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Why Do Projects Succeed or Fail? Control Work in Progress

My last post concerned the third principle of the Basic Collaboration Level of the Project Execution Maturity Model, Priority Control. This post introduces the fourth principle, Control Work in Progress (WIP).


Control Work in Progress (WIP)

It seems like common sense: start sooner, you’ll finish sooner. The problem is that everyone starts sooner! Increasing the volume of the work in progress merely increases confusion and conflict—and decreases real productivity. Having a lot of work does accomplish the objective of keeping people busy. However, while everyone is busy, the true picture of the overall project is obscured until deadlines approach, when the failure to complete the right tasks becomes all too visible.

The more work you have stacked up, the more opportunities you have to multitask and to work on the wrong (out of sequence, too soon) thing. Which task should you prioritize? How many tasks do you have on hand? How many tasks should you have on hand?

The extra work complicates priority setting. If you have ten tasks on your desk and no guidance on priority, what are your criteria for choosing? Do you pick the task you’re really interested in, or the task you don’t understand that will require the most concentration? Do you pick the one with the closest deadline or the one that you can finish the fastest?

Most of us will automatically choose the task that is most interesting to us. Unfortunately for those of us who get bored easily, this has as much of an implication for projects as delays do; if the wrong task is picked to be worked on, then the wrong work gets introduced into the system. Visibility can help this issue—if you can see what the other team members need from you in order to accomplish the ultimate goal, then you can prioritize accordingly—but without visibility, there’s no way to know which task you should start with. The right work lags, and the wrong work moves ahead. Once again, the next link in the chain will move on to a different task instead of waiting to receive the completed one that they need—and the delay cascades down the chain, growing exponentially again. The project team gets loaded up with work that shouldn’t be in the system, and then there’s expediting and sorting to be done in a project or process that shouldn’t need it at all. Then, we’re back to multitasking, and the process begins all over again. It’s a vicious cycle, one that creates extra work for the team members and additional management overhead to deal with it.

Just like adding more cars to the highways doesn’t mean everyone gets there faster, putting more work into play will never accelerate progress. Starting more work does not equate to finishing more work. Starting more work means finishing less work.

Secondly, without control, new tasks are added to the system prematurely. If prerequisite tasks, such as design, or external requirements, such as component completions, are not completed before initiation, resources are misdirected to tasks that are impossible to complete – or that are completed under incorrect assumptions, requiring rework further down the line. Again, creating additional unplanned work, cost, and increasing project duration.

To control work in process, managers establish and enforce pre-release criteria to match work releases with the rate of work completion and ensure no work is started that cannot be finished.

Controlling Work In Progress: What Does it Look Like?

A Houston-based engineering team created a visual board in order to see all the work in the system. This board became a mechanism for managing the work in progress: the total work in the system, the rate of completion, and upcoming work. The engineers, drafters, and even an engineering intern used the board to guide their decisions and activities as a means to determine the amount of work in the process and take steps to limit the levels and ensure work was not released before all information was available – thus ensuring rapid completion.

They created “ready to release” and “preparation for release” categories of work, from which they monitored inbound work to ensure timely and quality release into the system.

Knowing what was in the system helped with major decisions, as well. When the customer requirements changed, they were able to quickly respond without the typical chaos that such changes created in the past. The team was able to relieve the bottleneck in engineering, moving it downstream into the supply chain and assembly, increasing total system output by 21%.

Organizations with maturity in controlling work in progress:
• Have clear criteria for work release (nothing is released that cannot be completed)
• Have a clean start or full kit process to manage inbound work
• Established targets for total system WIP
• Managers and leaders meter the work (projects) into the system, staggering the release of based on global priorities and resource loads.

In the next few blog posts, I continue to identify the elements that drive effective project execution excellence, giving you a measurable means to assess your status, to target areas of improvement, and to make meaningful progress in the way you deliver projects. Get a preview and learn more by reading our free eBook “Why Do Projects Succeed or Fail? Discover What Really Makes a Difference.”

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