Too Much WIP? Destroy Your Backlog

The struggle to limit work in progress is not a new one. It’s a constant balance between our desire to get more done and avoiding employee burnout. It happens at all levels of the organization. Often strategic initiatives stem from a good place – leadership wants to do the right thing – but, as our guest Eric Willeke puts it, “A single piece of strategic WIP equals hundreds to thousands of pieces of individual WIP.”  

As the Founder and a Principal at Elevate.to, he knows how hard it is to be an effective leader who limits his WIP. As a consultant and someone who cares about humanity, he wants to relieve the strain and stress that people suffer from as a result of their work. 

Willeke offers three strategies for reducing WIP across an organization and three tactics for getting started. You’ll love the first tactic: “Destroy your backlog.” 

Accenture | SolutionsIQ’s Leslie Morse hosts at Agile2019 in Washington, D.C. 

Full Transcript:

LESLIE MORSE: Hello and welcome to another edition of Agile Amped. I’m your host, Leslie Morse, and we are podcasting from the Agile 2019 Conference in Washington DC. Today my guest is Eric Willeke. He is the co founder and a principal at elevate.to or elevate.to, and is also an active board member for the Women in Agile Nonprofit Organization. His work focuses on improving business outcomes through agility so everybody can sleep better at night. Eric, thanks for being here today.

ERIC WILLEKE: Thanks, Leslie.

LESLIE MORSE: It’s always a joy to sit and talk with you, and I’m especially interested in your topic at the conference this year, Escaping the Tragedy of WIP. That is a tragedy I need to personally escape from, so I’m going to think about this as a little bit of, I need to drink my own Prosecco, so I’m looking forward to being inspired. What led you to dig into this topic this year?

ERIC WILLEKE: This is a topic I’ve been playing with for a number of years. One of my first presentations at the Agile Conference, I think it was 2014, 2013 timeframe, was also around WIP. And in my life and my early work on projects and then as an architect and as a coach, I became very aware of the damage that the work world was doing to people and preventing them from sleeping well at night. And I wanted to understand more about that. I entered the Agile community through the Kanban community and through a lean background and perspective. So I was very attuned to the mechanics and the physics of WIP in organizations and the first couple of versions of this talk, this is the third iteration of it with major changes each time. The first couple of iterations were very much about the mechanics, whereas this one is going to focus a lot more on how do humans get out of it and how do we work as leaders to help our organization escape from this trap.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. And I think it’s easy, right? “Do as I say, not as I do” with this idea of WIP limits and we know all the benefits of it, right? Even if you just get into the brain science and all of those things. So I think that the relationship we have with work and our own mindset about work is kind of critical for making this reality. So what are the things that you’ve learned over the years as you’ve been focusing on it?

ERIC WILLEKE: The first and probably the most critical thing that I’ve learned is to truly pay attention to how WIP cascades and multiplies in an organization. And one of the key observations I brought into the last iteration of this talk was that a single piece of strategic WIP equals hundreds to thousands of pieces of individual WIP.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: And as you start to drill into the nature of where work comes from, a lot of the really good positive work is originated out of corporate strategies and out of executive requests and out of, in software terms, the epics that we’re asked to work on and those are all good. They’re well intentioned, they’re leading towards the right outcomes for the organization, there’s just too many of them.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: And in my most of my classes I will say statements at least a five times around “Nobody will read a list that has more than five items on it.”

It’s not that they won’t remember it, it’s that generally they won’t actually even finish reading it. And then I go look at the organization and I look at the initiatives in flight and I opened my talk with a story about a, I like to say a poor VP of product management that when we got done with visualizing his work in a workshop, he had 37 initiatives that he was expected as a VP to be aware of, to report out on on a weekly basis, and to make significant progress on in the next six months. This individual had eight teams. And, in addition to those 37 initiatives that all came from the corporate world, he additionally, of course, had to meet his KPIs and improve his product outcomes and improve his margin and do all the things a product manager needs to do. And when you start to look at that kind of flood, small wonder that we’re creating this inability to focus, this inability to understand even what their most important work is, much less limit work in process.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, absolutely. And I think for this to become part of really how an organization truly lives and breathes every day, if you can’t get leadership to figure it out, there’s no hopes for the developers and other people on agile teams to actually have it. Because to your point, what may be one initiative at the top turns to sometimes thousands of stories at at the team level.

