This week’s chapter of   Why Limit WIP: We Are Drowning In Work opens with a quote from The Dalai Lama linking effective self-discipline with awareness of consequences. The chapter, titled Awareness, speaks to me of redemption. Awareness is a precursor to shedding helplessness and ignites the desire to act. I have spent a large part of my career participating, influencing, and/or leading change. Struggle is a common thread in nearly all of these efforts when entrenched leaders push back against ideas that bubble up from teams or other levels of the organization. Whether from fear or myriad other reasons, there are consequences for everyone involved. Learned helplessness, as noted in Chapter 7, or a dawning awareness that there are other possibilities creates an impetus for change. Whether change creates better processes, products, relationships, or changes in the workforce (that means people leaving) boils down to agency.

Being able to experiment and evaluate the results is a working definition of agency that I have found useful to apply as a change agent. If team and leaders are not allowed to evolve how they are working there can’t be any seachange within the organization. Conversations with colleagues have led me to believe that many (a great plurality) organizations allow a limited form of agency in which minor changes can be made but most changes need approval and then approvals of the approval. Whether this is a reflection of fear or entrenched organizational bureaucracy it is almost never codified as policy. I recently sat in on a company-wide meeting. The executive giving the briefing extolled how the organization embraced change and provided teams and leaders with the space to make stuff happen (they had a snappier catchphrase). After laying out the agency people had to drive change, they rattled off approximately three paragraphs of caveats without batting an eye. Pharmaceutical commercials have nothing on this presentation. Agency has to have reasonable limits, software teams should not be able to redirect all their effort to become professional bowlers, but agency that requires a law degree to leverage is not really agency.

The quote from the Dalai Lama opening the chapter has stayed with me all week. The quote establishes that we need to have self-discipline and the inner strength to understand the consequences of our behavior. When overwhelmed by out-of-control WIP, there is no time to introspect or retrospect so consequences become a surprise. While I am a big fan of happy surprises when WIP is out of control the surprises I encounter are rarely happy.

Remember to buy a copy and read along.  Amazon Affiliate LInk:  https://amzn.to/36Rq3p5 

Previous Entries

Week 1: Preface, Foreword, Introduction, and Logisticshttps://bit.ly/3iDezbp

Week 2: Processing and Memoryhttps://bit.ly/3qYR4yg 

Week 3: Completionhttps://bit.ly/3usMiLm

Week 4: Multitaskinghttps://bit.ly/37hUh5z 

Week 5: Context Switchinghttps://bit.ly/3K8KADF 

Week 6: Creating An Economy –  https://bit.ly/3F1XKkZ 

Week 7: Healthy Constraints – https://bit.ly/3kM8xqh 

Week 8: Focushttps://bit.ly/3PkE0hg 

Chapter 7 is one of my favorites in  Why Limit WIP: We Are Drowning In Work. One of the chronic problems I help teams deal with is the perceived need to start everything that comes to them, generating huge amounts of WIP. Many of the items sit in an on-hold status until something else happens. The iron-willed self-discipline of starting is great at creating on-hold items and crap at getting work done. There is a gap in understanding the impact of the consequences. 


This week, we talk about Healthy Constraints in Why Limit WIP: We Are Drowning In Work. Many years (think decades) ago a friend of mine, Danny Bailus, had a cool mini-bike. He rode it around our neighborhood in Howland, Ohio all summer. It was the third coolest (text me the first two) thing that had my attention that summer. That was until Danny decided that it did not go fast enough and removed the governor from the small engine. He removed the constraint from the system and the engine burned out. His father was not very happy, Danny was not very happy, and I was very happy I was not riding it when it happened.  In this chapter, Mr. Benson discusses the difference between healthy and unhealthy constraints. All systems have constraints; the question we need to ask is whether the constraints on the system are too heavy, too light, or just right.


The chapter of Why Limit WIP: We Are Drowning In Work this week is titled, Creating An Economy. In the past decade, certain words have become toxic. Words like process, waterfall, and output have become taboo in certain corners of software-related industries. Add the word productivity to the mix and many people would grab torches and pitchforks. The vilification of these words (or any words – it is sort of like burning books in my mind) makes it difficult to talk about systemic improvement. As a Kanban practitioner, I focus on flow. But not just flow, I advise my clients that they should keep their eye on continuously improving the flow. Continuous improvement yields better outcomes. Organizations, teams, and individuals that overextend and exceed their WIP limit are not improving their delivery of outcomes but rather in Jim Benson’s words “disrespecting your ability to create amazing things.” More bluntly they are neither effective nor efficient. 


Multitasking is the first or second greatest LIE in the modern business world. The best description of multitasking would include thrash, waste, and hubris. The problem is that EVERYONE thinks they are special and can multitask their way to the effective delivery of value. Chapter 3 of Why Limit WIP: We Are Drowning In Work blasts away at multitasking (another take on the topic from  2015 Multitasking Yourself Away From Efficiency | Software Process and Measurement https://bit.ly/37XmrSY). Multitasking is bad, don’t do it.  


