The Hidden Cost of Too Much Work

agile leadership agile teams alignment focus

Reduce Waste by Creating Focus

By Julie Springer

June 9, 2022

When there is too much work to do and your teams are overloaded and stressed out, it can be challenging to know how to fix it. Everyone is doing what they think is important and there is a belief that nothing can drop. The problem is that this creates a high level of activity, along with a low level of results, because teams have too much work in progress (WIP). Having too much WIP is like watching a baseball pitcher juggling five balls, instead of throwing a single ball over home plate. He is busy, and there is a lot of motion, but nothing hits the target.

The Need for Focus

This is not only stressful for your teams, but also very wasteful. Teams need the ability to focus on getting a small number of things done, before taking on more work. While it can seem like having more things in the system means that more will get done, it actually decreases the efficiency and slows things down. Here are some ways that too much WIP causes waste:

  1. Context Switching: When individuals shift their focus from working on tasks for one feature to another, it takes time and energy to get back into the flow
  2. Hand-offs/Wait Times: The next step often requires help from another team member or another team; wait time increases when people are working on many different things
  3. Tracking and Reporting: The amount of time spent tracking where things are at and providing information to other teams and stakeholders increases, as there are more things to report on and communicate
  4. Changes: When things take longer to get through the delivery system, the team is more likely to encounter changes to the requirements, creating rework prior to the solution being delivered and validated

Apply WIP Limits at Every Level

To address this, WIP limits need to be applied at every level; from portfolio and program planning, through to the team level, so that value can flow smoothly through the entire system. WIP limits constrain how much work can come in, which increases focus and reduces waste. This leads to more value being delivered to customers at greater speed, and reduces the stress and overwhelm for teams.

An effective way to approach this is by mapping out the steps in the process for how work gets to teams and then setting WIP limits for each step. Develop kanban boards to visualize and support this way of working.

  • At the portfolio level, leaders constrain how many ideas are being evaluated and approved to move into the planning process.
  • At the program level, leaders constrain how many features move through discovery into team-level planning.
  • At the team level, team members constrain how many features and tasks they work on during each iteration.

With visibility to what is moving into the system, and where everything is at, you can begin to measure how quickly things move through. Then, as you identify waste or bottlenecks (points where things slow down), you can improve the steps in the process and adjust the WIP limits, if needed. This moves your teams from overwhelm and waste, to calm and focus, setting the foundation for a much healthier and efficient planning process and delivery system.

To learn more about the root causes of too much work and how leaders need to work together to address it, check out, "How to Resolve the Problem of too Much Work."


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