ERIC WILLEKE: And also part of the backstory of that that I may not include in my talk, but it’s now going to go on the audio record, is I was responsible for creating about five or six of those initiatives.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: I was leading the agile transformation in that organization and I was a senior leader in the company. So, I’m at a point now where I can’t look at the executive ranks and say they are to blame, I have to own up to it and say we are.

And I’ve gained an incredible amount of empathy for the powerlessness that a lot of senior leaders feel in the organization, despite their titles or maybe even because of their titles that carry with it a certain kind of trap.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, and as I think about it kind of now, with that framing, as agile coaches we’re often just one more initiative on the backlog that people need to be working on all at the same time.

ERIC WILLEKE: Or a number. In this case I was responsible for our tooling transition, I was responsible for part of a co-location and a staff consolidation, because we value co-location.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: We were introducing new process behaviors and helping that part of the organization adopt safe at the time, which becomes another initiative. And that’s not even getting into the dev ops improvements and the other things that were driven from elsewhere in the organization. And that’s just tied to the agile transformation at large. And then there’s the brand and consolidation and the open API movement and the architectural things that are being driven into that same product because it needs to play nicely in an ecosystem.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: And every single thing is driven with these incredibly positive intentions. And yet.

LESLIE MORSE: Here we are just adding one more thing to our inventory of things we need to do. So you kinda of talked about, it’s with the best of intentions all these things need to be done differently, but actually making it reality is the hard part. So to use an overly used phrase, what’s the secret sauce behind actually making it reality?

ERIC WILLEKE: Unfortunately, I’m not going to claim to have a silver bullet, but there are really three big longer term strategies that I help organizations apply that I think are the best thing we have to make the problem less bad.

LESLIE MORSE: Okay.

ERIC WILLEKE: And call me a pessimist, but I think that’s the best we hope for is to make it less painful so that we can accelerate the improvement and eventually get to a point where people are fairly happy. First strategy that I like to look at is start with alignment, generate alignment, make sure that people understand intent and purpose and a lot of the things that come out of say, General McChrystal’s work and really make it so that we can at least eliminate the excess WIP that comes from the “Am I doing this right? Am I in the right direction?” And people can truly own things and align their work to it.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: The second area is to practice reduction in depth. And that goes back to the strategy I mentioned before. If you only have three strategies, people are better at saying no than if you have five strategies. And if you think about the essence of a good strategy being what you’re not doing, quoting Michael Porter, the goal of an executive leader then becomes help people learn what’s not part of the strategy and generate that focus as a leader by bringing just those top two or three strategies back into the conversation every time. One of the biggest things I took away from Patrick Lensioni’s latest book is as a leader you get one message per quarter and you need to say that message hundreds of times.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, if you’re not tired of talking about it, then people probably haven’t heard it enough.

ERIC WILLEKE: Exactly. And then the third part extends from both of those. Third key strategy is creating permission and safety as part of how you decentralize. And we talk a lot about safety and we talk a lot about permission giving a lot. And we talked about decentralization, but we don’t talk much about how those three factors fit together, and the fact that when I decentralized, people have to have all the permission to take responsibility and the safety to try things, learn, and the associated failures that come with learning.

LESLIE MORSE: I think that safety in that decentralization is especially key because they need to have that permission to say no. Because to your point, the things that you don’t do are probably the most important. Because if you think about going after a strategy, there’s millions of tactics you could employ in order to make that reality, and being clear about what you do and don’t want to do is super important there, because you can just end up lots and lots of stuff going on.

ERIC WILLEKE: Yeah, and I want to strengthen a couple of the statements you’ve made in there. One is they don’t just need to have the permission, they need to feel the permission.

LESLIE MORSE: Because it could be corporate propaganda. “Oh, we say it’s permission,” but if they don’t feel like that’s really true, you’re absolutely right.

ERIC WILLEKE: That comes through experiencing the act of permission results. So being encouraged to make a decision, but then being supported when you do.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: Being told that it’s safe to fail, but then actually experiencing the question of, “Oh, what did you learn?” Rather than “Why did you do that?”.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah.

ERIC WILLEKE: So there’s a lot of that around making sure that when you as a leader provide permission, people believe it. They understand that they experience that as a real thing.

LESLIE MORSE: So when you’re having that conversation with leaders and executives today, I imagine it’s lots of kind of holding the mirror up to them so they can see how they’re showing up in the organization in order to create this safe space. What is that conversation like with them as you’re kind of helping them through the journey of realization?

