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March 8, 2022

The Five Time Thieves

By Dominica Degrandis

If your wallet was stolen, you’d notice. If your security badge to your office was filched, you’d know it when you arrived. And if you opened the fridge to find your lunch missing, you’d make sure your office mates heard about it. So why don’t people notice when they are robbed of something more valuable than their wallet, badge, or lunch—their nonrenewable time?

We grumble that there just aren’t enough hours in the day and that someone else sure seems to have a lot of free time. But we regular mortals only have twenty-four hours in a day. The problem is that we don’t protect our hours from being stolen. We allow thieves to steal time from us day after day after day.

Who are these thieves of time? The five thieves of time, as presented in my book Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work & Flow, that prevent you from getting work done include:

  1. Too Much Work-in-Progress (WIP)—work that has started, but is not yet finished, sometimes referred to as partially completed work.
  2. Unknown Dependencies—something you weren’t aware of that needs to happen before you can finish.
  3. Unplanned Work—interruptions that prevent you from finishing something or from stopping at a better breaking point.
  4. Conflicting Priorities—projects and tasks that compete with each other; this is exacerbated when you are uncertain about what the most important thing is to do.
  5. Neglected Work—partially completed work that sits idle on the bench. 

These five thieves hide right under your nose, comfortably cozy between you and your work. But they leave clues at every crime scene. If we’re going to get stuff done, we must trap these thieves to expose the crimes they commit. Once the thieves are caught, we can begin to do something about their insidious wreckage. Instead of being at their mercy, we can turn that dark corner, take back control, and make the kind of improvements that matter.

Let’s look at these thieves in more detail.

Thief Too Much Work-in-Progress (WIP)

In textbook terminology, too much work-in-progress (WIP) is when the demand on the team exceeds the capacity of the team—which is a rather boring way to say that our teams are drowning in work, often because their schedule is completely full. Every minute of the day is fully scheduled (or fully allocated to 100% resource utilization). The most talented have the longest lists. This equates to people doing their full-time job on top of everything else that is expected of them, such as troubleshooting environment issues (problems with the configuration of servers that prevent website functionality and other things from working right), hiring new team members, and completing merit reviews to name just a few. Similar to how our digestion system lets us know when we’ve stuffed too much food down it, Thief Too Much WIP attacks us if we cram too many meetings into our day, leaving us unable to begin the day’s to-do list until 6:00 p.m.

Thief Unknown Dependencies

Tightly coupled software architecture is a victim of the big bully that is Thief Unknown Dependencies. When a decision to remove a table from a database negatively impacts another team, Thief Unknown Dependencies scores big time. This is an example of a software code dependency.

Specialized expert skill sets are also at risk of being hit by this big bully thief. A developer wonders, “Are there unknown vulnerabilities in this code?” while waiting on feedback from a security expert. But the security expert is busy discovering how someone hacked into their now unsecure database. A question waits on input from a database architect. “Is the data in the test environment wrong? Can they please check it out?” But the database architect is busy helping the security expert. When you are the only one on the team with a special skill set, you can be the bottleneck pulled in many directions. Expert skills in high demand are often unavailable when you need them. Thief Unknown Dependency snickers in delight.

A similar problem occurs for changes outside of your control in the form of third-party vendors. Major cloud providers, like Amazon EC2, Microsoft Azure, and Google Compute Engine, provide service level agreement policies that guarantee their customers 99.95% uptime. This equates to twenty-two minutes of allowable downtime per month. When your cloud provider is down, you are down, and Thief Unknown Dependency laughs at you. Granted, your cloud provider is a known dependency, but do you always know it when they first strike? How much time does the team spend troubleshooting a problem before they realize it was the cloud provider who did it in the datacenter with the candlestick? But you still lose even if it’s the provider’s fault because you are constrained by contractual agreements. You may be compensated with time credits, but if a failure occurs, how much time is wiped out trying to recover lost data? If you totaled the hours a team troubleshoots an incident like this, how much time is really stolen?

Thief Unplanned Work

Sometimes unplanned work comes in the form of a necessary strategic change in direction: “Let’s stop marketing to everyone and just focus on large enterprises.” But often, unplanned work comes in the form of unnecessary rework or expedited work requests. These are the fires that stem from some failure. (Demand from failure is called, predictably, failure demand, and it is a frequent target for Thief Unplanned Work.) It can be the case, though, that a dependency from a team just down the hall from you is a greater risk to not responding to your needs. This usually results in a communication up your line of command to the common denominator leader and then back down the food chain to the person responsible, resulting in an interruption/delay to that person’s lunch (hopefully, it’s still in the fridge).

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting all work should be preplanned. It is irresponsible (maybe even delusional), to believe that it’s possible to know everything up front while planning a complex project. Quite the contrary—we don’t know much about what we don’t yet know. Sometimes changes in direction are necessary, because new information emerges as we work to solve problems. A major value of the Agile movement is to encourage responding to change over following a plan. Life is uncertain. Change is inevitable. It’s a law—the second law of thermodynamics to be precise.

Thief Conflicting Priorities

We’ve all encountered situations like this in varying contexts: group projects in middle school in which no one yet knows how to prioritize, unreasonable deadlines set by managers who want all the work done “yesterday,” and/or trying to multitask through your to-do list by tackling everything at once instead of accomplishing tasks by level of value.

The negative impact of copious untracked dependencies, lengthy cycle times, and habitual overtime is invisible in the short term. Eventually, though, network errors, security oversights, and missed delivery dates become uncomfortably visible. What’s not happening here is the acknowledgment that some of these projects should be set aside until the teams have capacity.

Thief Neglected Work

Conflicting priorities and neglected work are also close cousins. (I imagine you’re sensing a pattern here.) Neglected work doesn’t get the attention, the budget, or the resources needed to be successful, like that ten-year-old JDE configuration that was still using a customized version of a no longer supported version. The impact of this aged and neglected system on our Corbis team was failure demand that occurred when the configuration files incorrectly pointed to the wrong instance. This was a high maintenance problem and cause for many a troubleshooting ticket.

If I had to identify what kind of work is most neglected, it would be the work related to improving quality, including deferred maintenance, bugs, technical debt, and code without tests (legacy software, as defined by Michael Feathers). Time and cost often win when it comes to getting a product out the door. (“Just skip those tests. We need to get this delivered. We’ll come back to it later.”) The current corporate culture that focuses on people being “busy” all the time is absurd. Work is neglected when people are “busy.” Busy people, however, do not signal productivity— delivered value does. 

Exposing Time Theft

The technology world shows no signs of slowing down. The pace at which we need to deliver new capabilities to win new customers and prevent existing customers from walking away (churn) seems like warp speed. Many companies today are in survival mode, they just can’t see it. This means there is no better time than right now to elevate how we work. So, how do we level up our game?

The answer is straightforward and accessible. It doesn’t cost you tons of money, and it doesn’t take geniuses or specialists. All it takes is a shift from haphazardly saying yes to everything to deliberately saying yes to only the most important thing at that time. And to do it visually.

The solution is to design and use a workflow system that does the following five things:

  1. makes work visible
  2. limits work-in-progress (WIP)
  3. measures and manages the flow of work
  4. prioritizes effectively (this one may be a challenge, but stay with me—I’ll show you how)
  5. makes adjustments based on learnings from feedback and metrics

Learn more in my book Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work & Flow, Second Edition

This post is adapted from the second edition of Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work & Flow by Dominica DeGrandis.


- About The Authors
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Dominica Degrandis

Author of Making Work Visible

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