It may sound counter-intuitive, but the more work in progress, the more progress is delayed. That is one of the core concepts of the Theory of Constraints. I am addressing this not as a theoretical concept, but a real and serious problem that bugs many innovators and impedes their productivity. Reducing work in progress is something that is in your control in most cases. How can you improve your innovation output? You guessed it right, by reducing your work in progress.
Theory of Constraints
The theory of constraints by Goldrath, is described in his best-seller book ‘The Goal’. In this book, Goldrath explains that in a manufacturing plant, the more work you have in progress, the more delays you will incur and the costlier your production becomes. Because only completed work generates a return on investment. To maximize throughput, you need to maximize the throughput of your bottleneck(s) and minimize everything else.
Clearly, there is a lot more to this theory, but that is beyond the purpose of this blog.
Application to innovation in service organizations?
In (professional) service organizations your time is often the biggest bottleneck. There is just only so much you can do in 24 hours, a work-week, and a year.
Following the theory of constraints – you should maximize your throughput to maximize your productivity. However, be careful how you do that, as only work completed can generate a return on investment.
Simply stated, if you do two projects at the same time, both projects will take twice as long to complete than strictly necessary. Instead, if you would first complete one, and then proceed with the second project, the first project can start to deliver a return, while you are working on the second project.
What more if you are fully committed (>100%) then in theory, all additional or unexpected tasks will take forever to get completed. Because you have no spare time to complete these tasks. Clearly, in practice that is never the case, because you probably will give up a few hours of sleep to get everything done. Nevertheless, know that the more committed you are, the more delays you cause to all deliverables you are involved with.
Why does it matter? Because many innovation projects incur endless and unnecessary delays because of these theory-of-constraint principles.
Use cases of too much work in progress
Let me provide you with four use cases of how too much work in progress plays out in practice for innovation projects and what to do about it.
Take Julius. He was working on about 15 innovation projects at the same time. When I questioned him about the feasibility of being involved in so many projects, he told me that he truly was only working on four projects at the moment. The others were just small side projects he was involved in.
Sure, but being involved in four innovation projects is still too many. Three years later he had nothing to show for on any of his projects.
The solution: Focus on one innovation project at a time. That is already a lot to handle. It makes you also much more decisive on whether to continue or not. If you don’t make enough progress or if you think another project is much more promising, move on to greener pastures. Facing unexpected hold-ups, stop. You can always get back and pick up the project again when the opportunity arises. Just don’t try to work on multiple projects at the same time, you won’t get anything finished.
Take Darius. Or my mom for that matter. Their work builds up, because it is never finished. There are always more details to add. My mom is a fantastic painter. However, she is able to take her paintings back off the wall – to make a fix. We have to say – they are beautiful as they are – no fixing needed. Still, she will disagree, because in her mind the flaws she sees are unacceptable. The problem is that no painting or project ever gets finished if you wait for its release till it is perfect.
The solution: Set deadlines, only allow yourself to work on 1 thing and one thing only, and complete it by the deadline. If you are eager to get onto the next project, you will have to accept that the current one is finished. Good enough will have to do, if you want to get anything done!
An example of the let-me-quickly-finish-this-first is Petra. She has a lot on her plate, and everyone in the office loves her, because if you ask him something it will get done right away.
However, her innovation project has been out there for the past 6 months with not much progress to show for. Every time we have a meeting, she begs me to postpone, because another urgent issue came along. Very understandable, but not good from an innovation perspective. Innovation projects while important, are never urgent, until it is too late.
Petra is no doubt very busy, but she needs to realize that she must set aside time to work on the things that are important. Urgent issues will keep filling up her agenda and nothing long term will get done. While everyone likes her now, in the long run, her knowledge will become outdated and she will have no new skills to show for.
Solution: Set aside 15 minutes to 1 hour each day to advance your innovation project. Stick to one project and attend to that first thing each morning, before the rest of your day gets filled with the urgent stuff.
James prioritizes his work all right, by focussing on the highest paying work first.
From a performance perspective, this may be slightly better than Petra’s approach, but it still is detrimental for the innovation project he is involved in.
Innovation projects are an investment in the future. The pay-back is uncertain. If you don’t carve out time of paid projects to stay relevant and up your game, your contribution and the work you do will lose their value over time.
solution: Set aside 15 minutes to 1 hour each day as an investment in the future and advance your innovation project. Stick to one project and attend to that first. Thereafter, the rest of the day you can focus on making as much as possible money that day as possible.
Reduce your work in progress and deliver!
Setting aside and prioritizing the work in progress that you spend on innovation projects is important. Research has shown that investing this time is worth it, not only for your clients. Participating in innovation also makes you happier and the work you do more rewarding.
However, research also shows that only works if you deliver. Participating in innovation projects is rewarding when these projects deliver results. Otherwise being involved in innovation becomes utterly frustrating.
Reducing the amount of work in progress is something innovators can address themselves to become more productive in their innovation efforts.