My WIP Days

It was an evening, I started walking towards the bazaar nearby to purchase few items for home.  From the first turning from my house, I noticed that the bicycle repairing shop was open, and quickly remembered to ask the mechanic the status of my son’s bicycle that I gave for some repair a couple of weeks ago.  I had to cross this bicycle repair shop, on my way to the bazaar.  I noticed, that the mechanic, who was busy working on something saw me walking towards his shop.  As I approached his shop, I could see that his helper boy in the shop brought my son’s bicycle and placed it in a queue like order, that appeared to me as if he is going to work on my son’s bicycle, next.  When I reached the shop, we both smiled.

I said, “Hello Kumar!” – Kumar is my cycle mechanic.

“Good evening sir! Here is your son’s bicycle, and I will work on it next as soon as I finish this!!” – he was pointing to what he is currently working on.

I acknowledged, and started walking towards the bazaar.  I was happy that the bicycle would be done and delivered in a couple of days from today.  However, my inner voice did not agree with my belief.  It reflected those learnings from the past.

When I was young, I grew up in the western Ghats – those areas where hydel power projects were built.  My father was working in those hydel projects then.  In those areas, where I did most of my schooling, school drop outs were not uncommon.  One such as dropped out classmate and a friend of me, went on to learn tailoring in his brother’s tailoring shop.  Learning tailoring is an involved apprenticeship.  One has to have lots of patience to do all sorts of chore in the tailoring shop for months, before being allowed to touch and paddle the tailoring machine.  In few years’ time he picked up the art of tailoring amazingly well, and went on to set up a shop on his own.  This shop was small, just measuring 10’x10’, at the entrance of the market in the adjacent town, which was on top of a hill from the hydel power station.   He had just one tailoring machine, one interlocking machine – which was considered a speciality in those days.  He fixed a broad table for cutting, above which shelves built like pigeonholes to store cloths.  He successfully found another dropout, apprentice boy, same as he was to help him.   If someone is walking up the hill from the power project’s residence area, one can see them walking the complete stretch sitting in his shop.  This boy was positioned to sit on a stool to have a good view of those walking uphill to the market.  Anyone who lived in such hill stations, knows that they naturally develop this ability to identify persons, walking far away at a distance, on another hill, just by looking at their profile, and walking rhythm.  I used to visit the shop and chat with him during weekends and holidays. One morning when I was in the shop talking to my friend,

“Kesavan sir is coming to the market!!” – the boy exclaimed.

“Where is he now?” – my tailor friend, Ravi asked.

“Near the plumbing stores”.

My friend who was stitching stopped his work exactly ten minutes later.  He got up and went to the cutting table to pull out a shirt cloth from the shelf, neatly spread it on the table, took the bulk measurement book searching through the pages.  He took the blue marking chalk and measurement tape that was hanging around his neck, and started marking. 

“Ravi, why did you stop this stitching work in the middle and went for cutting?” – I asked.

“….” – he did not respond.

I saw Kesavan – a staff from the hydel project, approaching the entrance of the market. 

“Good morning – Kesavan sir!” – Ravi welcomed him with a smile.

“Good morning Ravi.  How are you?  Have you started working on my clothes?” – he casually enquired.

“Yes, yes.  I just started.  I just started marking the measurements, and you walked in. It was perfect timing!! “– my tailor friend pretended as if it is an auspicious coincidence.

I could visibly see a happy Kesavan, looking at his shirt cloth neatly spread on the cutting table with markings, struggling to hide his happiness.

As soon as Kesavan stepped out of the shop, my friend rushed back to the tailoring machine to resume from where he left.  Kesavan’s shirt cloth, partially marked for cutting was on a corner of the cutting table, until the time Kesavan left the market to go home.  Then the cloth was rolled up, tied and found its place in the pigeon hole.   This conversation continued for many – like:

See the boy is stitching the buttons for your shirt.  Once it is ready, I have to just iron and deliver it to you.”.

See your shirt is almost ready.  I have to just do the collar portion.  I am waiting for a good quality collar canvas from my supplier and he promised me to deliver tomorrow”.

See your interlocking work is in progress!!

Observing this for some time, I understood that my friend has learned the technique of keeping his customers happy by way of showing them the work in progress (WIP) than the actual work delivered.  I also realized that his shop was strategically located at the entrance of the market to promptly manage the WIP show.

When I spoke to some of his customers, like Kesavan, separately, they seem to be quite happy with this style of working rather waiting for the delivery date that is agreed with Ravi. 

“Even a week’s delay is fine with Ravi!!  But we can be sure that he is working on my orders!!”.

At some point in time, many years later, after learning TPS and Lean, I felt that this tailor shop of my friend manages everything in WIP.  There is nothing in raw material or as finished.  As a result of this WIP, I observed that there was too much of switching between orders, and he started committing mistakes, and some of those lead to lots of rework.  But this WIP style of working hasn’t changed.

Reflecting on this tailoring shop and relating it to many practices I saw in various other industries later in my professional career gave raise to this question – “why teams or organizations are struggling to limit WIP – knowing well that limiting WIP is beneficial?”.

“Are we using WIP as a progress indicator – that prohibits us from limiting WIP?”

“Are we using WIP as a tool to keep the customers happy – like my friend running the tailoring shop?”  – many engineering industry subcontractors exhibit this behaviour.  Subcontractors to large manufacturers deliberately plan and run that customer’s product in the shop especially during those manufacturer’s periodical visit or inspection thus increasing their WIP.

One common scenario in Software Development is that when presented with a requirement, the team always asks this question –

“When this is to be done?”. 

 “Yesterday”.   – this is the response from many managers with a sarcastic smile on their face. Managers seems to take pride in such responses thinking that this is an authoritative style of communicating urgency.  I know some teams, secretly, within themselves, refer to such managers as “Yesterday manager”.  This behaviour leads to, what is like Kesavan walking uphill to the market, and the Tailor halts all the work to start planning Kesavan’s shirt – team stops working on everything they are into and start the new work, increasing WIP.

When WIP grows unmanageable – we see a switch in communicating the progress in terms of percentage (%) of progress (like 80% complete) or phrases like “almost done” or “nearly done” or “close to completion” and so on – like the collar canvas response of my tailor friend.

After purchasing the items from the bazaar, I started walking back home.  While nearing the cycle mechanic’s shop, I saw the seat unplugged, mud-guard removed from my son’s bicycle – indicating that the work has begun.  Kumar smiled at me, and said “will be ready within a week’s time, sir!!”. 

Forgetting all that I learnt, especially those I thought I have mastered like TPS, Lean etc., all falling apart, I behaved like Kesavan, struggling to hide my satisfaction.  Kumar knew that he made his customer happy by way of adding one more item to his WIP.

After reaching home, placing those items I bought from the bazaar in the shelf.  I sat down, and the book “The Machine that Changed the World” – was on my table, appeared smiling at me!!

V Sairam

Consultant – Agile Coach

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2 Responses

  1. The illustrations of the tailoring shop and cycle repair shop bring out clearly the malaise, though the customer is made happy temporarily. Similar experiences are seen in many job shop type industries. Such approach invariably fails in the long run.

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