Restarting a Stopped Line

For those who have been following my three-part series on dealing with a line stop, I’m particularly glad to be posting the final in the series. The exact words for this post have been circling in my head on and off for a month, but the time just didn’t seem quite right to put fingers to keyboard yet.

It took me some time to accept some of the  insights about what went wrong with my Work in Progress. It’s never easy to acknowledge that you can’t do everything, especially not if you’ve become used to fooling yourself into thinking you can.

To restart the line, I had to address three issues to start with:

  • My unhealthy relationship with work in general
  • The multitude of kanban boards in my personal life
  • The lack of metrics tracking my work at the office

Hanging up the Cape at Work

Having been Superwoman Extraordinaire for a big part of my professional life, I figured the best place to start addressing the overwhelming Work in Progress in my life was work.

I quit my job. Yes, really.  But not before finding another one. 😉

I had already been thinking of moving on for some time for professional growth. But the serious heart to heart I had with myself after stopping the line helped me to see another important reason to make the break.

Once you’ve allowed the boundaries between work and home to blur too much, it’s very difficult to throttle it back without feeling like you’re letting people down or not contributing anymore. At least, it is for me. We teach people how to treat us, after all. And I hadn’t done a good job of teaching people to treat my personal time with respect, because I wasn’t treating it with respect. Although I had started dialling things back the last couple of years, my day job was still encroaching on my personal priorities and dreams too much.

A clean break, and starting afresh in a new domain with new challenges – where nobody could possibly rely on my knowledge as The Oracle – was just what I needed. I will admit … Receiving a farewell e-mail saying “she has made huge personal sacrifices in terms of time and family to serve the product to the best of her ability over the past 8 years”  did make me feel I had done well. But it also painfully underscored the significant disservice I had done myself and my family.

That is a mistake I hope not to make in the future.

Slacking off at Home

Apart from my Personal Kanban at work – which focuses only on my workload at the office – I am steadily working towards having one single board for all my personal Work In Progress. I am not quite there yet, but I have already made progress by merging and collapsing one or two boards, without spending inordinate amounts of time on the admin of recreating tasks.

For the time being, I still keep a separate board for a book project I’m working on, and Household and Financial tasks are still separate too, but as I’m moving tasks to Done on my digital boards, I’m not filling these backlogs anymore, but rather filling a new Life backlog with different value streams to cover these areas.

A major aspect of this reduction is figuring out what the Work in Progress limits in my Life backlog should be. If my experience with stopping my line has taught me anything at all, it is that I have to protect my slack like a lioness protecting her cubs.

To combat the temptation to fill every waking hour with “stuff to do”, I’ve put a number of hobbies and projects on hiatus so I could start with lots of “slack” or “free time”. Slowly but surely, I’m adding things back and evaluating after each addition if I’m still feeling in control of my Work in Progress and whether the addition is adding to my life joy or detracting from it.

This does mean that I am disappointing some people at the moment, because I’ve been saying “no” quite a bit, sometimes after having said “yes” initially some time ago.  But learning to say “yes” only when I truly am able to give of myself happily and without guilt or regret is essential to my ongoing happiness and health. Amazingly, most people understand that quite readily when I explain my reasons.

Keeping Score of Things

In the last few months, I have also made great strides in understanding my work patterns by using Work in Progress limits and metrics.

My work board has always been something of a Scrumban implementation, in that it has elements of both Scrum and Kanban. Each week is my “sprint” and I use story points to measure my weekly velocity across the phases Backlog, Doing and Done. Initially, there were no work in progress limits or swimlanes. Barely days before the kanban workshop that  jumpstarted my use of formal metrics in Personal Kanban, I implemented 5 swimlanes for Team, Stakeholders, Business, Admin & Other, with each swimlane having a limit of 1 item in Doing.

After the workshop, I made the following changes to the board to help bring my Work in Progress under tighter control:

  • Reduced the swimlanes to three for Product Management, Product Owner and Other work.
  • Changed the Backlog phase to IN to clearly show ownership of work that enters the value stream. IN has a total WIP limit of 9, while Doing is now limited to 3 active items across the three swimlanes. [A blocked item where I’m unable to work on something due to a dependency on somebody else does not count toward the limit.]
  • Implemented an Expedite class of service and a First In First Out (FIFO) policy
  • Started tracking Cycle Time through a simple Excel spreadsheet that calculates the difference in days between IN, Doing and Done.

Already, I have learnt a number of clear lessons about my work and my approach to it. If I thought my work habits had improved when I started a visual board, those improvements pale in comparison to the growth I have experienced since starting actively heeding Work in Progress limits and measuring my work. I’ll be sharing some of these specific lessons in more detail in upcoming posts.

Walking the Walk

But I’m not naive. I know that changing my relationship with work is not something that is ever going to be entirely Done. Every day, I need to make decisions to embrace and enforce a healthy work-life balance and to work as smart as I possibly can while at work. I do believe I’m on the right track to continue doing so.

I would love to hear from any of you who have fought a similar struggle with work. What strategies do you use to prevent work from becoming the single driving force in your life?

This is Part Three of Three in a series. Read Part One and Part Two.

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