Project portfolio visualisation

The life-changing magic of tidying your work

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. Maybe the methods and ideas resonate with you, maybe they don’t. 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.

I’d love to know if you find the comparison useful.

On the complexity of work storage systems

KonMari writes:

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, intricate plans, baselines and revisions, budget and planning cycle constraints, capitalisation constraints, fractional resource allocations, and restricted access to specialists who are removed from the outcomes but embrace the management complexity.

And this is just the work that’s stored where it should be. Then there’s all the work that’s squirrelled away into nooks and crannies that has to be teased out by thorough investigation (see below).

Because organisations don’t comprehend the extent of their work, they invent ever-more complex systems to stuff work into storage maximise utilisation of capacity, which continues to hide the extent of the work.

Thus, we fail to grasp how much work is held in the organisation, and the result is excessive WIP, which inflates lead times and reduces productivity, failing customers and leaving workers disengaged. Simplifying the storage of work – as simple as cards on a wall, with the information we actually need to deliver outcomes – allows us to comprehend 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. It reveals amazing insights, many unanticipated, about the volume, variety and value (or lack of) of work in progress. The shared view helps build empathy and collaboration between stakeholders and delivery teams. 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. A great resource for ideas and examples of approaches is Agile Board Hacks.

So get your work on cards on a wall so you can see the extent of your WIP.

On categories

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.

If we think organisationally in terms of place, we think of silos – projects, teams, functions. We can’t use these storage units to properly assess the work we hold in the organisation. Internal silos don’t reflect how we serve customers.

Instead, if we think organisationally in terms of category, we are thinking strategically. With a cascading decomposition of strategy, driven by the customer, we can assess the work in the organisation at every level for strategic alignment (strategy being emergent as well as explicit). Strategy could be enterprise level themes, or the desired customer journey at a product team level.

With work mapped against strategy, we can see in one place the sum of efforts to execute a given branch of strategy, and hence assess what to keep and what to discard. We further can assess whether the entire portfolio of work is sufficiently aligned and diversified to execute strategy.

So use your card wall to identify how work strategically serves your customers.

On joy

KonMari writes:

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, based purely on value, before implementation considerations. Sequencing can be done with knowledge of effort and other dependencies. Then scheduling, given capacity and other constraints, is the process of deciding which “drawers” to put work in.

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.

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