ERIC WILLEKE: It’s a difficult one for a lot of people, because remember it does always start with that leader having best intentions. So when you go in too strongly with a message that you’re doing it wrong, you’re basically saying you were trying really hard in the best way you knew how and you screwed it up. And they didn’t, because they weren’t responsible necessarily for all of the different pieces of WIP. They weren’t responsible for every single detail of how it cascaded, and yet they have to take responsibility for helping people set things down. And one of the leaders I’m working with at a large insurance company has found their way to understanding this and it’s building into their quarterly message, but it needs to come out for them in a different way for them. They’re saying you may put things down, but you need to put them down gently, because a lot of people look at WIP and say, “Oh, we just need to throw away half the items in process.

Well, no, that hurts people.

LESLIE MORSE: Yes.

ERIC WILLEKE: That hurts initiatives, that hurts business leaders. So we need to understand how do we carefully set down the things that we’re not going to do yet and bring everybody else along.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: What that feels like unfortunately has a lot more communication, which itself is more WIP.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah.

ERIC WILLEKE: So, this is the trap leaders get in and of course right up to the CEO, there’s somebody that’s your boss. And I worked with a CEO of a reasonably large company who displayed disempowered feelings and behavior around the way the board was demanding things. And if even the senior most leaders in a company feel that way, we need to find a way out of that.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, that trickles down as well.

ERIC WILLEKE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

LESLIE MORSE: Because if you can’t feel like you’re operating in a safe way, how can you ever create a safe environment for everyone else?

ERIC WILLEKE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

LESLIE MORSE: When you’re having this conversation with leaders, what are some of the common things they say to you that are kind of the push backs or the obstacles that they’re dealing with?

ERIC WILLEKE: I don’t think there’s a particularly common set of words. It’s more that they have this feeling that everything’s about to get away from them. And especially before, organizations have gotten to the point, they’ve kind of mastered decentralization and allowing control to go to the value streams when they’re still trying to hold lead by initiative and lead by command. Leaders just feel like they’re trying to keep everything in the air.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: So they’re their biggest fear is something getting dropped, especially if it’s something somebody important to them cares about, whether it’s their boss or their grand boss or the business owner they’re accountable to or whatever. And that creates stress and that stress becomes very palpable in the organization-

LESLIE MORSE: It’s contagious.

ERIC WILLEKE: And becomes very contagious further down to the ranks.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah.

ERIC WILLEKE: So, to answer your actual question though, the biggest pushback I get is generally along the lines of, “But we can’t, we have to do all of these things and there’s no more money to do them with.”

And sometimes all you can do there is start to relieve the stress around the situation to where it starts to get better a little bit at a time. So like one of the things I help to do is find some quick tactics that, while not fixing the problem, because there are no silver bullets, at least let some of the pressure off.

LESLIE MORSE: Are those tactics what you’re getting into in the talk this year?

ERIC WILLEKE: They are, so I’ll talk about the three strategies I mentioned earlier in the larger detail, but as we know in change management, you also need quick wins.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: And so I also talk about three different tactics that organizations find useful to get started.

LESLIE MORSE: Okay.

ERIC WILLEKE: First one is relatively straight forward is don’t touch the work in process now, but go destroy your backlog.

LESLIE MORSE: Oh.

ERIC WILLEKE: Okay? Take away that looming weight of what we have to do in the future.

LESLIE MORSE: It is, I almost sometimes think of it like a tsunami. Like you know that wave of stuff is coming. If you’re always working in the shadow of the tsunami, that’s just like, that’s scary.

ERIC WILLEKE: It really is. And you can do a quick ROI exercise and in an hour take a 3000 person, well let’s say a 300 item backlog and reduce it by two thirds, and nobody will notice that those things you are never even going to consider or work on in the first place, they’re gone and you can relax a little bit more because it doesn’t look like it’s hopeless anymore.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah.

ERIC WILLEKE: The second is a little more abstract, but I find it incredibly powerful is invest as leaders more time into talking about the why behind change. And again, it’s not about fixing the immediate work in process or taking away the backlog, but the multiplier effect of organizational change stress is huge.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: Especially if you’re in a company that does mergers and acquisitions or as you more personally acquired several years ago.

LESLIE MORSE: Yep.

