5S Your WIP to Accelerate your Value Stream Management (VSM) Journey

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One of the most pragmatic and effective Lean practices is modestly called “5S”. It’s all about organizing your workspace for efficient and effective utilization. In plain terms, the 5S’s are:

  1. Sort: Sort the necessary from the unnecessary.
  2. Set in Order: A place for everything and everything in its place.
  3. Shine: Clean up what’s left.
  4. Standardize: Integrate Sort, Set in Order, and Shine into your regular activity.
  5. Sustain: Follow the rules you set and maintain the gains.

Seems to make sense and, if you think about it, it probably reminds you of the many popular programs for organizing everything from your closets to your entire way of living. 

Lean practitioners have been using the principles of 5S for years. There are many resources about 5S that describe it in detail. However, the point of this article, for those of us working to apply value stream management (VSM) to the complex world of enterprise software delivery, is that our clutter, our messy closet, our equivalent of a scattershot workshop exists in our work in progress (WIP). That is, the work that we’ve started but haven’t yet finished will undoubtedly lead to clutter unless we practice the principles of 5S to declutter and enable higher time-to-value.

It is especially important that we apply the principles of 5S from end-to-end across the value stream, from ideation to operation. Most of us are trained to groom the backlog and we do a great job at it. However, what about the work after it leaves the backlog when we invest resources into transforming it into value for customers? That work should theoretically move to “completion” since the team members have committed to it. But for reasons such as changing priorities, over-ambitious schedules, resource constraints, unclear/changing requirements and more, the work may stall.  And often the stalled work becomes neglected after it has stalled for a long period of time. 

Neglected WIP

Neglected WIP is a very interesting phenomenon because it’s not supposed to happen. Our Agile and DevOps methods have taught us to be disciplined and repeatable. We set WIP limits to assure we don’t take on too much work. And it surprises us when we measure WIP across a set of teams that participate in the value stream and realize that we have too much work on our plates.

Unfortunately, the challenge we see upon measuring the end-to-end is that our WIP limits normally set per team but not across teams. This issue creates accumulations of work at bottlenecks. Perhaps even more surprising (but probably not to the people closest to the work), we have had too much WIP for a very long time and more of that work than we care to admit is sidelined

When “learning to see” with Tasktop Viz™ through Leading Indicator Analysis, it’s important to note that Viz is enabling us to see the cumulative WIP across all teams in the value stream. Sometimes it’s surprising to teams to note how the flow of work from one team to another may be more of a push than a pull from a system’s perspective. The WIP limits of one functional area may not be aligned with a downstream area and as such, WIP does not flow, becoming congested like a traffic jam.

For instance, in the following screenshot from Viz, this PVS is learning to see that the cumulative WIP of the value stream is too high to keep up and therefore creating a case where a large amount of work is stalled and neglected.

Tasktop Viz’s Leading Indicator Analysis shows you the Neglected Work In Progress (WIP), Months to Complete WIP, and your Predicted Flow Time Increase

Neglected WIP must not be overlooked. Yet it’s highly likely that baseline measurements of enterprise value streams will indicate a hefty percentage of neglected WIP. That’s why the principles of Lean 5S, and applying them to that part of your WIP, is an important activity to undertake to continuously improve the flow of business value-creating and -protecting work. 

Here are some recommendations to address your neglected WIP based on the 5S’s:

1. Sort

Some portion of the neglected WIP you discover will be old, forgotten, and no longer of significant value to the business. Those are easy, remove them from the WIP. 

Some will need a little more discussion. For those, the key is to get a realistic assertion of the value from the business leadership. It may be hard for people to let go, but fear not, the business leaders will be happy to approve trade-offs of marginal value for speed improvements you will gain by reducing the clutter.

2. Set in Order

The remaining neglected WIP will require prioritization just like the new work that is accepted into the value stream. 

The next part is very important: a step function of stopping all new work in order to finish all the neglected tasks is very effective but difficult to sell to leadership. An alternative approach is to reduce WIP limits on new work by the ratio of neglected WIP and then feed in neglected WIP along with new work at a corresponding ratio. Imagine balancing the water temperature and flow of a faucet that has separate hot and cold handles but you’ve been running too cold. You add in hot and reduce cold to maintain a desired temperature at the same flow rate. That’s what we need to keep in mind to balance WIP limits on new work to allow capacity to also take on neglected work.

3. Shine

There’s likely going to be some reluctance to get back working on neglected WIP by teams in the value stream. After all, it’s been a while since the work was started, it may not be as much fun as the shiny new objects coming into the value stream, and in some cases, it may entail complex and difficult tasks. 

As leaders in the value stream you’ll want to bring these items back, front and center, with logic, reason, and motivation about how these items are as valuable as the new work we are taking on. If necessary, place bounties/rewards for getting this work done. Make it fun and make sure everyone understands that WIP limits are being regulated to prevent the problems that got us here in the first place. 

4. Standardize

Make it routine and not the exception. Make all the WIP visible to all team members and leadership so everyone can see both the new work and the neglected work that is collecting in the value stream. Use value stream metrics based on the end-to-end flow of work that creates and protects value (Flow Metrics), WIP indicators, and kanban boards that pull neglected WIP tasks back into real active and waiting states. Provide real-time feedback and to calculate the dynamics of the WIP limits as your total WIP balances to ideal capacity.

5. Sustain

Continue to regulate WIP limits in a balance with paying down neglected WIP. As the neglected WIP is sorted out or re-prioritized back into the flow of work, you will eventually arrive at a steady state where the WIP is devoid of significant neglected WIP.  The end-to-end Flow Time (from when work is accepted to delivered) will be lower than initial conditions and Flow Velocity (the number of flow items delivered) will have increased because the context switching, thrashing, and reporting on stalled work will have been significantly reduced. Once there, it’s important to maintain the discipline and keep an eye out for work items creeping into a neglected state.

As all the experts point out, even though it’s counterintuitive the better we manage WIP by limiting what we take on and see through to completion, the faster we’ll work, and the more work we’ll process.

By applying the small but mighty 5S process to our WIP in the value stream we have one of the simplest, easiest, and most cost-effective ways to improve our time-to-value.

Practice 5S with the Flow Institute 

The Flow Institute—the first online community for implementing value stream management (VSM) with the Flow Framework®—provides a steady guiding hand in measuring and improving flow. Helping you to harness the rapid feedback loops for continuous improvement that serve the tech giants so well, you can get support for applying Lean practices like 5S and more.

Members gain access to custom courses, tailored VSM workshops, c-level roundtables and exclusive content that harvests Tasktop’s deep and profound market-leading knowledge that will enable you to baseline your IT portfolios and rebalance them to adapt quickly to the increasing pace of economic and market change.

Learn more about how the Flow Institute can help you on your VSM journey to become a more adaptive responsive company in a digital-first world.


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