How to Identify and Measure Your Work in Progress (WIP)

Work in Progress (WIP)

If you’ve ever worked in a manufacturing environment, then you certainly know what Work In Progress (WIP) looks like: stacks of partially-completed products waiting for the busy staff’s attention.

Easy to see that those part-made things have already cost money: the investment can’t be recovered until the product is complete and can be delivered to the customer. The longer it waits (as WIP) to be worked on, the farther away the cost recovery, and hopefully profit, gets.

WIP now has a wider application: techniques like Lean IT have made it one of the main themes underpinning the DevOps approaches to improving IT performance. But it’s harder to see the WIP concept in a service context. There aren’t visible piles of partly done work to go and see. An IT friend of mine was telling me how he was musing about this during a long journey back from a customer, involving two drives and three flights, for a point-to-point distance of less than 1000km.

The journey illustrated the cost and aggravation of WIP. The journey’s purpose was to get home, and added value came only while moving.

Work in Progress (WIP)

The rest of the time he was like part-made goods stacked up, waiting, taking up time until someone delivers him some value. He told me he was sitting comfortably enough drinking coffee, but it wasn’t getting him nearer to home. So actually, it isn’t only waiting time, when no value is added. That at least is a neutral kind of thing. At some points on the journey there was worse, such as:

  • Removed value (rather than added) when he was travelling, but in the wrong direction. Specifically, getting to his departure airport involved a 75-minute drive north, when his home was south-west. The reason was understandable, but still unsettling.
  • Hitting ‘fretting time,’ when you have actions that deliver no apparent value to you. For example, my friend agonized for 20 minutes in a slow moving line for security as departure time for his next flight got very near.

It was during this fretting/agonizing time that he realized how this applies to many services. When you’re obliged to do something that delivers no visible value, this prevents the organization from getting on with doing what truly would deliver value.

Spotting WIP in Your Services

So why is all this relevant to service management?

We can find the equivalents of waiting and fretting times in most services we build, deliver, and support. Until we identify the elements that feel to the customers like waiting, negative, or fretting time, we can’t do anything to address them.

That doesn’t necessarily mean removing those steps. It may mean explaining how they do actually add value: a value that may not be evident to the customers. While my friend was fretting about getting through security, he could have been reminded that the process was adding value by making the journey safer.

Service-Waiting Time

There are lots of types of service-waiting time – let’s look at two ends of a spectrum:

  • Low level, short waiting. Before IT accelerated the world, business worked through letters and internal memos. You’d reasonably expect a reply within a few days. Now we expect responses in seconds, never mind hours or days! Ironically, short waiting times can be costly. Wait a day for a reply and you get on with something else while waiting. Wait 20 seconds and you do just that: wait. Reducing that short waiting time constitutes almost total value-adding time.
  • High level waiting. When we ask for something new, or for something to be different, then of course we want it now but expect it to take some time. But if it takes too long, then that waiting time while the ‘work is in progress’ brings a range of wastes and dangers. Two key ones are:
    • By the time the new or changed thing is here, it might no longer be relevant, delivering less value than it would have done earlier.
    • If the change is an improvement bringing greater effectiveness and efficiency, then the cost of the wait is the lost improvement that would have been delivered; in accounting terms – opportunity cost.

Fretting Time

Worrying about whether something will get done, and will work when it does, or be affordable – causes fretting and distracts everyone from useful work. Nobody is at their best when worried about something, and in an organization this might include:

  • The person doing the fretting
  • The support staff being contacted and distracted by the worried customers
  • The CFO and their team who don’t see the improvements they have gambled their investment on

Change Management

Probably, from an IT service management (ITSM) context, change management is in the front line when it comes to creating – and being placed to improve – everyday WIP. Change backlogs are WIP at their most blatant. They are the things we have agreed that we need and will add value, but are not getting done.

Dealing with WIP involves identifying it, and the damage it can cause (or to be honest, is already causing). Some WIP time is inevitable, but communicating why, and setting expectations, can make a big difference. Not least in helping customers and support staff get their planning right, based on accurate predictions of when things will be there.

What Can You Do About This?

Understand that WIP costs you: both financially and in customer and user satisfaction. Some sensible first steps to reduce these costs include:

  • Understand what WIP in services is
  • Look for instances of WIP in your processes and procedures; find places where the flow of work stops
  • Understand why it stops, and if steps can be taken to reduce delays
  • Explain and educate about necessary WIP, where important but less visible tasks are required, for example for safety purposes

And above all, measure the WIP as far as possible and demonstrate improvement over time to show the savings made and benefits delivered.

Do you have any other ideas about WIP in services? Any experiences? Please share in the comments.