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What does managing the WIP mean ?

WIP or Work in Progress represents the amount of work that a team or a member of a team is doing at any moment in time.

A team of 5 developers doing 5 things is a healthy WIP. A team of 5 developers doing 10 things is not.

If you don’t have a metrics driven approach then WIP is probably one of the most important metrics to start measuring.

What is managing the WIP good for ?

Staying in the Zone

The phrase “in the zone” sums up the importance of doing WIP well. Typically it takes most people about 45 minutes to really get into whatever task they’re trying to achieve but moments to lose that concentration.

If you’re only doing one job at a time then the cost of this ‘warm-up’ is low but in organisations that don’t manage the WIP that cost can be very high. If people are working on more than one task at a time then delays through context switching soon begin to add up. It’s not just time but also quality that’s lost as people try to “catch-up”.

Avoiding hidden work

Organisations that don’t manage the WIP are also very prone to hidden work and constant “I need a small favour” interruptions. The favour may be small but by the time it’s done and the individual is back in the zone the time lost will be far from trivial.

What is managing the WIP not good for ?

In all honesty we can’t think of any situation where controlling the WIP would be a bad idea. It’s a fundamental to having a healthy, happy and functioning team.

Real life stories about managing the WIP

How many ????

This is a story about a startup that didn’t really lose control of the WIP - we never really had control in the first place. It was the good old days of “grow a user base first then work out how to monetise it” but when it came to the monetisation phase we couldn’t make that work.

Our founder, ably assisted by the Product team, spun-off one idea after another - all of them new applications needing considerable resourcing. It wasn’t long before developers were working on multiple projects at the same time, burning themselves out and delivering little despite all the hard work.

Our Head of Product was the first to go. His replacement spend the first few weeks talking to us all to find out what we were working on. He called a meeting and projected an Excel spreadsheet onto the end wall of our meeting room:

“This is a list of 88 things you’re working on. Which 3 do you want me to do ?"

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