ERIC WILLEKE: Talking about the purpose and getting to know the new organization as humans and connecting through that and helping people understand the why of this change in their lives. That at least diminishes some than ambient stress.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: Can’t eliminate it, but it doesn’t slow everything else down. It doesn’t make relatively minor tasks infinitely painful.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. It’s the knowing why we’re here and reminding us of that. The old saying, Simon Sinek, start with why, what is that transcendent purpose being really key to just everybody’s quality of life at work.

ERIC WILLEKE: And not even necessarily the big transcendent purpose, but even just the, “Hey, I understand it’s a little annoying that we’re moving over to the other building, but we’re doing this because we’re actually bringing another 30 people into this group over here. And I wanted you to understand that we really didn’t want to make you move, but we really need that group to be able to sit together.”

LESLIE MORSE: You’re right, it does matter on some of the smaller stuff that may not feel so big.

ERIC WILLEKE: Right. But those are the things that-

LESLIE MORSE: That’s a good point.

ERIC WILLEKE: … add stress. They add just little bits of stress here and there, and that adds up to make relatively basic tasks harder.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. And that’s where people, I think, encounter that whole idea of like the straw that broke the camel’s back, like everything was kind of fine until we had to go move our desks again.

ERIC WILLEKE: Exactly. And then the third tactic, we talk about this in Agile all the time, but I think it’s overlooked in practice sometimes is write down a good team charter. What is the team responsible for? And more importantly, what does the team not responsible for? Not necessarily as a tool so the team can say no, but so that as a leader, you can ask the important questions more easily before you throw work at teams. And it’s powerful for the team’s sake to write the charter. But I think it’s more important for leaders around them to understand those charters and what’s in them.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, and when you talk about why, the why we’re not going to do things I think is really important because I find at least working in organizations, we end up having those conversations over and over and over again. Another topic comes up or it recycles. “Yeah, yeah, you’re right. That’s a good idea. We should be doing that. But we decided not to.” Well, why did we decide not to? And you have to recycle that over and over and over again, and then that conversation becomes another aspect of WIP and another thing we have going on that’s in progress.

ERIC WILLEKE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

LESLIE MORSE: So there’s I think a lot of different dimensions. Sometimes it’s not always the actual work people are doing, but the conversations about the work we’re doing is a work item in and of itself.

ERIC WILLEKE: Yeah, and your capacity and the amount of work you can take on as a function of the organizational context.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: So that’s why, actually, I guess all three of the quick tactics have nothing to do with the work you’re doing. It’s about making the-

LESLIE MORSE: That’s a good point. They don’t, I hadn’t really realized that.

ERIC WILLEKE: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s about making the environment within which you’re doing the work easier to do your work in which it feels like free capacity.

LESLIE MORSE: Yup.

ERIC WILLEKE: So reduce the stress and then get the work that’s in process down and just try not to replace it right away.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. So I want to bring this back to sort of your personal mission. When we go back to your bio and talking about using agility so that everybody can sleep better at night. We’re here at SolutionsIQ really passionate about this whole idea of bringing humanity back to the workplace and making sure that organizations are great places where people can thrive. So relate this WIP and everything back to that sleeping better at night and kind of a little of why it creates that fire in your belly.

ERIC WILLEKE: Well, I’ve seen, and earlier in my career, my first three years of my career, I kind of learned everything not to do. And a lot of the rest of my career has been helping companies not do those things.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: And I’ve seen the human cost of the decisions we make at work. You look at industrial logic and the conversations around safety and the energy that Joshua puts into that, and I look at the people that have gone through intense divorces and painful family situations and caused medical issues in the cells and families broken up by this activity and that’s not right. And I started looking at it like, what can we do so that work is not the source of the stress?

LESLIE MORSE: We spend way too much time at work with our colleagues for that to be true.

ERIC WILLEKE: And then I also look at the positive side of what is the change that people can make in the world and what can they accomplish? What do they want to be passionate about if only they have the opportunity to be passionate?

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: And I started picturing this world and I had the opportunity to work with some people in an organization that really allowed this to happen for another six years of my career. And I started seeing some of the patterns that allowed people to leave the office and still have the energy to go home and do something powerful. And I didn’t really care what that powerful thing was, whether it was investing in their community or sports or their family or their church or their neighborhoods or going home and writing open source software and going to write presentations to go to conferences and talk Agile with people. Didn’t matter. It’s the fact that they could leave work and still have passion and energy left.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah.

