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Blind Spot 3: Put the Whip to WIP

Critical Chain

Mark Woeppel - June 29, 2013

The sooner you start, the sooner you finish, right?
Perhaps you remember the tale of the tortoise and the hare.  Sure, the hare is fast, but in the end, it’s the tortoise’s steady progress that wins the race.  In a project management sense, it’s not the speed of the individual project that matters; it’s the speed of all the projects that matters.

The problem with the “start early, finish early” approach is that when you’re dealing with several projects, everything starts early and the system becomes clogged.  The project management system looks like the freeways during rush hour (2 analogies in 2 paragraphs!).  The system becomes bogged down, slows down, and projects take longer and longer.

From a resource view, there’s a stack of work to be done.  How to choose the right task?  The one I enjoy most?  The one that we discussed in the project meeting today?  The small task I can wrap up before the weekend?  So many choices, each resource choosing the correct sequence.

Undoubtedly, the “wrong” work will be done.  Tasks will be started with incomplete information, resulting in starting and stopping, waiting, and rework.  The project team spends its time sorting through the piles of work for the resources, and then resorting as new information arrives.  Then the resources are forced to stop and start again, because the teams never quite get it exactly right.

The result?  A loss of productivity.  Increasing project lengths.  Expensive expediting efforts.  More management attention required.  Unhappy customers.  Unhappy people.

What can you do?   Certainly the synchronization task is complex when you have many projects, but you can clear the road a bit so you can see the way.  Manage and limit the amount of work in the pipeline.   Simple, yet difficult.  Still, it must be done.

Managing the WIP:

Reduces the multitasking.  With less work in the system, there is less sorting and resorting, less stopping and starting due to priority errors

Reduces management attention.  Less work, faster progress, no more managing the piles.

Reduces rework.  With less work in the system, attention can be turned to emphasizing clean starts

Reduces average project lead times.  Fewer queues, less wait time, more time spent on the project.

A couple things to keep in mind as you set your WIP level:

You can make gradual reductions; reduce by 25% if you’re worried about something bad happening.  I’d start a with 50% reduction.

Watch your resource engagement; sometimes there is work in the system you’re not even aware of, like customers calling your engineers or developers directly.

Make sure it’s clear who sets the priorities for work.  Controlling the release of new work into the system is both a capacity and priority management task.

To read more about the unlimited “progress” and other invisible threats to managers, read our new eBook Blindsided! Five Invisible Project Threats Successful Managers Must See.

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