Processing and Memory–Post 1: Why Limit WIP Series

zeigarnikIn 1927, Soviet Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik (on the left, there) described a certain phenomenon. When we finish tasks, we get a certain closure and move on. When we don’t finish tasks – we don’t.

We keep thinking about them. We yearn for completion.

In the ensuing years, Psychology has advanced significantly. Zeigarnik’s school of Psychology was called the “Gestalt School.” It was the basis for today’s work in pattern languages (and much of what we’ve done since then). During Zeigarnik’s time, we didn’t have functional MRIs, CAT scans, PET scans, or a mapped human genome – so her school was much more like experimental philosophy than today’s neuropsychology.

So, while the science has moved on – the fact remains, we yearn for completion.

Today’s research has focused closely on how our memory work and what happens when we disrupt it. Future posts will deal specifically with multi-tasking and context-switching – but today, we will talk specifically about processing.

We have a lot of different kinds of memory systems in our heads, and these systems interact quite well most of the time. But, like any systems, they can become overloaded.

Procedural Memory is a special kind of memory where we store procedures – the steps we take to do something. This type of memory gives our brains a break – as we don’t have to constantly re-invent our processes or drag them out of memory like we were trying to remember the name of the girl who sat next to us in the fourth grade.

Short Term Memory is an extremely short loop. This is about 10 minutes. Short term memory is usually measured by psychologists by bombarding a subject with random facts and then seeing how many of them they can remember.

Long Term Memory is a much longer loop. From 10 minutes to forever. This is where we keep things that our brains deem necessary to remember or just plain had time to retain.

When we saturate our brains with things to remember, simply put, the brain can’t keep up.  In general, our brain is aided by a few things in the memory department:

1. Coherence – If you go see a movie, you’ll generally remember the plot of that movie for a very long time. That took longer than 10 minutes, and generally had a lot of sensory input. But, it was a coherent, fairly linear event that your brain could easily process. Sometime it might make you think for a long time after, but you are still able to remember.

2. Concentration – If we focus on a small set of tasks, we concentrate in both senses of the word. We both focus our attention and we concentrate our options. In the short term, we limit options in order to achieve a state where we can direct attention to a specific task. Again, with a movie, we are concentrating our attention on that movie for a much longer time than 10 minutes.

3. Sequestering – Many people now use Netflix or other services to watch movies at home. I’m willing to bet that they remember less of the movies they watch because in a movie theatre, we are sequestered. We are locked in a box where nothing but the movie happens. At home, we are loaded with distractions. Those distractions steal attention away from the movie and, therefore, make the movie less memorable.

What this means at work

At work, when we do not limit our work-in-progress, we end up meeting none of these criteria.

Doing multiple projects at once and being subjected to random disturbances:

1. Destroys Coherence – When we try to work, answer e-mail, and switch back and forth between demands, we no longer have coherence. It would be like if we switched back and forth between The Princess Bride, Full Metal Jacket, a World Cup game, and CNN at random intervals. You might be able to get up to speed, but you really will never have “enjoyed” any of them.

2. Forget Concentration – Again, if we use the example above, how much do you think you could concentrate?

3. Sequestering? Not so much – With utter disregard for sequestering, we find ourselves overloaded with media and unable to focus.

Let’s make this clear: Without coherence, concentration, and sequestering, we remember with much less fidelity. If your team, your employees, or your you are working so hard that there is no memory of the work done – you are flushing value out the door.

Limiting WIP

When we limit WIP, we allow people to concentrate their work, allowing  time to create a coherent story.

True sequestering is difficult, and often impractical. In software development, over-sequestering of Agile teams has proved divisive and counter-productive. We are not advocating that you completely isolate yourself from the organization. There is another alternative, tactical sequestering, in a way used at The Library Corporation.

At TLC they regularly employ something called the Pomodoro Technique – a system where a person or a team focuses for 25 minutes on a specific task or set of tasks – then takes a five minute break – then repeats. During that time, they cannot be disturbed. It’s a small enough time that people can come back to interrupt them later, but it’s long enough to get significant work done. It is also long enough to gain coherence around the work being done – aiding memory and reducing transaction costs for context switching.

This is post 1 of a 10 part series on Why Limit Your WIP.  Read post 2 Completion: Limiting WIP Post II  in the Why Limit Your WIP series.   Also,  see the index for a list of all of them.

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4 Responses to Processing and Memory–Post 1: Why Limit WIP Series

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