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What Kind of Business?

It’s interesting how you find commonalities you wouldn’t normally consider between two areas. The inspiration for this post combines part of a meeting agenda (i.e., types of business) and an aspect of Kanban (i.e., work in process).


Formal business meeting agendas, for example the one typically used when following Robert’s Rules of Order, have sections named unfinished business and new business. Unfinished business involves wrapping up issues that were discussed in a previous meeting, and new business involves things that need discussion or approval but have not been addressed by the assembly. Here are some examples:

  • Unfinished business: The organization wants to add a new entrance from the road to make it easier to get in and out of the parking lot. Funds are available, but someone needs to check with the city about building codes concerning new connections to the street.
  • New business: A committee needs approval from the board of directors to move forward on a new outreach program to grow new business.

Kanban is a system originally designed for the production of physical goods (e.g., cars), and strives to optimize how things flow through the system. One aspect of Kanban involves monitoring the amount of work in process (WIP). WIP can be thought of as partially finished work awaiting completion. With Kanban, there is a goal to minimize WIP because it takes up space in the system. “Space” can mean physical space with manufactured goods, capital tied up in inventory (i.e., a company paid for raw materials that it’s not making money on because the product can’t be sold yet), or mental effort required to maintain context for multiple active tasks.

Relating the two domains

Think of unfinished business as work in process and new business as a buffer of work from which you can draw.

The more resources you have tied up with work in process, the less capacity you have to work on other issues that also need attention. (Side note: There’s a whole area of study called theory of constraints that goes much deeper than I describe, and is a subject for another post.) A solution is to establish a WIP limit, which is the maximum number of things you can have unfinished at one time. As an example from the software world, if you have three software developers, the team’s WIP limit will likely be three; you don’t want a developer working on more than one open issue at a time. The key here is to make the unit of work (sometimes called a batch size) small so that things can quickly move through the system.

New business is a buffer or queue of work to do once you’ve finished up your current task. The queue is prioritized so that when you are ready for the next task, you always get the one that has the highest priority. As an example from business agendas, the new business section may have four items to discuss, and those items will be listed in order of priority. That way if you run out of time during the meeting, you know that the most important things will have been discussed first. Any undiscussed items get carried forward to the next meeting. These are also a type of WIP, so it’s important to (1) keep each individual item small, and (2) minimize the number you plan to discuss in the meeting.


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Applying the concepts

There are plenty of ways to apply techniques from Kanban to everyday task management, for example Personal Kanban. Let’s simplify work into two categories: To Do (new business), and Doing (unfinished business).

Aim to limit the amount of things in your Doing category; this is limiting your work in process. By setting a limit, you can stay focused on the task at hand so that it can be finished. Some things to consider:

  • If something is staying in this category for a long period (i.e., more than a day), it’s probably too big. See if you can make your unit of work (batch size) smaller.
  • Try to think about other downstream items that are part of the current task. For example, “Have dinner party” isn’t about just eating a meal; you’ll have some dishes to wash and trash to take out afterward. I would consider those part of the “Have dinner party” task, and wouldn’t move it out of the To Do category until those wrap-up tasks were complete as well.

Keep your To Do list sorted by priority, and because these tasks will eventually become WIP, remember to keep the unit of work small. Another warning I’ll give is to be mindful of new business created by other sources — in other words, work that gets put on your plate that you didn’t expect or sign up for. Make an effort to delegate that work instead of making it your problem; even if you can’t, keep your WIP limit in place.

Work can only flow through your system at a certain pace, and piling on more work isn’t going to make that flow any faster. If you find that you have more things filling your To Do queue than you can process, you probably have too many projects going on. In that case, you should defer work until flow returns to normal, delegate that work to someone that has the capacity to take on more work, or drop the work entirely as it will be impractical to keep up.

Wrapping up

Most of us are involved in several things that add value to our lives and that keep us productive at work. For the next week, keep some notes on where you spend your time:

  • Working on new business
  • Finishing up work in process
  • Handling unexpected new business

Getting a baseline for where your time is spent can help you tune your system and keep things flowing. Meeting adjourned.

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