COVID-19 Remote Working: The Importance of Controlling Your Work-In-Process (WIP)

The UK is currently living through its third national lockdown meaning many people are back to working from home. Remote working is no longer a foreign concept to most businesses but there are still challenges in managing a company/department/team when employees are all working from different locations. Our previous article for our ‘COVID-19 Remote Working’ series looked at how Visual Management is more important now than ever – click here to read. This week’s article will be looking at how you issue work to remote workers. How do you know when to give them more tasks? How do you know when to stop? Keep reading to learn how limiting the work in progress (WIP) can lead to improvements in output, lead-time, on-time completion, quality… to name a few of the benefits.  

Having too many open pieces of work at one time can make managing priorities very difficult (our Visual Management article highlights the importance of having clear priorities) as there are too many options for people to pick and choose from. Having a high number of open projects or tasks encourages local optimisation. If someone has ten tasks to complete, and three of those tasks are very similar, they will naturally batch these tasks together and get through them whilst they are in that headspace – this makes sense. This is good for the individual; it is good for their capacity and good for their focus. However, it is often very bad for the overall organisation. A machine doesn’t need every cog spinning at 100%! It is for this reason a machine has gears, and belts, and cogs, and pulleys – to harness each component to perform for the whole. An organisation has different skillsets and departments because we need different things from each of those areas and they all need to operate at a synchronised level that is good for the business as a whole – not what is good for the individual. It is not helpful to have some departments churning out heaps of work that will just sit in the queue for another department. These queues give resources too much to choose from! It’s a vicious cycle where the load increases and priorities get lost. You want to avoid local optimisation and instead, understand what global optimisation looks like. 

Too many jobs available to work on increases the queues. More tasks are waiting to be picked up or started. When queues increase, so do lead-times. Longer lead-times have a negative impact on on-time completion; meaning assignments and projects are delivered late. The other danger of releasing too much work into the system is that multitasking becomes unavoidable. Resources will be forced or encouraged to do little bits of lots of jobs without finishing anything off. This is all true for any workplace regardless of our present remote working situation, however when you add in the fact that your team is remote and working from home, even more challenges emerge. For example, when there are many jobs being worked on at the same time, you must spend a significant proportion of your time on administration and keeping people updated on the progress (or lack thereof). If you set an employee twenty tasks to complete, there are twenty things you will need to discuss with them. Suddenly, employees are dedicating huge amounts of time talking, updating, feeding back and answering questions on twenty different topics – rather than getting on and finishing one or two jobs at a time! 

There are also quality implications to consider. Having too many open jobs can have an adverse effect on the quality of work being produced. If people’s minds are scattered, they are unable to produce as high-quality work as easily than they would if they were permitted to focus. It is also worth considering the general increase in stress levels that a heavy workload on your employees will generate. 

You will be familiar with these challenges. So, what can you do?  

All of these negatives could be improved through one simple (in principle) change: limit your Work in Progress.  

Limit the amount of work you release to your team. Half it; half it again! Set in motion a huge reduction in the number of open jobs that you are allowing your people to work on. The only risk you face, in limiting the number of tasks people can work on, is that if you strip it back too far, people will run out of work and you will lose real capacity and output. So, monitor it and ensure people don’t run out of work. Then all you have to do is implement this one simple step.  

The first significant benefit of only releasing one, two, or three pieces of work to a resource at a time is that managing priorities becomes very straightforward: ‘Task 1 before 2, task 2 before 3.’ When priorities are aligned, everything flows much faster. Your organisation’s flow will improve and there will be fewer queues and hold ups. When you introduce a new high-priority job, there will only be one or two jobs in front of it so can be progressed very quickly. As a result, the speed at which the business can react to new opportunities or to fires that need fighting massively increases. With a reduced volume of open jobs, and if capacity increases and queues decrease, you will achieve more early, and more on-time finishes and far fewer late completions. Not only do lead-times decrease and capacity increase, but on-time performance also improves. 

When you reduce the number of tasks your people are working on, the options for them to do things in a different order, or batch jobs together (essentially locally optimise) reduces. This means that resources focus their time and attention on work that needs to be completed the soonest. The business, therefore, achieves global optimisation by default. The other benefit of resources focusing their full attention on a smaller number of open projects is that multitasking is reduced. Our article ‘Delivering More Projects: Focus!’ goes through the importance of promoting a focus and finish mindset and how you can allow your people to be most effective. In essence, when we allow people to focus and reduce the amount of multitasking, the time lost with the ramp-up and ramp-down of people’s concentration is drastically reduced. This increases the capacity available for work completion. The capacity you gain through ‘focusing and finishing’ is usually invisible as when we are bouncing around from task to task, we are ‘busy’ – we don’t feel as though we are idle or losing capacity. So, essentially you will be gaining free capacity just because by limiting the number of jobs available to people to work on, they will get through more of the right things and get through them faster! There is also a hidden win in quality. When we force people to split their attention between multiple jobs their concentration unavoidably decreases – the reverse is also true. When we allow people to focus on one piece of work at a time, their attention to detail and quality increases.  

With a reduced quantity of open jobs comes reduced administration. Updates are easy, focused and timely. They take less effort as you are only talking about the one thing and can be finished in just five minutes. These shorter updates are very valuable, especially while we are all working from home and need to spend time booking Microsoft Teams/Zoom meetings to keep in contact with each other – short, productive meetings are excellent.  

Remote working largely removes the social aspect of work and it can be difficult to maintain employee morale. The last thing you want to do is overwhelm your employees with many, many jobs and tasks that you need them to complete. If there is one thing people don’t need during a pandemic, it’s additional stress! Keep things simple. Release a couple of jobs to your team at a time, when one task is finished, release the next. Avoid overloading people. 

For one very small change, you can have a disproportionately large improvement in prioritisation, lead-time, quality, communication, and stress. While it may appear that there is a bit of organisation required to do this, you should hopefully see that the wins here outweigh any extra effort required to limit the work in progress. So, if you do nothing else this week – control your WIP! 

If you would like more information or help with implementing this step in your organisation, don’t hesitate to get in contact – you can reach us at [email protected]  

By Phil Snelgrove, Lauren Wiles