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The 5 Diseases of Prioritization

by Jim Benson
January 11, 2018

The 5 Diseases of Prioritization

by Jim Benson
January 11, 2018 | Comments (7)

During the recession in the early 1980s, my father was building a set of townhomes along a golf course in Grand Island, NE. He went over the units to do his daily site visit and was surprised to find a plumber sound asleep in the living room. Why would he be asleep in the middle of the day? He gets paid by the job – not the hour.

So, my dad nudged him with his foot and said that the general contractor wouldn’t be pleased to find him asleep. “Awww, that guy hasn’t paid me in months,” the plumber said. “If he hasn’t paid you in months, why are you doing this at all?” My dad asked. “I need the work,” the plumber replied.

Psychologists have found that business prioritization is the most cognitively taxing thing we do. This is no surprise. At the office, we create a mess of conflicting narratives about what we are doing, who we are doing it for, and why. We overpromise our efforts and the efforts of those we work with. We take on more work than we can handle and agree to unreasonable deadlines and budgets because “we need the work.”

When my business partner Tonianne and I work with clients, we are always asked about prioritization. I’ve blogged about it. Written books about it. Made videos about it. But the sad fact is, prioritization doesn’t exist on its own. People with clarity of purpose and a drive to act never need to prioritize.

So it may seem like the plumber was prioritizing sleeping over working, but he was actually prioritizing having crappy work over having no work at all. If it weren’t in the middle of the recession he would have told Terry (the general contractor) to pound sand and gotten work elsewhere.

Most of us currently have the other problem: we are overloaded. When we are overloaded we feel we need to prioritize our work. We don’t know what to do because our options are so many and our time, so limited.

The secret here is that prioritization is rarely a problem on its own; rather, it is a symptom of a larger illness or set of illnesses. And since this blog post promised five of them, here they are:

  1. Swervy – Swervy is caused by deficiency of Vitamin G – you have no clear goals. Goals are more than just “be the industry leader in world-class, time-saving micro-widgets.” Goals, when done right, actually steer your company. Goals provide the people in your organization with a framework to make internally consistent decisions. If your goal is to work more in Wisconsin, your team will look for work there and not Bavaria. If you don’t have a goal, decisions are made piecemeal, which means stretched resources, unclear directions, and overload. Prioritization happens here because projects of random makeup enter the patient’s workstream causing systemic confusion over why we are doing the work in the first place.
  2. Thickets – Thickets is utterly forgetting Vitamin C – you don’t know your capacity. When teams and organizations don’t track their work and measure what they can actually complete, they will always prioritize projected income over quality or safety.  We can use throughput, cycle time, and lead-time as good lagging indicators of capacity, but Toni and I like to use things like attrition, sick days, and just plain angry people. Humans are very good at breaking down under stress. Prioritization happens here because the organism has too many projects to process and blockages frequently occur.
  3. Costeoporosis –Lacking in Vitamin F (feedback), sufferers of Costeoporosis are working diligently to keep up with overload and confusion. They are so diligent, in fact, that they neglect to talk to each other about what they’ve learned or observed. As a result, the organization spends time, energy, money, and goodwill solving the same problems. Mistakes repeat themselves throughout the organization. Prioritization is required here because the overhead of repeated problem solving creates schedule delays, cost overruns, and depletions of patience.
  4. Planemia – Clearly overdosing on Vitamin P – planning (which has a much lower recommended dietary intake than any of us realize) – creates focus on the perfection of plans. Setting budgets, timelines, and resourcing with strong “accountability” drives projects to value looking healthy over being healthy. In the planemic patient, projects are not allowed to learn and adjust as they progress – they merely age and calcify, often resulting in the dismissal of the project manager or other scapegoat. Prioritization here is a desperate act by the project manager to keep the original project plan alive when events have clearly superseded the original plan.
  5. Politicitis – Regardless of diet, the patient is infested with parasites that actively suck Vitamins, G, C, and F and replace them with overdoses of P. In this case, the patient meets before the beginning of the calendar year for months of painful, angry, and ultimately destructive meetings to prioritize all the projects for the upcoming 12 months. Each silo in the organization seeks to hoard resources and power, creating projects with unclear goals, unrealistic big batches, structural impediments to feedback, and massive and ungainly plans. Prioritization now becomes a major corporate “need” as the organization strives not to collapse from multiple, programmatic illnesses.

Do any of these sound familiar? Any deficiencies you can spot right now in your organization?


The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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7 Comments | Post a Comment
Edgar Agustin January 11, 2018
3 People AGREE with this comment

Hi Jim,


This is both hilarious and genius! Very true.

Reply »

Mauricio Ortiz January 11, 2018
2 People AGREE with this comment

Just wonderful! 

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John Shook January 11, 2018
4 People AGREE with this comment

I'm pretty sure I'm deficient in Vitamins G, C, and F so need an infusion of each...but, I can't decide which to take first. I've already overdosed on Vitamin P, so can't go there. Any help in prioritizing my problem will be appreciated. 

Reply »

Elena Freydin January 11, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Thank you for this great post.

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Peter Gardner January 11, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Can't stop giggling. great piece!

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Hollie J January 16, 2018

Always interesting and challenging Jim - thanks for sharing.  The planning thing gets me everytime. 

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Ramiro Cabanas September 03, 2020

Building a business operating system that sets clear goals, understands capability and capacity, builds coherent feedback loops, replaces   complements plans with organized learning, and removes self-destructive politics is clearly the basis for a better business management starting point.

Reply »

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