Why Doesn’t Anything Get Done? The Lament of Too Much WIP!

As leaders in the digital age, we hear how fast everything needs to move.  An unfortunate outcome of this is we seem to have more work in progress (WIP) than ever – much more.   We often hear, “Why can’t we be like a start-up and speed things up?” “Why is it we never seem to get anything done?” “Start-ups get so much done so quickly – why are stuck in our bureaucracy?”   The bottom line is that successful start-ups have a laser focus on fewer priorities. They intentionally don’t start more than they can get done in a limited period and they bring that focus to their entire workforce.  The result of this focus is that time to completion is much shorter, so things get DONE!

About a month ago, I was walking by my colleague Max’s desk.  As I walked by, I noticed him staring at his two, 24-inch monitors with his eyes seemingly glazed over.  I said, “Max, it looks like you have a lot to do coming up.”  He looked back at me and said, “Jim, I wish that was the problem – these are all the things I have that are DUE TODAY.  In fact, they have all been due for over three weeks. I have been trying to move them forward a little each day to keep people off my back, but not even one is going to get done today either!”

We went back and forth on his lament and mountain of work when I finally suggested building a personal Kanban board with a single request to him of having a WIP limit of 1 and to work on the highest priority item until it’s done.  Max looked back at me like I had three heads and said: “Jim – I can’t do that – everyone will be mad at me.”  I looked Max directly in the eyes and said – “Not everyone, one person is going to be your new best friend!”

Fast forward a few weeks later – Max has been following his new approach now for over 20 business days. The “Focus on One Priority” approach has become a new habit.  I asked Max what some of the big wins have been for him from this new way of working.  His list was incredible:

  • Things are getting done!
  • His calendar is freeing up
  • His focus time is now 2-3 hours/day
  • He is happy with a daily sense of accomplishment
  • His colleagues have noticed and are adapting as well           

Ask yourself – could my team or I do what Max did, could we work on one item at a time to its reasonable conclusion?  Would we get similar results?  Would it help us feel that same sense of accomplishment? Would our team and organization be better off with this type of focus?

We all have too much work in progress.  We ask our teams to adopt a start-up mentality and don’t realize that the start-up game is finishing, not starting.  Too many of us are starting too many work items and not enough of us are finishing what is essential – myself included.  The pressure to do more with less has never been higher, and we need to respond with focus and resolve.