Week 3 of our re-read of Why Limit WIP: We Are Drowning In Work by Jim Benson talks about the thrill of getting things done. On that note, my original plan was to re-read and discuss two chapters a week. As Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.” As with most plans I failed to account for the natural variability in my productivity and the number of items that caught my eye in the first couple of chapters (so far).  Like every person I know, I like to get things done. As WIP piles up I feel less good about my productivity.

Listen Now

We began the Re-Read Saturday feature in 2014 with a re-read of John Kotter’s classic Leading Change. The list of books we have re-read is quite long — I am going to have to create a list. All that said, last week a person that regularly comments on the podcast indicated they really did not know what Re-Read Saturday was all about. So today to commemorate spring in the northern hemisphere (and the fact that it snowed) and the kick-off of the latest re-read (Why Limit WIP by Jim Benson) I am going to share an audio version of this week’s entry.  As we always say, buy a copy of the book and read Jim Benson’s Why Limit WiP (buy a copy using our Amazon Affiliate link  https://amzn.to/3u6Feml get reading) along with us.

The written version:  https://bit.ly/3iDezbp 

This week we also have a visit from Jeremy Berriault, who brings his QA Corner to the podcast.  Jeremy and I explored the difference between relative and absolute time. 


Why Limit WIP: We Are Drowning In Work by Jim Benson is our current re-read. Over the last few years, I have found copies of this book in offices that surprise me (in a good way). It suggests that leaders and thought leaders are beginning to understand that you can’t do more than you can do. Now it is a matter of shifting that knowledge into action.


This week…I am hiking in the woods without my laptop albeit I do have my copy of  Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg. I am continuing to focus on using shortlists, which has been a fairly easy transition and also implementing both the panorama cues and panorama sessions. The panorama cues and sessions have been useful up to the point that my dairy becomes wall-to-wall meetings.  I am trying to devise an approach for using panorama sessions in this scenario.  Suggestions?  While I am out in the woods I have re-published the summary of one of the most popular Re-reads, The Goal.  We will be back to Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg next week.

Re-Read Saturday: The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement Summary

Note: If you don’t have a copy of the book, buy one.  If you use the link below it will support the Software Process and Measurement blog and podcast. Dead Tree Version or Kindle Version

Chapters 1 through 3 actively present the reader with a burning platform. The plant and division are failing. Alex Rogo has actively pursued increased efficiency and automation to generate cost reductions, however performance is falling even further behind and fear has become central feature in the corporate culture.

Chapters 4 through 6 shift the focus from steps in the process to the process as a whole. Chapters 4 – 6 move us down the path of identifying the ultimate goal of the organization (in this book). The goal is making money and embracing the big picture of systems thinking. In this section, the authors point out that we are often caught up with pursuing interim goals, such as quality, efficiency or even employment, to the exclusion of the of the ultimate goal. We are reminded by the burning platform identified in the first few pages of the book, the impending closure of the plant and perhaps the division, which in the long run an organization must make progress towards their ultimate goal, or they won’t exist.

Chapters 7 through 9 show Alex’s commitment to change, seeks more precise advice from Johan, brings his closest reports into the discussion and begins a dialog with his wife (remember this is a novel). In this section of the book the concept “that you get what you measure” is addressed. In this section of the book, we see measures of efficiency being used at the level of part production, but not at the level of whole orders or even sales. We discover the corollary to the adage ‘you get what you measure’ is that if you measure the wrong thing …you get the wrong thing. We begin to see Alex’s urgency and commitment to make a change.

Chapters 10 through 12 mark a turning point in the book. Alex has embraced a more systems view of the plant and that the measures that have been used to date are more focused on optimizing parts of the process to the detriment to overall goal of the plant.  What has not fallen into place is how to take that new knowledge and change how the plant works. The introduction of the concepts of dependent events and statistical variation begin the shift the conceptual understanding of what measure towards how the management team can actually use that information.

Chapters 13 through 16 drive home the point that dependent events and statistical variation impact the performance of the overall system. In order for the overall process to be more effective you have to understand the capability and capacity of each step and then take a systems view. These chapters establish the concepts of bottlenecks and constraints without directly naming them and that focusing on local optimums causes more trouble than benefit.

Chapters 17 through 18 introduces the concept of bottlenecked resources. The affect of the combination dependent events and statistical variability through bottlenecked resources makes delivery unpredictable and substantially more costly. The variability in flow through the process exposes bottlenecks that limit our ability to catch up, making projects and products late or worse generating technical debt when corners are cut in order to make the date or budget.

Chapters 19 through 20 begins with Johan coaching Alex’s team to help them to identify a pallet of possible solutions. They discover that every time the capacity of a bottleneck is increased more product can be shipped.  Changing the capacity of a bottleneck includes reducing down time and the amount of waste the process generates. The impact of a bottleneck is not the cost of individual part, but the cost of the whole product that cannot be shipped. Instead of waiting to make all of the changes Alex and his team implement changes incrementally rather than waiting until they can deliver all of the changes.

