This is my personal summary of the book Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work & Flow. It’s a very summarised recap to jog my memory.


We, as workers, are drowning in never-ending lists of requests, with bad processes causing us to multi-task and over-commit, resulting in hard work with relatively little progress and constant stress. We overload ourselves and our teams, and because we get interrupted we battle to complete items efficiently, instead extending the life of multiple items, none of which get the attention they deserve.

The bottom line is we need to stop saying yes to everything, and deliberately say yes to only the most important things at the time, using a workflow system that:

  1. Makes work visible
  2. Limits work in progress (WIP)
  3. Measures and manages the flow of work
  4. Prioritises effectively
  5. Adjusts based on learnings from feedback and metrics

Part 1 - The Five Thieves of Time

These thieves of time prevent you from getting work done:

1. Too much WIP

  • Too much WIP can delay delivery, increase cosrs, decrease quality, confuse priorities, and lower morale
  • WIP is a leading indicator of cycle time - the more items that are worked on, the higher the likely hood of dependencies and interruptions creeping in
  • More context switching means more time lost focusing on the new task
  • We need to learn to say no to requests when our schedules are full - these requests effectively jump the queue

2. Unknown dependencies

  • Every dependency added doubles the chance of failing delivery
  • Smaller teams are able to move faster that big teams due to inner dependencies - but breaking teams up one also needs to be careful about creating intra team dependencies (individual team performance may be detrimental to company performance)
  • Architecture, expertise and activities on hold are common dependencies
  • Reduce dependencies to save time and money

3. Unplanned work

  • Adds unpredictability to the system
  • Higher performing companies tend to spend more time on planned work than lower performing companies
  • Steals time away from planned works and delays planned projects
  • Plan for unplanned work by reserving capacity for it when it arrives

4. Conflicting priorities

  • Only one most important thing!
  • Conflicting priorities leads to too much WIP, which leads to longer cycle times
  • Compete for the same people and resources

5. Neglected work (partially completed work on the bench)

  • Aging software is much like an older car that needs regular oil changes and tune-ups to keep it functioning
  • It is often technical debt that is neglected, as short-term thinking prioritises new features over important maintenance (revenue-generating work rather than revenue-protection work)
  • “Zombie” projects (low-value projects that are not proactively being worked on) should be killed! Get the important work done, and resurrect these later if they become important - don’t flog the dead horse
  • If not dealt with, neglected work will become an emergency

Part 2 - How to Expose Time Theft to Optimise Workflow