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:

1.1 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

1.2 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

1.3 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

1.4 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

1.5 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

2.1. Make Work Visible

  • Two-thirds of the population are visual-spatial learners (as opposed to audio-sequential learners), thinking in pictures rather than words
  • Making work visible improves our work because the human brain is designed to find patterns and structures in what it sees
  • Seeing work on a visual map can highlight business pain points and other information
  • Use visual systems like kanban to make work visible

2.2 Ambush the Ringleader

  • You know you have too much WIP when
    • context switching is common
    • new tasks start before old ones are finished
    • work gets neglected for ages
  • Too much WIP magnifies all the thieves of time, upping the damage of them all
  • Horizontal swimlanes on a kanban board can help put work into different categories (e.g. Expedite, business requests, teamwork, etc.) - this can add extra visibility and also help set up WIP limits
  • Limits should be assigned to all swimlanes and to WIP in general
  • WIP limits create tension in the system - they enforce constraints that enable people to complete work and foster conversation about priorities
  • Categorising work by who requested it can be beneficial - it brings visibility for internal, external, and leadership stakeholders
  • Use pictures, colours, writing, symbols, acronyms - whatever conveys information quickly in a unified language

2.3 Expose Dependencies

While small teams can move fast, dependencies can impact them and slow them down. Consider:

  • Specialist dependencies
  • Architectural dependencies
  • Team dependencies (if your success is dependent on another team who has a long backlog, what then?)
  • Domain knowledge dependencies
  • The more teams, the higher the chance of dependencies between them.
  • Projects themselves create dependencies if you transition project teams off them too quickly - coming back to help fix issues when you have moved onto a new project results in context switching and dependencies
  • It is better to organise teams around products than projects, and keep the team consistently working on that product (no set up and organisation cost of establishing the team)

2.4 Unplanned Work

  • You need to plan for unplanned work - it will always exist.
  • Use metrics to track the ratio of unplanned work, and then assign resource accordingly

2.5 Prioritise (x3)