It is a common feeling if you’re working in a tech company. You’re peacefully grinding something important in the parking lot, sitting between two cars, then she finds you back. Stupid, stupid screen light, been betraying you in the closet yesterday, and in the abandoned 2nd floor lobby the day before.

“Oh! there you are” she says, “we so dearly need your help. There is a fire in the server room, and coyotes are blocking Bob and George in the meeting room. By the way Consuela asked for your tps report, and Michael needs a review of his module XF3000 v4.0.”

Feeling overwhelmed, you sadly follow her in the staircase. Wishing for super powers to make her head explode, you grab a fire extinguisher in one hand, and your .22 rifle in the other, wondering if the most pressing issue is the possible death of two co-workers you neither like nor respect, or the disparition of the whole building altogether. After considering letting faith do its job, you realize you do need a wage to pay your mortgage, and start a one-on-one fight with Excel to fill in the report.

7pm shows on your watch, it feels like you did nothing today. Tina the exec assistant turns the lights and heaters off before she realizes you’re still there. “Sorry” she snores before leaving you alone in the cold dark. Yet another day of non-achievement.

It started 6 months ago. Before then your company was the nice 4 people haven which survives on just enough funding, doing cool stuff and experimenting a lot. Then it got successful enough. More funding came, more people as well. And now that the company is over a 100 people everyone is bringing their ideas, the product guru writes everything down and pushes that into a gigantic unmanageable pipe, and nothing moves anymore, despite an exponential budget increase. Add to this that a) you’re the only one knowing your platform and b) you’re the only one with hunting and firefighting skills. Your dreamjob suddenly turned into a hellish suite of disappointments.

You, sir or madam, suffer from both individual and company-wide too much WIP (work in process).

Too much WIP is one of the only issues I feel can be either a mistake or a willingful act. You never introduce technical debt on purpose, you never introduce bad architecture on purpose, you never actually want to neglect customer needs (or you’re actually dumb), but you sometimes willingfully open a new case before closing another one.

Ricardo, the brilliant product guru, is always giving lots of ideas, coming from execs, marketing, sales, etc. They seem to be a) going in all directions, b) gigantic and c) not to bring too much value. Consuela, the boss in charge, told you last week that it is your responsibility as a technical leader to implement what Ricardo tells you. She adds that all things considered, you’re the reason this company seems to be flickering. Priorities change often, and it looks like you always leave important stuff implemented mid-way to urgently implement something pressing to close one deal. With Miguela the boss-tester, you started taking shortcuts to increase throughput, and ignored increasingly bigger bugs. Quality has been decreasing lately, and people start to notice, customers especially. Your largest customer has threatened to leave if things don’t get better, especially that bug summoning the shadow forces of hell if you click on “help”, so you stop implementing new stuff in favor of closing all defects. Consuela reminds you that it is company strategy to have 0 defects, so you should focus more. Then new things promised to new clients by sales get delayed enough for these customers to stop payments, you get back to square one.

Isham’s team providing support is badly hurt by these quality issues, and his team starts relaying completely on you personally for any minor issue. You would delegate to your team but they’re so overloaded that you prefer spending 15 minutes investigating. Usually it turns into a solitary 4 days man-hunt, people complaining that you were so long to resolve the issue. At some point the sole view of Isham is giving you chills. More problems to come, that can’t be delayed. More bugs. More stress. You start getting close to a burn out, complain at home, get cynical at work. It feels like nothing ever gets accomplished.

Fantasize a minute about this: Consuela works out an actual strategy that is understandable and actionable: the company will address this or that customer segment. Marketing and sales focus on that strategy, Ricardo is only giving you ideas that converge to the strategy. If sales asks for stuff that doesn’t fit, you can just get back to the strategy and act: change the strategy, or discard the idea. In parallel you take as a company policy that there is a limit of what can be done at one time, and you just don’t bring up too much at once, focus on the important and keep it small. Your pipeline is only a few weeks long, everything longer is a high level roadmap meant to take enlightened decisions. You keep batches small and control WIP (they are siblings), this starts providing positive side effects. You control a short term horizon, give reliable estimates, close things out before starting new stuff. Progress. Hire coyote hunters. Increase quality. Lower the stress on support team. Reduce budget on fire extinguishers and exorcists. You stop being reactive, use feedback, and are super fast with responding to client wishes when they make sense.

You act at a personal level, delegate what shouldn’t be your responsibility, increase ownership in your team, train people to bypass you when possible, use pomodoro and educate others on limiting interruptions. You achieve stuff. Lower stress. Increase happiness, decrease cocaïne budget. Smile.

Now stop fantasizing: too much WIP will kill you, as it almost killed me, you can do something about it.