Limiting the work in progress for autonomous teams is important for organisational effectiveness

When an individual working alone has too many things to do, doing everything means that everything goes slowly. They can prioritise certain things, spend more time on them at the expense of doing other things, but ultimately everything still moves slowly.

When an individual with too many things to do works with another individuals with too many things to do, the problem is compounded because each has to wait for the other to complete pieces of work before they can work on their things. Two people can talk to each other and coordinate the work and make some efficiencies but it’s still easy to see how having too many things to do impacts these individuals.

When a team has too many things to do it becomes too complex to coordinate even just two teams with simple communication and aligned agreement. People being people tend to drift out of alignment and do their own thing. Even if the teams have someone with the role of specifically coordinating the work of the teams it’s still impossible to know how long each person will take to finish their work and so people get blocked waiting for others.

When all the individuals and teams across an entire organisation have too much to do, the compounded blocking is multipled and it becomes impossible to even figure out the current state of which work is dependent on which other work and which is blocked waiting for which piece of work to be finished. Trying to plot this into the future is a task of so many unknowns and such complexity that it is beyond human comprehension.

This tells us that the problem isn’t actually to do with the work, what is being done or how long it take, the problem is that when so many variables interact in a complex system they have unpredictable effects on each other. But one effect we can all observe is that work takes longer to complete because people get blocked.

How do we make individuals, teams and organisations more effective? How do we reduce the complexity to be more effective? Reduce the work? Reduce the interactions?

Perhaps the answer really is autonomous teams with strict limits on work in progress, but then I think that organisations look at the model and think it would be more cost-effective to slice the teams the other way.