Mike Bowler
Mike Bowler

About once a year I run across a team that has at least ten times as many items on the board as there are people on the team. The worst I’ve ever seen was a team of ten people with 227 items in progress.

It’s easy to say “don’t do that” but the reality is that when the team is this stuck, they need guidance to get out of it. Here are some suggestions to get that WIP (work in progress) down to a manageable amount.

What’s missing from the board?

Although this may seem unintuitive, when a team is so overwhelmed by work they can see, there’s usually significantly more work that is hidden. Work that it didn’t seem valuable to visualize because there was already so much on the board.

Everytime something new gets discussed by the team, ensure it’s visible on the board. If it isn’t, add it now. Let’s see what’s really happening.

What can we just drop off the board?

There may be things that we can just cancel right now so we want to look for them.

Are the items in progress all still valuable? It’s quite common that items have been in progress for so long that nobody actually cares about them anymore. If they’re not still valuable then cancel them.

Even if they’re valuable, are we realistically going to ever finish them? Sometimes the work was started but the value is low enough that it will always be bumped by other things that are higher priority. If we’re not ever going to finish them then cancel them now.

Are we doing this work because it’s important or because it was urgent for someone? If it’s urgent but not important then can we delegate it to someone else? Maybe it doesn’t need to be this team that does the work. See the Eisenhauer Matrix for more on this line of thinking.

How can we slow down the arrival rate of incoming work?

What policies can we implement to slow down the arrival rate of incoming work? Can we just say no to certain categories of work? Can we ask another team to take on certain parts of that work until we’re back under control again?

Often we need management support to implement policies that help here. Reach out to management and ask for their help.

How can we finish work faster?

We got to this point because the work was arriving faster than we could handle it. Are there things we can do to speed up how fast we get through the work?

Would adding more people help? Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes it’s no.

Can we swarm or mob on the work to get it done faster?

Could we purchase different/better tooling to make us go faster?

Are we missing key skills on the team to get this work done? What could we do to supplement those skills?

Do we have dependencies outside our team that are slowing down the work? What can we do to reduce or eliminate those dependencies?

Can we change how we prioritize work to make it flow more effectively? I worked with one team that had a three day SLA for a specific kind of work but they tended to do that work the moment it arrived because it was quick and easy. The problem is that this work was very distracting and interrupted other work that might be ongoing. They changed how they sequenced that work so that they would do it in batches every other day and this resulted in a significant improvement in overall delivery throughput.

What can we do during standup?

With that many items in progress, it’s unlikely that we can talk through everything on the board.

Focus on items that are blocked or expedited first. Things that are blocked need to get unblocked. Things that are expedited need to get that priority boost.

Anything with a due date needs to be considered to see if it needs a priority boost. Ensure that these are real dates though, and not fake dates in an attempt to “motivate” people. Hint: It doesn’t motivate them and actually has the opposite effect.

Then talk through items from oldest to newest as we normally would, recognizing that we don’t have time to get through them all. Set a time limit so we aren’t spending the whole on this.

Do still focus on work that isn’t visible. We need to make it visible.

Conclusion

When teams are stuck in this place of overwhelm, it can be hard to get back out of it. By the time the team is here, they’re often stressed / anxious1 and this makes everything even harder than it needs to be.

Know that it’s entirely possible to get the work back under control, although it will require a lot of attention from the team and often support from their management.

An example

I helped an ops team that had over a hundred items on the board for a team of eight people. The team was overwhelmed and felt that they were getting further and further behind.

  1. We took steps to identify all that work that previously hadn’t been visible and made it visible. This made the WIP even higher than what we’d started with.
  2. We looked to see if all items were still valuable and about 20% of them were not. We cancelled those.
  3. We reviewed whether we should be doing all the work on the board and determined that another 20% should have gone to a different team. We reassigned those items and changed the process so that new requests of that type went directly to the team that would be doing them.
  4. We set a 15 minute time limit for standup and started talking through items in the sequence described above.
  5. We started swarming on work to get the more difficult pieces done faster
  6. We borrowed someone from a different team with a specific skillset and this broke a big dependency that had been slowing down the team.
  7. We implemented policies, that were supported by management, to reduce the arrival rate of incoming work.

Within a few months, this team went from well over a hundred items in progress to less than twenty. The team was less stressed and more capable of handling new work. Additionally, their customers were much happier because the work was getting done faster and was far more predictable.

  1. Stress / anxiety has significant implications to our effectiveness. See this article on psychological distress as a waste in our process.