Systems/routines to manage workload

This is part of my series where I try to help anonymous strangers on Reddit (as u/AgileAtty). You can find the original post here.

Like the majority of us, I am currently dealing with an increased work load, and finding it a challenge to stay on top of things. I'd really appreciate your insight and experience on the below.

What systems or routines do you have in place to stay on top of work? Do you use a First in, First Out system? How do you track open files and ongoing requests? Of course, whenever an urgent matter comes in, that takes priority, but I'm finding my trusty to do list to be failing me a little here. Would love to read more about any systems/tools/routines which you find useful and would be happy to share.

I'm a huge fan of the Kanban methodology, beginning with its core tool the kanban board. Where a to-do list only has two states, "Not-done" and "Done," a simple kanban board has three: "Ready," "In-Progress," and "Done." (Complex boards can have more states, but they all tend to be a subset of those three).

Work is represented by cards on the board, and a card's position within a column represents its priority. The idea is to move cards from left to right across the board so that they hit the Done column as smoothly as possible. To do this, you pull cards from Ready into In-Progress, and then work on that In-Progress task until it is Done.

It's helpful to keep in mind that the kanban board is a tool to help with the overall methodology; just because you are using a tool that shows your work in cards and columns doesn't mean you're doing Kanban. Making your work visible is a great start, but the real power of the method comes from its subsequent steps:

  • limit work-in-progress (aka WIP),
  • manage flow,
  • make policies explicit,
  • implement feedback loops, and
  • evolve experimentally. 

Your question about priority falls under the "make policies explicit" heading. I think that first-in, first out (FIFO) is the best starting point for prioritizing new work, but it's unrealistic to think you can run a law practice on a FIFO basis alone. Which means you need to establish consistent policies for your exceptions. Start by asking the question, "what needs to be true about a piece of work in order for me to allow it to jump the FIFO queue?" Firms I work with often land on some combination of the following:

  • Is there a court or administrative deadline within the next __ days?
  • Have I made a commitment to a client or other party within the next __ days?
  • Have we set an internal service level expectation (SLE) that is approaching within the next __ days?

Whatever policy you start with, make sure you (1) write it down, (2) follow it consistently, and (3) re-evaluate it when you discover new information that challenges or breaks that policy (this is the "implement feedback loops" part of the method).

Three other quick-ish things:

(1) People sometimes struggle with "how much work should a card represent?" when first creating a board. I've landed upon a directional answer: A card should represent a chunk of work that can be accomplished in a single sitting. How much is a sitting? That's up to the worker. It is shorter than a day, maybe longer than 5 minutes. The idea, though, is that once you start work on that card you should be able to work it all the way through to "Done" without a break. If you have complex tasks that clearly will take longer than a sitting, it is generally better to break them down into smaller parts.

(2) The reason for this "sitting" guidance is to avoid having too much work-in-progress in your system. WIP is problematic for a whole host of reasons that I won't cover here, but the best practice for your Kanban system is to set WIP Limits (a type of policy) that cap the number of cards you will allow into each column on your board (except Done — you don't want to limit that!). For your In-Progress column, the ideal WIP limit is 1. That would mean you don't start another work item until the previous one is completely finished. Again, that's not always realistic, so a limit of 2 or 3 may be a better place to start. 

You'll want to think about WIP limits on your Ready column too, which means you may need to have another column (or several) that live to the left of Ready on your board. In practice, this often means creating a "Today" column with a WIP limit of 2-5 cards (depending on how much work you can realistically accomplish in a day). To the left of that you may have a "Tomorrow," or maybe you go straight to a "This Week." Maybe both. Either way, there should be a WIP limit on each. I don't recommend getting much more granular than that. To the left of "This Week" maybe put a column called "Sooner," and to the left of that another one called "Later." Even these should have WIP limits, however. If you reach your limit on those columns, then you know your practice is at capacity and you should stop taking new work for a while.

(3) Make sure ALL of your work shows up on your board. Need to write a blog post? It gets a card (that is prioritized against all the other cards). Need to review pre-bills? Dentist appointment this afternoon? They all get a card because they all are taking up your (finite) capacity. Hidden work is the silent killer of productivity, and anything that is taking up your capacity should be made visible on your board. Only then can you prioritize the rest of your work against it.

Obviously there's a lot more to the method, but that should be enough to pique your interest and maybe get you started. Feel free to contact me if you'd like to chat about it more.

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