Can you run this report and get it to me by Thursday morning?
Eh … OK. But it’s now 4pm on Tuesday. And I’ve got to do …
… I need it by 10am on Thursday for a management meeting. Can you do that?
Yes … but …
… Is that OK?
Sure, yes. 10 o’clock on Thursday …
I’m sure I’m not the only person who has ever had a conversation like this. In fact, I’m pretty certain most of us have.
After all, the only way to escape these conversations is to be the big boss – the high heidjin, as we say in Scotland – and, necessarily, very few of us are that.
So what’s the solution?
Honestly, I don’t have an answer to that. But I do know this: if managers keep trying to stuff ever-fatter elephants down the pipe, it won’t end well.
Pushing more work into workflow when people are not ready for it and capable of doing anything about it is the opposite of helpful.
We keep starting stuff, and never finish it. Because we keep starting more stuff at the same time.
And then we get distracted: I’m doing this stuff, but I need to do this stuff too, so I try to do all the stuff at the same time and … you know what?
Stuff never gets done. Not properly, properly done.
We need to get stuff done.
And I mean #done.
We can do that by restricting work in progress. By agreeing a limit on the amount of work a team can have on the go at one time.
If the total amount of work the team can have in flow is more than its capacity, we end up going nowhere.
We use this board to visualise the team’s work. Not my work, or someone else’s work. What does the team – all of us – have on the boil?
Work is drawn from right to left, as a gap opens up for it. It is not pushed from left to right. And there are limits to the number of items in each column.
Why is that important?
Well, it means management (or anyone else) can’t force new work on us until we’re ready. If something is blocking the flow of work, we all have to pitch in to help clear that blockage. Because otherwise, none of our other stuff can move forward.
It forces us to be a team – a proper team – and cover for each other. And it makes that blockage visible to anyone who cares to enter the room.
I’m a writer. I happen to write code as well as English, but it’s all just typing. Some of it’s intended for machines. Mostly, these days, it is read by human beings.
I’m not an expert at researching our customers, or marketing. But I like to think I’m a moderately intelligent person; I can turn my mind to other skills.
If there’s a piece of work that’s stopping the team getting work done, I will pick it up and do my best to move it forward.
Like a midfielder dropping into defence to thwart an attack, I’ll be my sub-optimal self until somebody better comes along to take over. Because, until they do, I’m better than nothing.
We’re in Beta here. We don’t have all the answers. But we’re beginning to understand the questions …
I'm a service designer in Scottish Enterprise's unsurprisingly-named service design team. I've been a content designer, editor, UX designer and giant haystacks developer on the web for (gulp) over 25 years.