Why it’s hard to eliminate backlogs
In the previous Observation, we discussed Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. There is a similar phenomenon, which we call the “Backlog Effect: Work expands because there is no additional work available.” If people are aware that no work awaits them after they complete their current tasks, they will naturally start slowing the rate of completion to avoid running out of work. This is very common in project-based work environments.
A healthy and visible backlog is therefore helpful for maximizing the productivity of your people. Taking that backlog away may cause employees to be concerned about their job security. This perceived “threat” may cause (consciously or not) a slowed pace of work or assignments being stretched out in one way or another.
When we work in project-based or work-order based environments (such as software design, engineering or maintenance), we often find that people are not as productive as they could be for various reasons. The basic equation for productivity is output/input, so logically to improve these areas, you need to increase output (tasks or work orders completed) or reduce resource hours, or both. Inevitably, a request to reduce resource hours is met with: “Before we can reduce any hours, there is a large backlog of work that needs to be brought under control.” This is difficult to achieve, however, because you run directly into the Backlog Effect. If people sense that eliminating backlogs will eventually lead to eliminating them, you can understand why they may be tempted to manage their pace.