The bottom line to chapter 10 of Why Limit WIP: We Are Drowning In Work is simple (assuming you have been re-reading along); too much WIP interferes with learning. Without the time or inclination to experiment, the best scenario is learning by accident.  In Chapter 10, the author discusses how knowledge workers learn. The model is:

Perpetuating the Metaphor

Flow is one of the most used words in agile and lean (and there are a lot of overused words in the field). Even though the word is used by nearly every practitioner multiple times a day there are very few solid definitions. Instead of definitions, most practitioners have a notional understanding of what the word means in software and software-related disciplines but often revert to metaphors when challenged. If I had a dollar for every reference to a river or traffic I would be able to outbid Elon Musk for Twitter. The term is used as a noun, verb, and adjective (I am sure someone has an example of flow used as an adverb but I have to hear it yet).


As a coach, I spend a lot of time helping people communicate. Having been involved in helping teams and teams of teams get stuff done I am amazed at the amount of effort that goes into “communication,” how much of that effort is directed to messaging, and how little to actually coordinate and improve products. I recently got an email from a new reader of the blog. The question boiled down to whether it was normal for a whole team to spend three days generating slides and practicing for a sprint review. I will share a version of the response in a few weeks, but the basic answer was no. In that organization, the Sprint Review had stopped being a tool for collaboration and communication and a high-pressure messaging event. Unfortunately, while this might be a bit extreme, messaging and talking at people is often confused with communication.


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.

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Previous Entries

Week 1: Preface, Foreword, Introduction, and Logistics

Week 2: Processing and Memory 

Week 3: Completion

Week 4: Multitasking 

Week 5: Context Switching 

Week 6: Creating An Economy – 

Week 7: Healthy Constraints – 

Week 8: Focus 

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. 


The chapters of Why Limit WIP: We Are Drowning In Work this week and last are interrelated.  Last week we focused on multitasking. For those with a short memory, human multitasking is in the same category as unicorns and shiny vampires: a fun concept but dangerous to believe in. This week we deal with context switching. Because humans don’t have multiple cores and processors instead of multitasking we bounce between things. Each bounce requires shifting context – this takes time and effort. Remember that the author established earlier that things that are not done are sitting in the back of your mind sucking up capacity and an occasional conscious thought (another contest switch).


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 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.


Week 2 of our re-read of Why Limit WIP: We Are Drowning In Work by Jim Benson lays out the rationale for not trying to juggle several dozen chainsaws while reading Plato. It is a losing proposition. It might be possible to pull this feat off for a bit but in the long run, tragedy will strike.


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.