Book cover: Tame your Work Flow

Tame your Work Flow

Re-read Saturday, Tame you Work Flow Week 3:  Chapter 2—Postpone Commitment and Limit Work in Process

Today we tackle Chapter 2 in our re-read of Tame your Work Flow by Steve Tendon and Daniel Doiron. The chapter is titled Postpone Commitment and Limit Work in Process. Last we mentioned multitasking, this week we make a full assault on the topic.

I have a to-do list that every three months I throw away and begin building again. A few items are copied over and a few reappear over time, but most are ideas that never really needed to be done. As the list grows longer, I am often tempted to start more items — multitasking increases. Even though I know better I fall prey to the observation the authors make on page 43, “As more and more work is pushed into the system, the amount of multitasking increases exponentially.” Multitasking is a pernicious problem that negatively affects cost, productivity, how long it takes to get work done and quality. We all know better and we all struggle to avoid taking in and starting new work as it appears.

Daniel and Steve define two concepts early in the chapter that are important to understand for this chapter and for the remainder of the book. The first is flow time, which is the amount of time taken between when work starts and when it is finished. The second is queue time, which is the time it takes after a piece of work is accepted until work is begun. The authors use these definitions very precisely. As someone that uses flow-based techniques often (Kanban and Scrumban), ensuring that a team has a precise and consistent definition for these concepts will make identifying constraints and bottlenecks much more effective (and will reduce the amount of loud conversation about the meaning of cumulative flow diagrams).   

The primary premise of this chapter is to discuss the importance of limiting work in process, in other words, to deliberately avoid multitasking. By deferring work we are not accepting it into the active queue (it can be on the backlog but has not been accepted to be done). The simplest meaning of implementing this type of limit is to ensure your work entry process understands when you have the capacity to accept work and is empowered to say “we will get to it later” and then following through. Work entry is a constant problem for almost every team and organization I have worked with in the past. It almost always seems easier to say yes to something, start it, and then juggle time slices. Steve and Daniel don’t focus on the concept of work entry, but rather on the impact of making the right decisions about when to start work. In practice, a preponderance of agile and lean problems can be rectified by focusing on work entry. Regardless, controlling the amount of work entering a process so that it matches the amount leaving will increase stability, predictability, and trust.

The authors use the term ‘postpone commitment’ to describe deferring work until later. The exercise is not to say no and not do the work, but rather to decide when to do it. The ability to become predictable (which requires controlling work entry) is crucial for helping to disrupt “if you don’t start on my work NOW it will never get done” mental model. Postponing commitment until there is a capacity to do the work minimizes queue (time from acceptance to work beginning) and increases the likelihood of focus by reducing multitasking which will reduce flow time. That means that once a piece of work is accepted, it will get done faster and more predictably. 

Early last year I worked at a firm that glorified the “tap on the shoulder” approach to work entry. When a customer or superior tapped you on the shoulder, you were to drop everything and do what they needed. The teams nearly never accomplished what they planned to do during sprint planning and were always in a state of panic as promised release dates approached. Work visualization was useful to allow everyone to see the problem as it happened, which started a discussion about deferring work and reorganizing the department. Several steps were required to allow everyone involved to understand that their mental model was flawed and that having people wait their turn to be serviced delivered more value and with fewer abandoned projects and delivered defects (less waste).

Last year, I began limiting the items I prioritized on my to-do list (my form of work entry).  Everything can go on the list, but only the prioritized items are to be worked on. I still have work that enters in an unplanned manner, but it is a far smaller amount. I am consistently clearing more items from the list and feel more confident when I promise to get things done that I will deliver on that promise. While my to-do list is a microcosm, the ideas of reducing multitasking translate to teams and organizations easily. 

Remember to buy a copy of Tame your Work Flow to support the authors and blog!  

Previous Instalments

Week 1: Logistics and Front Matter

Week 2: Prologue (The Story of Herbie) –

Week 3: Explicit Mental Models