Why we need to limit the work in progress

One of the most frightening phrases a project manager wants to hear is “just one more thing.”

While the line may have been effective on the old detective TV show “Columbo,” by tricking the suspect into revealing something, in a group project it usually just creates anxiety.

Will “the one thing” require expanding the scope and the timeline? Will it be a sound suggestion that people will kick themselves for forgetting to consider earlier? Will it be a politically-driven request from the top that’s hard to refuse? Will it be a less-than-impressive idea that needs to be diplomatically declined? Will it be a critique of the entire project? Or will it be a welcome addition?

These situations are likely to come up in any team, especially where diverse departments, experience levels and skill sets come together to achieve a specific objective.

Project managers – and even team members – need to be conscious of everyone’s time as well as the overall goal. The team should also be dynamic enough to welcome appropriate discussion and even the occasional tangent, but also know when and how to say “no more” and move onto the next stage.

In an Agile environment, WIP, short for Work in Progress, can identify the ideal workflow along with possible bottlenecks in a project development process.

Deciding when to limit WIP can be the tricky part. Here are several effective methods to help:

  • Set clear dates in advance. Deadlines can always be bent or broken depending on circumstances/project evolution/participants, but creating and sharing them provides something to shoot for or at least be aware of. Not setting an exact date to end WIP pretty much invites and encourages people to keep on coming up with more and more “just one more things.”
  • Remind people as the deadline approaches – and share consequences for not sharing suggestions. Whether there is a group forum or in-person check-ins, it’s good to clearly say, “You have X days to share any thoughts, and anything that comes in after this may not be considered.”
  • Allow every member a certain number of suggestions (or cards, if you’re using a Lean- Agile approach.) Whether they’re representing their respective departments or just themselves, a specific amount of opportunities to provide feedback can encourage people to take the process seriously, rather than throwing out suggestions every chance they can and possibly extending the WIP. The kind of brainstorming where every idea is welcome can and should have a place, but more so at the beginning of a project rather than constantly taking place all the way through. Also, if all sorts of ideas and questions are offered on a regular basis, it could indicate that the project’s parameters may not have been established well and the scope may need to be developed further.
  • Get the group involved in allowing exceptions or more “feedback” cards. The project manager can be the one to decide if someone truly has a good suggestion or addition. Or they can present the matter to the entire group with questions such as, “Should this item or suggestion be added to our project or is it more appropriate for a future project?” or “Will anyone’s schedules or other projects be impacted if we incorporate this idea and extend ours?”
  • Define WIP based on project priority. If a project is on a firm timeline, and it’s close to being reached, be clear that taking input from everyone will be counter-productive, even if some people still may have their unused cards available. Exceptions can be made for critical items like potential legal issues or similar “emergency” fixes. At the other end, a “whenever” timeline spanning several months, can signal people that it’s OK to take their time and add anything anytime.

Overall, finding ways to limit WIP can help your project move from “good enough” to “good to go.”