Work In Progress Limits at Subway?

A few days ago I was in a daze as I waited in the line at Subway.  I was thinking about a dilemma my friend Phil had.  Phil is a project manager for a team that creates internet applications and web pages for a large company.

Phil wanted his team to start working on larger projects and provide more value than delivering simple enhancements to the existing websites.  The problem was his customers never stopped asking for new modifications or slight changes to the pages and mini-apps his team had already delivered.  In Phil’s estimate there were approximately 50 enhancement requests in his team’s work queue.

Every time the team received a new request they discussed it with the customer, then estimated when they would deliver the request.  In essence they were constantly taking on more work, and the more they discussed the new requests, the less time they spent delivering the ones they had already started.  In the words of Lean Software Development, Phil’s team needed to “stop starting and start finishing” the requests that were already in progress.

I told Phil this in essence and emailed some screenshots to him of the Kanban boards that many teams use to limit the work in progress.  Phil was still having a hard time grasping the concept after I discussed the screenshots with him on the phone.

…..…then I snapped out of my daze as the Subway line shortened and I found myself face to face with one of the sandwich makers.  “What can I get for you today?” Sally the sandwich maker asked me with a smile.  I placed my order for the Philly Cheesesteak then stood back to watch the same process I have seen at Subway for many years.  Sally said “would you like it toasted?”  I said yes.

Sally took my bread, placed it in the toaster, then looked down the sandwich line to see what was going on.  Two co-workers were diligently adding veggies and sauces to two sandwiches already in progress.  In a few seconds they would be done.  Sally took off her gloves and moved to the cash register, arriving in time to wrap the sandwiches and charge the two customers.  As this happened one of Sally’s coworkers moved to the start of the work queue and asked the gentleman beside me what he would like.  As this happened the other co-worker pulled my bread from the toaster and asked me what veggies and sauces I would like.

I always take the Subway sandwich process for granted, thinking to myself “they are just making sandwiches, it’s no big deal”.  But sitting here and thinking about Phil’s problem, this simple sandwich process was exactly the model he needed to visualize.  The Subway crew was versatile and agile, but they never over committed and never took on more orders than they could complete at one time.  In essence they had set limits on their work in progress.

I am sure you have witnessed this yourself.  The Subway location I frequent is very small and sometimes the line goes out the door, frequently with folks standing in the rain.  I never see this change the process at the sandwich station.  The crew still only takes on as many orders as they can focus on and deliver effectively.

I spoke to Phil after my lunch ritual and the Subway analogy connected with him.  Today his team limits the work in progress, and they have “stopped starting and starting finishing” more enhancement requests than ever before.  They now have capacity to go beyond maintenance and pursue new projects that can provide high value to his company.

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