Surprise! Managing work in a large organisation is a lot like keeping your belongings in check at home.
Get it wrong at home and you have mess and clutter. Get it wrong in the organisation and you have excessive work in progress (WIP), retarding responsiveness, pulverising productivity, and eroding engagement.
Reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Amazon), I was struck by a number of observations about tidying personal belongings that resonated with how individuals, teams and organisations manage their work.
First, reading TLCMOTU helped me tidy my things better. Second, it reinforced lean and agile management principles.
I won’t review the book here. However, because I think tidying is something that everyone can relate to, I will compare some of KonMari’s (as Marie Kondo is known) explanations of the management of personal belongings with the management of work in organisations. The translation heuristic is to replace stuff with work, and clutter with excessive WIP, to highlight the parallels.
On the complexity of work storage systems
This key passage is where I started; the rest fell into place from here.
Most people realise that clutter is caused by too much stuff. But why do we have too much stuff? Usually it is because we do not accurately grasp how much we actually own. And we fail to grasp how much we own because our storage methods are too complex.
Organisations typically employ complex storage methods for their work: portfolio and project management systems with myriad arcane properties, financial and accounting constraints, and restricted access to specialists who embrace the complexity.
Instead of discarding work so that simple portfolio storage will suffice, organisations invent ever-more complex systems to
stuff work into storage maximise utilisation of capacity, which consequently hides the extent of the work.
Thus, we fail to grasp how much work is held in the organisation, and the result is excessive WIP, inflating lead times and reducing productivity, and leaving workers disengaged. Simplifying the storage of work – as simple as cards on a wall – shows the work we hold, and allows us to better manage WIP for responsiveness and productivity.
On making things visible
KonMari observes that you cannot accurately assess how much stuff you have without seeing it all in one place. She recommends searching the whole house first, bringing everything to the one location, and spreading the items out on the floor to gain visibility.
Making work visible, in one place, to all stakeholders is a tenet of agile and lean delivery. A great resource for examples and ideas is Agile Board Hacks. You may need to search extensively within the organisation to discover all the work, but understanding of the sources of demand (as below) will guide you.
KonMari observes that items in one category are stored in multiple different places, spread out around the house. Categories she identifies include clothes, books, etc. She contends that it’s not possible to assess what you want to keep and discard without seeing the sum of your belongings in each category. Consequently, she recommends thinking in terms of category, rather than place.
Understanding sources of demand is critical to managing WIP, especially BAU requests coming from multiple stakeholders. We need to work with sources of demand that are pulling work from our team or organisation, such as customers, business units, etc, rather than internal constructs we have used to store WIP, such as projects, teams, etc. Using projects or teams to organise work, we can’t make an accurate assessment of which work to keep and which to discard; we can only do this if we can see the entire demand from each source in one place.
The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to … ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does keep it. If not, throw it out.
We may ask of each piece of work: ‘Is this work valuable?’ ‘Is it aligned to the purpose of the organisation?’ ‘Is it something customers want?’ If it is, keep it. If not, throw it out.
KonMari demonstrates why this is effective by taking the process to its logical conclusion. If you’ve discarded everything that doesn’t spark joy, then everything you have, everything you interact with, does spark joy.
What better way to spark joy in your people than to reduce or eliminate work with no value and no purpose?
On discarding first
KonMari observes that storage considerations interrupt the process of discarding. She recommends that discarding comes first, and storage comes second, and the activities remain distinct. If you start to think about where to put something before you have decided whether to keep or discard it, you will stop discarding.
Prioritisation is the act of discarding work we do not intend to pursue. Prioritisation comes first, before implementation considerations. Scheduling, given estimates and other constraints, is the process of deciding which “drawers” to put work in once priority is determined.
On putting things away
KonMari observes that mess and clutter is a result of not putting things away. Consequently she recommends that storage systems should make it easy to put things away, not easy to get them out.
Excessive WIP may also be caused by a failure to rapidly stop work (or perceived inability to do so). Organisational approaches to work should reduce the effort needed to stop work. For instance, with continuous delivery, a product is releasable at all times, and can therefore be stopped after any deployment. Work should be easily “stoppable” in preference to easily “startable”. (This could also be framed as “stop starting and start finishing”.)
Further, while many organisations aim for responsiveness with a stoppable workforce (of contractors), they should instead aim for a stoppable portfolio, and workforce responsiveness will follow.
On letting things go
A client of KonMari’s comments:
Up to now, I believed it was important to do things that added to my life … I realised for the first time that letting go is even more important than adding.
I have written about the importance of letting go of work from the perspective of via negativa management in Dumbbell Delivery; Antifragile Software, and managing socialisation costs in Your Software is a Nightclub.
However, KonMari also observes that, beyond the mechanics of managing stuff (or work), there is a psychological cost of clutter (or excessive WIP). Her clients often report feeling constrained by perceived responsibility to stuff that brings them no joy. I suspect the same is true in the organisation: we fail to recognise and embrace possibilities because we are constrained by perceived responsibilities to work that ultimately has no value.
Imagine if we could throw off those shackles. That’s worth letting a few things go.