves into an early grave.

When we have unlimited WIP, we tend to start multiple tasks concurrently, and then run in circles trying to complete them. As we’ve discussed in our previous posts in this series, overwork creates additional work, heightens stress, and results in a poor quality product.

Focus on Tasks at Hand

Slack allows us to focus on the tasks at hand simply by giving us the ability to work in a non-freaked, sans-OMFG state. In the absence of slack, we aren’t only working on our current task, we’re fretting because we know there are countless other tasks we’ve started and that they demand completion. We live with an underlying fear that something, somewhere will break and when it does, it’ll be unlikely we’ll be able to deal with it.

Slack is, in the end, a recognition that our time, our brainpower and our emotional fortitude are all limited. If we tax all these resources, we will not be able to do the work on our plate or deal with unforeseen events.

Unforeseen Events

When we’re overloaded with work, we invite panic. We invite emergencies. When we have zero capacity for new work, additional work exacerbates our overload. The thing is, unforeseen events are inevitable; they happen all the time. We can’t predict the future, we can only give ourselves the slack to deal with whatever may come our way – good or otherwise.

If we have three tasks in process and something unexpected comes along, we – at worst – have four tasks in flight. This is still a substantial number less than most people currently have.  This doesn’t make the unforeseen event a welcome one, but it does make it a manageable one.

Rest, Processing, and Catch-up

Francesco Cirillo’s simple yet profoundly powerful Pomodoro Technique invites us to use a timer set to 25 minutes during which we focus without distraction. The timer’s ring alerts us to rest. The ratio suggested is 25 minutes of work to 5 minutes of rest – and then repeat (taking an even longer break after 4 successive pomodori). This isn’t merely to let us have a “coffee break.” Our brains need recharge points.

The brain is not some easy going organ…it’s a resource hog.

When we’re working intently on something, our brain burns a lot of calories, uses a lot of water, and gets tired. Allowing periodic points of slack allows us to hydrate, grab a snack, and recharge.

Not only this, but the brain also works in three memory modes: short term, mid term, and long term. Having slack and taking breaks allows the brain to pause and write vital information from short to mid term memory. The more we overload ourselves with work, the more we forget.

Stayin’ Alive

As we can see, without incorporating slack into our work day, we end up taking on too much work, too much stress, and with too little down time. These factors decrease happiness and longevity. That’s not a good thing.

We limit our WIP specifically to achieve a comprehensible workload that allows us to complete, understand the costs of our choices, make better decisions, and react elegantly to life’s surprises.

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Jim BensonSlack: Why Limit WIP Series, Post 3

4 Comments on “Slack: Why Limit WIP Series, Post 3”

  1. christian

    Apart from being very interesting in general, the comments about how the brain works and the effects of continous ‘crunchin’ seems like precisely the thing I experience at work. If you remember where you read about that, I’d be very interested in references to literature or articles etc. Thanks alot for the great site!

  2. Pingback: The Importance of Limiting Your Work-In-Progress for Trademark Management

  3. deke

    40 years ago my consciousness was raised (as in “reared by”) JR “Bob” Dobbs and the rest of the Sub-Genius gang. Since then I have been intrigued by neuroplasticity other approaches to utilizing and creating slack (“the Sub-Genius must have slack” was our mantra) so I am delighted to find this excellent treatment of the subject/object/thingy. Your concept of WIP limitation is a sterling example avoiding WIPlash and I look forward to more insight.

    In faith – Apostle Deke – yadadada

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