Everyday Kanban

Discussing Management, Teams, Agile, Lean, Kanban & more

Taming the chaos for managers: Learning to swim

working and focusedAs 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.” 



  1. Hi, Julia.

    Thanks for posting. I always keep an eye on EverydayKanban !

    IMHO, I believe that the core principle behind the achievement of a flow state relies on limiting work-in-progress (WIP).

    Visualisation, explicit policies, structured daily reviews and a set consisting of a few metrics are key best practices inside the toolbox, but limiting WIP – I think – is the golden rule to achieve some degree of flow and freedom.

    “Limit your WIP”, “don’t try to multitask”, “plan, review, prioritize and discuss before doing”, “if the task can be done in less than 2 minutes, do it”, “work in dashes”, “manage interruptions”, “build and obey classes of service” etc… are prioritization rules which ensure smoothness and steadiness leading to the flow of completed, finished work. One piece flow.

    I can’t understand why so many people insist in multitasking. Frankly speaking, I really want to know where this common sense ( on multitasking ) comes from. Really.

    What are your thoughts ?



    • Hey Marco,

      I agree that limiting WIP is a key component. One thing I would add though is that if you just limit your WIP and stop there then you limit your ability to improve. Focusing on continuous improvement by having hypotheses about how to make things better and then doing experiments to disprove/prove said hypotheses is as important as limiting WIP. Measuring/Improving is what the final blog post in the series is about.

      In regards to why people think they can multitask effectively, some of my peers may have a more seasoned answer, but I think its due to multiple reasons (and this is not an all-inclusive list):
      * We have trained ourselves that starting is more important than finishing.
      * People only understand the cost of multitasking at a very esoteric level. There is an actual dollar cost, if you’re in a business scenario, due to lost time and there is a brain chemistry cost (tools and practices change our brains!) that I’ll talk about in the future.
      * Humans inherently think that they, as an individual, aren’t vulnerable to the things that affect others. So, they think they can be good at multi-tasking. I just read an article that noted that those who think they are good at multi-tasking often prove to be worse than their peers at doing it “successfully”

      There are more reasons and that would make for a good blog post! Great questions and comments. Thanks for reading and keep up with the awesome questions!


      • Thanks for kindly replying, Julia.

        I really appreciate your thoughts on limiting WIP / continuos improvement through hypothesis testing & experimentation at the workplace.

        Limiting WIP was one of the first issues we’ve had to deal with when starting Kanban inside our small team. A flow criteria to enhance cadence and consistency towards the delivery of our services to suppliers and internal customers.

        So, your opinion is very interesting once it opens a wider horizon and a broader view for further discussion and implementation here. It’s nice to expand our conversation and give it a try.

        I’m looking forward to see more awesome postings, Julia.

        Thanks a lot for sharing your viewpoints.

        All the best.

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