Is it reasonable to work on 1000 things at once?

This is a question that I often ask people when they’re having trouble adapting to Work in Process (WiP) limits. WiP limits can be challenging to some when they’re new – all those competing demands telling you that you need to do more. How do you respond – by pulling more work into the system in the hope that business will equal better performance. It can be hard to make the switch to say “not yet“.

Often the decline into high WiP will occur over time – and it will be so gradual that you don’t notice it happening. Until you’re snowed under – there’s so many things on the go you find that you spend your entire day just trying to keep all the balls in the air – you don’t actually make much if any forward progress. There’s so many things on the go that you don’t have time to consider how to fix the problem – and any attempt to improve the system is met with a negative, sometimes aggressive response because you’re too busy to even think about it.

People can react this way when they’re under stress – from too much work in the system. People don’t want to take on a WiP limit and don’t understand how it can help them and they often think that it’s OK to task switch a lot. It’s not OK – especially in knowledge work. To do knowledge work effectively you need time to think through deeper problems and try and solve them in ways that are intensive on the “necktop computer”. Task switching takes you away from this ability and is part of the source of the frustration.

Which is where my question comes in – if you think a little bit of task switching is OK, then I take it to the extreme. “Is it ok to work on 1000 things at once?”. To which, the inevitable answer is “No” (I haven’t heard anyone say Yes to this yet). To which I respond, “Good, so you agree there needs to be a WiP limit. Now let’s talk about where that limit should be for your context”.

Getting started with WiP limits can be difficult – sometimes you need to take it to the extreme to help people understand what’s really going on. If you find yourself bogged down with too much work, don’t use hope as a method. Limiting your WiP will help you focus on what’s important to meet commitments and achieve balance. What are you waiting for?

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