As I noted last week, managers regularly help their teams tame the chaos that faces them — good managers, at least. However, they rarely ever think to apply the same concepts to their day-to-day work. Hijinks ensue. In Getting Started, I wrote about scheduling focus time, visualizing work and limiting your work-in-progress (WIP). Now, that you’re in the pool and treading water, you need to take back some control and learn how to swim.
Differentiating between classes of work
So far, you’ve visualized your work so you can see everything you’re facing. You’ve started limiting how much you are working on at a given time. It is safe to say that you have probably noticed that not all work is created equal. Prioritizing work using the FIFO method (first in, first out) may cause some nasty emails to appear in your inbox. Some work is just more time-sensitive than other work. So, your next step is to begin to differentiate classes of work.
Doing the wrong work is as bad as doing too much work.
There are many groupings one could use to classify work. For this example, I’ll use classifications that signal the general classification of the cost of delay of a piece of work:
- Expedite: The cost of delaying this work is higher than the cost of delaying all of the work that is currently in progress. Ex) Dealing with an outage (or other emergency); Recruiting/Hiring.
- Fixed Date: The cost of not finishing this item by a certain date is untenable. If we wait too late to start this work, it could escalate to Expedite. Ex) A presentation you have to give at the department leadership meeting; Submitting your team’s budget request by the deadline.
- Standard: If I did this today I would get value tomorrow. This is generally the majority of any backlog. Ex) Mitigating project risks; Team member 1:1s; Planning & Forecasting.
- Intangible: Things that don’t have an immediate cost of delay or a particular fixed date but need to be done at some point or they can become emergent. Ex) Creating strategic plans; Scheduling non-critical training for yourself or your team.
Doing this classification provides you information that can help you make sense of your day. It helps you prioritize, but it also helps you get data to show yourself and your leadership if you might need help. If you deal with too many expedite and fixed date items, you may never get to your Standard items.
Make policies explicit
In doing the classification above, you were thinking through all of the reasons why certain work has to be treated a certain way. Write those policies down as well as any others that you believe are crucial for being effective at work. Share them with others. Make them visible.
Examples of some explicit policies include:
- Any work I have in progress will stop when an expedite item is in play and resume when it completes.
- I can only have one expedite item in play at any given time.
- I must have one intangible item on the board at all times.
- I will replenish my “On Deck” queue weekly.
- I will not change a priority once an item is in flight unless it is to accomodate an expedited item.
Try to keep a sustainable number of rules. Rules are overhead and it takes effort to maintain them. Keep it as simple as possible while still being able to make the work manageable.
Keep it up
Once you have done all of this work, keep it up. Don’t stop using your board. Keep it somewhere you can always see it whether it is stickies on a wall near your desk, on a second monitor, etc. No system can help you if you don’t use it.
This is week two of a three week series on Taming the Chaos for managers. Check back next week for “Measuring results.”