Crack the WIP

WIP is a fundamental Lean concept, and in general is the biggest obstacle to productivity in your life.

WIP, or Work In Process, is the queue of emails, call, requests, forms, approvals, and other assorted minutiae of your daily routine.  WIP encompasses all the work that is on your plate at any given moment, regardless of how much attention you can spare.  As humans, we have a limited about of GAC (give-a-crap) to go around, so we have to make decisions on the fly about how to parse it out.  We also know that the more important work often gets pushed aside to deal with the loudest demands.  It’s suboptimal, but it’s life.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little more control?  Of course it would.  But to get there, you have to take a path that is a bit counterintuitive.

To make your life easier, you need to reduce the WIP.  You can’t control the requests for your time in most cases, but you can set up a system to control the flow of the requests.  And believe it or not, doing so will help you work faster and reduce the time it takes to get to each request.  But that’s another post.

Your filter will require a few things.

Define Capacity

There are some fancy formulas you can use to calculate your optimal workload.  But for the sake of simplicity, think about how many tasks you can actually do at any given time.  For example, I’ve talked with recruiters who tell me they can work on twenty requests at a time, but more than that slows us down.  This is part of that counterintuitive mindset I mentioned.

Think of your work like a highway.  Plenty of research has shown that a road has a certain capacity at which it can optimally function.  Adding just one more car slows everyone down.  That’s why you see stoplights for cars entering the highway in areas with high congestion.  They are controlling the cars entering the road, which are essentially WIP.  They are items in transit from point A to point B.  Adding too many slows down each item.

What’s your capacity?  We’ll talk about those formulas another time.  For now, just realize you can’t do everything at once, and trying to do so will hurt each and every item in queue.

Selection Criteria

So if you don’t work on everything at once, how do you know where to start?  It’s probably fair to say that not every request you receive is of equal value or need.  Some are more time sensitive, some may have a greater impact on the organization, so may just be really difficult.  It’s up to you to determine how you handle each of them, and which one needs your attention.

You can’t evaluate them individually to decide how to queue them, though.  The moment you do so, they are WIP, which defeats the purpose.  Not to mention the fact that the time you spend evaluation is waste.  And that’s not OK.

Instead, you need to establish selection criteria, your own personal triage unit.  For a handy tool, refer back to the piece on building a Weighted Decision Matrix.  Build your criteria and add the weights.  Don’t forget Time In Queue.  Otherwise there is work that might never get done, and that’s not likely to make for happy customers.  In the end, you should have a simple tool that will tell you which item enters your WIP next.

One more thing, though.  People are not WIP.  A customer standing at your desk can’t be asked to stand to the side until you have capacity for one more thing.  Lean is about providing value to your customer.  They get your attention.  That’s why we don’t run at 100% capacity.  But that’s another discussion as well.

Holding Area

So you’ve figured out how much you can handle, and which items you will work on next.  What about the rest?  Where does it go?  Where is this “queue” we keep talking about?

It depends on your situation.  In some cases, such as a large department with a central workload, there may be a gatekeeper who doles out the work as you are ready for it.  Central staffing teams can work this way with a lot of success.  If you are on your own, though, you’ll need to be your own gatekeeper.  Of course, you’ll have to do it without actually touching the request.  Because that makes it WIP.

This is a great area to leverage technology to help you.  Build a request or ticket system.  Have an automated response system to let your requestor know you evaluate items as they come in and will add them to your workload to give them the optimal return time, and keep them updated on status.  If you have your selection criteria ironed out, ask the requestor to fill in the criteria so the request can triage itself.  Then take them as they come.

Yes, you’ll have to look at incoming requests occasionally.  But you don’t need to look at each one.  Use your holding area to gather them up and review them in batches.

You will be amazed, I think, at how much time you spend telling people you don’t have time to get to their request right away.  Building a queue that can triage itself and feed you work as you are ready for it will free up that time, and allow you to focus on the “value added” work of fulfilling those requests.  By reducing the number of things you are working on, you can spend more time on the real work, complete tasks faster, clear out the queue and provide a better overall customer experience.  Counterintuitive, but it works.



  1. […] Nothing too scary here, right?  So what does it mean?  First, if gives you a solid foundation on which you can start to calculate how long those tasks actually take.  Second, it tells us that to improve your cycle time, you have to either increase the completion rate or reduce the WIP.  If we go way back to our discussion on the Process Equation, you’ll recall that we aren’t likely to change the completion rate (the Y in this case) without changing something about the steps in the work (the set of Xs).  That takes time.  But the WIP is totally in our control, as we have discussed. […]

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