ERIC WILLEKE: And I want to create more of that in the world, because I think that starts to erode some of the bigger problems we’re facing in the world today.

LESLIE MORSE: Absolutely. Right. I can’t help but imagine that as that type of stress and crisis really diminishes that people are struggling with every day, it makes us a little bit more human overall and gives us the energy to have the societal conversations that brings humanity back to the globe, not just the workplace.

ERIC WILLEKE: Exactly.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. So the session is tomorrow. If someone’s going to miss out on it, what is probably the single most important piece of advice or guidance that they might not get to hear?

ERIC WILLEKE: I think I’m going to leave this one as a piece of advice for leaders.

LESLIE MORSE: Okay.

ERIC WILLEKE: My peer group. And my request would be whenever you go to request something, because leaders do a lot of requests, that’s part of our role, when you go to request something from a team or from a person, pause for that one moment and think of what the impact of that type of work is going to have on them. Does it fit with what they’re already doing? Is it a distraction? Is it going to harm the team because of the nature of what you’re asking? And sometimes the answer is yes and you still have to ask.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: But by pausing to ask yourself that question, you will enter the conversation with a degree of empathy and a readiness to help them understand why it’s still important.

LESLIE MORSE: So if you’re going to a team and you are going to ask them that question, what might that sound like?

ERIC WILLEKE: I don’t think it’s about asking them that question.

LESLIE MORSE: Okay. It really is an internal reflection.

ERIC WILLEKE: If you’re asking a team something and you don’t understand their work already, go visit their charter first. Go take the few moments to understand what you’re doing in the organization, because we have authority, we have power and we don’t want to just accidentally use it.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: So it really is a challenge yourself. If I give this work to this team, does this fit in their flow? Does it disrupt their flow? Does this cause them to have to go learn a whole lot of new things with contacts in part of the organizational network they don’t have? Or is this truly the five minute request I think it is?

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. And if you don’t know, you make a really good point of getting curious about that. Because I can even imagine you’re, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about this thing. Help me learn what might be the impact to you if we chose to do this.” And then just actually being quiet and listening.

ERIC WILLEKE: Yeah. Let me give maybe a real example of how this plays out in practice, and this is a coaching moment I chose to use with an executive maybe a little over a year ago, and I was at the client and busy individual was about to leave on vacation and wanted me to take care of a problem and that person’s absence and came by and said, “Can you go dig into this?” It was a tooling architecture question, “And help get to the recommendation that this person is asking for?” And I’m going to make up a name, give me a name so I can just not make it up myself.

LESLIE MORSE: Jose.

ERIC WILLEKE: So, I ask Jose, “I’m going to pause. May I coach you right now?”.

LESLIE MORSE: Which it’s important to ask permission.

ERIC WILLEKE: Always start with permission. And Jose looked at me, winced a little bit and said, “You may, but I think I just realized what you’re about to coach me on.”

And I said, “Okay, so what does this work do and what’s the flow?” And Jose is like, “Okay, do you actually know the three people I asked you to go talk? Do you have any existing connection with them?” Nope. “Do you understand our existing tooling architecture?” I do, but I don’t know the parties responsible.

LESLIE MORSE: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ERIC WILLEKE: He basically said “I was about to waste a lot of my money asking you to go do this, wasn’t I?” Because I was there as a consultant.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah.

ERIC WILLEKE: Yes. And he thanked me and Jose went off and found the individual that could actually carry it forward in the right way and carried a lot more context into that conversation so that the five minute push and turned into a week of swirl while Jose was out of town.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah. That’s a wonderful way to illustrate the power of it. Thank you for sharing that story.

ERIC WILLEKE: Absolutely.

LESLIE MORSE: Yeah, and Eric, thanks for making time to talk about this. I think it was definitely a message I needed to hear today. I kind of started off with like, “Hey, I want to make this all about me” because this is something that I know as I show up as a leader in the organization struggle with and lots of other people do. It’s not enough just to talk about the importance of this, but truly leading and shifting your mindset in different ways to make it reality I think is so important.

ERIC WILLEKE: Thank you very much. I’m glad I could help.

LESLIE MORSE: Absolutely. Thanks Eric for being here and thank you for listening to this episode of Agile Amped. If you learn something new, please tell a friend, coworker, or client about the podcast and subscribe to hear more inspiring conversations.