Limiting Purpose in Progress

While speaking with my husband (@erwilleke), we realized that we were going through a very similar journey of understanding in our careers despite working in very different areas: Eric striving to align thousands of people against a common purpose in the corporate world, Marian developing learning experiences to expose individuals to opportunities of personal transformation in the educational world (for now). Based on our combined interest and application in this topic concerning organizational behavior and human learning behaviors, we co-wrote and published this to each of our blogs.

Process or Values?

[MHHW] As my cello instructor pours at least 10 techniques into me in one lesson, it became increasingly clear that limiting WIP for learning a string instrument, especially one with a bow, is simply impossible. Even if one practiced a specific technique over and over, it is out of sync with everything else. Simply closing my eyes and letting my brain come into oneness with what my body knows it must do has led me to realize that limiting WIP with cello involves becoming present with the experience as a whole, not focusing on any specific individual technique.

This appeared to conflict with my intense belief and practice in limiting WIP, which has led to tremendous results for my career. The bottom line was that what my cello instructor had me do as a whole body experience worked. Also, what I’ve been doing with limiting my WIP for my career worked. How could both work?

[ERW] In the business world, we’ve seen huge impact from the simple act of limiting work in process, but have observed very mixed results in the cultural aspects of implementing this. On reflection, the places where limiting WIP has been successful are those places where the reduction of WIP has resulted in more alignment among those tasks that remain. Where the body of work doesn’t have more cohesion as a result of limiting WIP, the group may still gain the productivity benefits, but they fail to engage emotionally into the improvement, and lose much of the potential for sustainability as a result.

Seeking Balance

[MHHW] I recognized that the career applications of limiting WIP were cognitive only. What was the affective experience? In other words, where were my values in those tasks? Experimenting, I changed my card structure away from the specific tasks and focusing on the desired outcome, building out the steps towards that outcome within the (virtual) card. Almost immediately, prioritization became more obvious as I coordinated across the value stream of the organization and it became explicit when we chose to discuss implementation details within one of those prioritized goals.

[ERW] In the transformation world, these concepts really align with the tightly coupled needs to improve the cognitive and affective aspects of how we engage individuals and teams in the act of delivering value. The aspect of SAFe, which requires teams to read back the purpose of their work as an output (see post on objectives) is one step in this direction, yet it is only one step, continuing the journey started by including “why” on every story. There remains a great deal of work to do in providing clarity of purpose as a guiding principle of how we work. My belief is that providing balanced attention to these two areas is a key to providing both the structural flexibility needed to successfully adapt in today’s world and the organizational health required to carry a company through the inevitable changes.

Working towards the Vision

[MHHW] As a result, I’ve moved from many tasks to just a few concepts/goals, which dramatically simplifies conversations about intent and prioritization. In addition, prematurely breaking down these tasks can force me into a “do this, then this” mode where I don’t feel free to change them. Lifting the level up to an intent level in many ways allows me to maintain the state of play that is so valuable to engage my values and achieve the real outcomes aligned with that work. Knowing myself, my compulsiveness pushes me even more easily into a “tick the box” mindset, where many times the tasks may no longer be relevant to the purpose.

[ERW] Lifting the conversation above the details of the work provides a massive simplification of what needs actively managed in an organization as people learn they have not only ability, but also permission, authority, and expectation of taking personal responsibility of the tactical details of converting a goal into reality. While not immediate, this collective journey provides leadership with the freedom and safety to pursue the truly strategic aspects of their roles while permitting the whole-person engagement across the company that amplifies effectiveness so dramatically. This deep collective engagement provides a massive improvement in quality of output, productivity, and fitness for purpose of what is created.

Limiting Purpose in Progress

[MHHW] Swimming around all of this is recognizing that whole-person learning and limiting WIP can go together, but it requires a transition somewhere to bring this together. I relate cognition to the process, and affect to why I care about what I’m doing, and I’m trying to represent this as a singular thing, providing continual motivation.

[ERW] Returning to the original premise of this post, we see that the critical aspect to achieving flow in knowledge work is not specifically to limit work in process, but rather is to limit the purpose in progress. Like many aspects of lean, it is an act of imposing constraints that accelerate people’s ability to deliver results. In this case, the constraint is delivered affectively, through creating a singular focus of purpose driven with intense clarity from organizational leadership, while simultaneously minimizing the detrimental impact of competing purposes.

Cross posted with Eric Willeke at Rediscovering the Obvious

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About Marian

My passion is centered around ensuring effective learning experiences that improve people's lives. Developing a learning mindset is my ultimate goal whether working with academic programs or corporate training; formal or informal learning practices. It is my belief that our potential for agility is limited only by our capacity for learning.