Chapters 21 through 22are a short primer on change management. Just telling people to do something different does not generate support. Significant change requires transparency, communication and involvement. One of Deming’s 14 Principles is constancy of purpose. Alex and his team engage the workforce though a wide range of communication tools and while staying focused on implementing the changes needed to stay in business.

Chapters 23 through 24 introduce the idea of involving the people doing the work in defining the solutions to work problems and finding opportunities. In Agile we use retrospectives to involve and capture the team’s ideas on process and personnel improvements. We also find that fixing one problem without an overall understanding of the whole system can cause problems to pop up elsewhere.

Chapters 25 and 26 introduce several concepts. The first concept is that if non-bottleneck steps are run at full capacity, they create inventory and waste. At full capacity their output outstrips the overall process’ ability to create a final product. Secondly, keeping people and resources 100% busy does not always move you closer to the goal of delivering value to the end customer. Simply put: don’t do work that does not move you closer to the goal of the organization. The combination of these two concepts suggests that products (parts or computer programs) should only be worked on and completed until they are needed in the next step in the process (Kanban). A side effect to these revelations is that sometimes people and processes will not be 100% utilized.

Chapters 27 and 28 shows the results of focusing on the flow of work the bottleneck and only beginning work when it will be needed has improved the results at the plant,  Bill Peach pushes Alex for more using the threat of closing the plant as the stick to make the threat real.  Johan suggests cutting batch sizes in half as a way to improve performance and urges Alex to let the sales team know the plant can deliver quickly and quality.

Chapter 29 and 30 show that the plant has been able to deliver on the huge order from Bucky Burnside, the company’s largest customer, without impacting other orders or sacrificing quality. In order to meet the new demands on the plant, they reduced batch size again, which improved flexibility and efficiency. Burnside is so thrilled with the results and the staggered delivery schedule he flies to the plant to shake the hand of every production worker. Jons, the head of sales, confides to Alex that the success has led to the promise of even more business from Burnside. Despite all of the success, it is time for the plant review.

Chapters 31 and 32 deal with the plant review and the review’s immediate aftermath. Alex defends the changes he and his team have made to how work is done in the plant. The defense includes a summary of the theory of constraints. While Hilton Smyth is hostile, Alex’s performance has been noticed and Bill Peach tells him that he is to be promoted. Alex immediately reaches out to Johan who tells him that in the future he will need to trust his own judgement.

Chapters 33 and 34 reflect a shift in focus. With the plant saved, Alex is faced with a need to generalize the process that was used so that it can be used for different problems or scaled up to the next level based on his promotion. The problem is that finding a generalized process is hard and unless Alex and his team can find a way to generalize what they have done it will be difficult to replicate across the division.

Chapters 35 and 36.  Alex and his team struggle to generalize a process that Alex can use when he begins his new job based what the whole team has learned as they turned the plant around.  The process they find is:

  1. Find the bottleneck in the flow of work.
  2. Decide how to “exploit” the bottleneck (make sure you maximize the flow through the bottleneck).
  3. Subordinate every other step to the bottleneck (only do the work the bottleneck can accommodate).
  4. Elevate the bottleneck (increase the capacity of the bottleneck).
  5. If the bottleneck has been broken repeat the process (a bottleneck is broken when the step has excess capacity).

As chapter 36 concludes the team reflects that the word bottleneck should be replaced with the slightly broader concept of constraint.

Chapters 37 and 38. Alex and his team continue to struggle to answer Johan’s final question.  During their discussions Alex and his team find that the plant has 20% extra capacity.  With the understanding that the plant needs (and can) to increase production, Alex, Lou and Ralph meet with Johnny Jons to explore new sales opportunities. Jons has a pending order that the plant can accept and is above variable cost of production.

Chapters 39 and 40 wrap Alex’s journey up.  In these chapters Alex finally answers Johan’s question, “What are the techniques needed for management?” During a  struggle to apply the five focusing questions to help the entire division leads Alex to the conclusion that, to manage, a leader must have the techniques to answer these questions:

  1. What to change?
  2. What to change to?
  3. How to cause the change?

Alex realizes he has learned to think for himself which was the outcome Johan had hoped for when he stopped providing advice.

Book cover: Tame your Work Flow
Tame your Work Flow

We began our re-read of Tame your Work Flow by Steve Tendon and Daniel Doiron, on Saturday, May 23rd. The world has changed a lot as we worked our way through the book. However, there are important ideas in this book that are far less transitory than the changes we’ve seen in 2020 will be. One of those ideas is finding the constraint in complex, messy workflows. They even add an acronym for this scenario to our alphabet soup vocabulary – PEST. In the messy real-world Steve and Daniel describe how to identify the constraint and then track it as it moves around. This is the difference between understanding flow in theory and doing something about it in practice. I used this approach twice just this week.  Another great and useful idea is the concept of full-kitting. I gauge the value of this kind of book by whether I can use the material and whether it makes me think. I have been able to use these concepts and more in my consulting practice since my first read of the book. The second time through, this re-read, has only deepened my understanding and appreciation of the ideas in TameFlow.


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