The other day, I was reading this excellent posting by Matt Heusser on the dangers and consequences of having too much work in progress (WIP). It mirrors my own experiences the past few months.
I have a number of techniques in place to manage my own work and keep WIP at a productive level, but I’ve had an unanticipated number of requests from colleagues for assistance. And I’m always happy to help… You can easily see where that leads. Before I knew it, I was overwhelmed.
After a stimulating conversation with Adam Yuret last night, I realized that Matt’s posting only looks at part of the story. It uses physical systems, like traffic and networks, to illustrate the negative results of having too much WIP. I do this too when I talk about WIP; it makes the concept readily accessible and works really well. But it misses something. It doesn’t look at the benefits of slack.
We humans are not mechanical; the costs of high WIP are even greater for us than they are for physical systems. This is because our brains continue to work on and consume varied ideas and experiences subconsciously. When we have too much to do, when we’re too focused on task, there’s too little time to step away from problems and allow these ideas to find their way to the forefront of our minds. This creates stress and tension.
When I took time away last night to have that conversation with Adam, I created slack time. I took my mind off of the topics I’d been working with for several days. I forgot my own challenges for a little while. And when the talk was over, I was hit with a wave of creativity. New ideas bubbled up; I started considering potential solutions for problems I’d been mulling over for months. I had at least one epiphany, and what I hope will be a few other good ideas.
Without taking the time to make some slack, I don’t think those ideas would ever have made it to my conscious mind. I needed that slack. I think all of us do.
So there’s two sides to the high WIP problem. The first is that it pushes us beyond our capacity and bogs us down. The second is that it suppresses our creativity. Either one of these can be crippling, but when they combine together, the challenges can seem insurmountable.