Limiting WIP should wreck your head


Previously on “A knowledge worker’s tale”: team X were able to convince Zach the customer that he could not have new tickets worked on until the ones he had in progress were completed, unless the new ones were more urgent and replaced the older ones.

stop-starting-and-start-finishing-6Having the ability to talk sense into Zach with little effort felt good, the team was energised, they had a new tool that could help them talk to their customers, but the initial problem still stood, the board still contained 60 in progress tickets and it was not going to clear on its own.

They were still in front of the board after the conversation with Zach when Gus said, “guys, do you remember when I suggested we visualise the work in progress and you didn’t want to waste time doing it because you were too busy?” “Yes” said Rick the tester.

“You didn’t believe me back then, but you made an effort and trusted me. Things worked out well back then” said Gus. “Well I need you to trust me again, because what I am going to tell you now will feel very strange and some of you will immediately think that I have gone insane”

The lads looked at each other and silently agreed to listen, after all, he was right before, let’s give him another chance.

Gus started “How many people are in this team excluding me?” The lads looked around and mentally counted when Rick said “8, we are 8, 5 developers, 2 testers and 1 analyst”.

Gus said “Fine, then let’s start with a Work In Progress Limit of 5, this means that the team can only work on 5 cards at the same time, no exceptions, I mean you can’t pick up a 6th card if you haven’t finished one of the first 5, never, absolutely never. Did I say no exceptions already?”

The team looked around to each other with quizzical faces, they could not believe their ears, from the board they saw they were working on 60 items at the same time, and that was certainly too much, but 5? Five cards was ridiculous.

insane
How team X saw Gus when he said “well, let’s start with a WIP limit of 5”

Rick went “Come on Gus, are you joking? Five cards? It’s ridiculous, we’ll never finish, will we?” Jimmy added “Also, if we can work on 5 cards only there will be 3 of us that do nothing every time, how do we justify this to our customers?”

“Very good questions lads” Gus said “Let me answer them in order. Rick, you say we’ll never finish, instead I say we will finish more cards. In fact setting a WIP limit low, forces the team finishing a card instead of starting a new one. In order to start a new one, you need to finish one before that, this will force you to complete the work. Your new motto will be “Stop starting, start finishing”. Does this make sense?”

“As per Jimmy’s question, not exactly. There won’t be 3 people doing nothing at the same time, because you guys will be pairing and working together on tasks. Pairing on a card, no matter what activity you are doing, has 3 great effects, you share knowledge, the quality of the card is higher and the card gets done quicker. And remember, it is not important to be busy, it is important to be doing the right work at the right time. Stop focusing on whether you are busy or not and start focusing on the most important work to be done.”

Gus went to the board and wrote on the very top a big 5, that meant only 5 cards could be at the same time on the board NO EXCEPTIONS.

The team started to understand what that meant but still felt uneasy. Rick said “this is not going to work Gus, I am very worried about this”

“That’s perfectly OK Rick” said Gus “if you weren’t feeling uneasy I would be surprised and also worried, WIP limits are a traumatic change for a team, you will find it difficult at first and it will cause a lot of discussions within the team, even some heated ones. Believe me or not, these discussions are necessary, because you need to change the way you work so that you can start finishing and stop starting”

“You know what?” added Gus “let’s give this a try, if it doesn’t work for you, we will go back to picking up as many stories as you want, but you need to give yourself 2 weeks with this experiment, are you with me?”

“Let’s do this” the team said.

Will team X be able to respect the WIP limit? What will they discover while they try to adapt to the new reality? The new episode is out! Read and find out.

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