Reduce Your Work in Progress to Make Your Whole Team More Productive

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When you are a manager, you have to limit your own work in progress. If you don’t, you can’t pay attention to the most important work you have to do. If you don’t pay attention to the most important work you have to do, the people who depend on you for decisions are working on the wrong thing. If they are working on the wrong thing, that means you’re not managing the project portfolio well. You can start going in the wrong direction about requirements, architecture, a legal decision, when to get training involved, or any of those day-to-day decisions for programs and projects that manage risks.

That’s why I like using kanban or some version of work-in-progress limits for project managers, program managers, and senior managers. You don't need a tool, either. I think the best tool is a wall and sticky notes. Your work will change so often that if you use a tool, you'll just spend all your time updating it.

Another way I limit my work in progress is to respond to emails quickly so they don't pile up. Even on vacation, I generally turn around emails within twenty-four hours.

Transparency in work is great for programs and projects. It's not necessarily essential for managers because sometimes the manager's work has to stay quiet due to regulations outside forces impose on the organization. But I know many of my management decisions were improved when I asked for—and received—advice from my management team. Being a more transparent manager helped me.

A common question is “If I’m lean as a project/program manager, how does that work if the technical teams are agile? They are working in iterations and I’m working in continuous flow. How do we sync?”

This is a great reason to keep the iterations short. If you allow the iterations to be as long as three weeks, you will feel as if they take forever. Sometimes, even two-week iterations will feel torturous.

You can ask the teams to work in flow inside their iterations, but don't change the contents of an iteration once the team has committed to it. You can ask the team to work in flow, but not all teams are comfortable working that way. A much better option is for you to change the way you work. Try to look ahead a little more and anticipate a little more. Yes, this might increase your waste, but you can't win them all.

Can you find the "Goldilocks moment" of no one having work in progress and no one having waste? Maybe, if you keep at it. It takes experimentation and time to work together.

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Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. She is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds.com and Gantthead.com, and writes two blogs on her web site, jrothman.com, as well as a blog on createadaptablelife.com.