Make a WIP (Work In Process) Board


Your boss has no idea what you’re working on, and he or she is always giving you items that are number one priority, causing you to drop what you’re currently doing (which used to be top priority) and switch to this new item.


Showing status is one of management’s favorite pasttimes.  There are an infinite amount of ways to show or measure progress on a project and it’s your management’s job to find all of them and require you to create a chart for each one this week.

I don’t mean to be harsh.  It’s true that if management’s job is to ‘manage’ what is happening, then they need to know what’s going on.

Well, here’s a simple little tool you can use to not only let your manager know what you’re up to, but to help you actually be more productive and increase your throughput (the number of things you complete.)

Create a WIP (Work in Process) board out of paper, a white board, or whatever material you choose.  All you need are 3 basic categories:

Backlog           |              WIP             |            Complete

Divide your board into three columns containing these categories, then use sticky notes to capture your specific tasks.  Line up the tasks you plan to work on in the near future under your Backlog column, and put them in priority order, with the next one you plan to work on at the top (or you can have a horizontal right to left orientation.)

Put the task – and this is key, only one or two at the most – that you are currently working on under the WIP column.  It is important to stay focused on one item at a time until it is complete.  We think we can work on multiple things at once but all we’re really doing is bad multi-tasking, switching from one thing to another, which causes everything we do to take longer. (See previous post, Carve out Some Focus Time.)

When you finish a task, put it in the Complete column.  At the end of each week, count how many things you completed and try to get better every week.

The idea is to see movement of your sticky notes across your WIP board, so you need to determine the level of detail that is appropriate to capture on each sticky.  Don’t make a task that is two weeks long, because you won’t see it move and it’ll be unclear if it is stuck or if you are actually making progress on it.

Also, don’t make a task so small (like a phone call) that you’re moving sticky notes every 10 minutes.  You need to ‘chunkify’ your projects into reasonable sizes so that you’re showing progress every day or so.

This is a simple tool that actually accomplishes a lot of purposes.  First, it allows you to measure your productivity – how many things you get done – which in turn causes you to want to increase it.

Second, it allows you to place incoming requests in your backlog or queue according to their relative priority.  So if your boss gives you a new ‘hot’ item, you can ask how it relates in priority to these other items that they have asked you to work on.

Third, it helps you stay focused and say ‘no’ to certain requests, or at least have a better prediction of when you can start working on a new task.  People (or customers) may not be comfortable at first having their task in a backlog, but once they see that you will get to it soon, that you will focus on it and not let anyone else interfere, and finish it well ahead of schedule, then they will appreciate your new system of effectiveness and productivity.

A WIP board: An easy thing to make to cause a huge impact (and no whipping involved.)

I’m sure you’re aware of similar methods and tools out there to provide status and improve productivity.  Share them, and let’s learn some more together.

4 thoughts on “Make a WIP (Work In Process) Board

  1. Budgets are effective for some similar reasons. If you have a plan as to where your money is allocated, you can manage your life in the ‘stuff’ category. The big benefit to me of having written down budget is that I have actually shown it to salesmen and said, “Well, this is my budget. Show me how I can ‘comfortably’ afford your product.” It’s funny how shocked they look and how quickly it ends the conversation.

    1. Great idea, Greg! Yes, it is similar to a budget.

      It’s basically knowing where everything is, setting limits, and seeing how stuff flows through your system so you can manage it better.

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