The other day someone was asking for an activity to help experience what happens with smaller batch sizes. He might also have said limiting work-in-process, but I do have a small activity that I do to help people experience the impact of limiting how many things people take on at once.
Before I jump into the activity, here’s why the request and activity matter. People have a terrible intuition about how to maximize the rate of completing things. The overwhelming instinct is to start more things instead of finishing what has started. Think of how many projects you’ve started but never seen it end.
As it turns out that limiting the number of things that people can work on, forces them to finish things. As they are forced to finish things, they have to see the problems in their way with finishing them, and because they can’t wander off to something new, fix them. This leads to rapid improvement while also completing what is started.
That’s why a lot of us get on soapboxes about work-in-process or batch sizes.
But if you want to have a quick activity to feel what this is like, here are the instructions.
~6 minutes for the activity 15-20 minutes for debrief
You’ll need to divide the groups into three roles. There will be a single person who is a factory, a person to record the time, and everyone else is the customer.
The timekeeper can be a customer if you’re in a pinch.
Give the index cards and sharpies to the factory and have the factory layout one card per customer to start.
Explain that there is a factory that produces names on index cards and that everyone else is customers trying to get their names printed out.
Now, the factory has a few rules to follow. First, they can only put one name on one index card. Customers don’t want someone else’s name on their card, after all. Second, the factory can only write one letter at a time, and they can only write the letter as it’s given. The last rule is to prevent the factory from writing the name before they are told what it is.
The game will now proceed in two rounds. The first round will have the customers each say a letter from their name each in turn. It helps to have them practice once. Have each customer say the first letter from their name. Then they’d start with the second letter, and so on.
Now, start the round and your watch. The factory will write the letters as they hear it, each name on a separate card. If a customer has a short name, they can simply “Pass.” Record the time it took to complete everyone’s name.
Begin round two by explaining there will be a slight rule change. Instead of each customer giving a letter, the factory will now focus on one customer at a time. So now, the customer will give their entire name one letter at a time before the next customer starts theirs.
Start the round and record the times.
Once this is complete, debrief on what each round was like. Some things to focus on are what the experience was like for the customer. How it is the results can be so different when all we’re doing is writing names that we already know. Did you really get THAT much better at writing a name?
Focus on how this idea of switching between multiple tasks shows up in their work, how it shows up for the team, and how it shows up in their sprint.
Something interesting that will happen in maybe every other group is a moment where they have all this insight, but struggle to break the cycle in their current work because “They have so much to do.” Ironic, but that’s the fun part.
So if you’re with a group that seems always to have too much to do or seems to struggle to get things done, take a few minutes and run this game. It only takes about 6 minutes to run and 20 minutes to discuss. It’s quick and tends to be profound for teams that do it.