Working with Work In Progress: Interrupting the Cycle of Staff Overwhelm | Simon Holzapfel | 2 Min Read

March 26, 2024


Schools are full of dedicated people who love working hard. School people of this sort are essential to a school’s success. Schools also seem to have almost unlimited amounts of work to be done and duties to be covered. Too often school leaders rely on their staff to keep doing more, taking on “one more thing” which ends up causing burnt out people and a loss of engagement. Leaders need to understand the concept of Work In Progress [WIP] to keep “one more thing” from eating up the good will and energy of faculty and staff. WIP management has been studied extensively in organizations outside of education and there are many lessons and best practices that are highly transferable to the educational context. 

Current condition

In schools that do not track or manage WIP, the risks are significant. In addition to burnout, important projects can be neglected or even dropped. One of the costs of unmanaged WIP is time lost to context switching: reducing the impact of the good will and drive of your faculty and staff. The chart below shows how time loss accumulates with increasing WIP [shown on the vertical axis]. As I talk with leaders of state associations of independent schools I hear a lot about the difficulties attracting and retaining faculty and staff. Unprotected schedules can be one of the issues. 

To see the effect expressed in terms of how long a busy person can take to get something done, the below shows how dangerous it is to run people at full capacity. Queue size is a proxy for how long it will take a given work item to get done. When your faculty and staff have less than 10% unscheduled time in their day, do not expect them to be able to be responsive to changing needs, or to plan changes.



To limit burnout and to allow your faculty and staff the time to recover during the day, keep an eye on WIP and capacity utilization. Especially for work that requires full mental bandwidth, limit how many different projects a person can work on at once or how much of their time is scheduled in a week. 


Use the tools of educational agility to track and manage WIP and maximize the flow of work. Use the tools to facilitate a culture shift away from overwork and overwhelm. 

Action Plan

  • If you are seeing signs of overwhelm in your staff, don’t wait to take action. The costs of replacing and retraining faculty and staff, plus the loss of institutional knowledge when staff depart, are significant and can accumulate rapidly. 
  • Reduce the number of concurrent projects underway as much as possible to increase productivity and focus. Use teaming practices to concentrate the capacity of team members on the most important strategic work. 
  • Mothball and/or defer any low-priority project to limit context switching. Focus on getting the fewest possible number of tasks 100% done before allowing any more new project work to start. 
  • Make heroic overwork and firefighting signs of temporary imbalance to be remediated instead of a sign of excellence or something that people think is how merit and regard are earned.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Simon Holzapfel for Intrepid Ed News.

Simon Holzapfel

Simon Holzapfel is an award-winning educator, thought leader, innovator, and writer. He is a co-founder and CEO of the L-eaf Lab, as well as a former Head of School, former Director of Studies, and current Board Chair of The Montessori School of the Berkshires. Simon was in the initial cohort of leaders trained at NAIS’ Innovation Strategy Lab and spent time on the Executive Board of Boston University’s Agile Innovation Lab. Simon is a certified Scrum Master (CSM), Certified ImprovementKATA (LIK) & WorkFLOW (LWF) and a member of the Berkshire Innovation Center. Applying four years of experience on the New York State Association of Independent Schools [NYSAIS] Commission on Accreditation, Simon has spent years helping organizations and their teams improve their outcomes by applying lean system thinking and the agile mindset. He lives in Williamstown, MA, and spends as much time as he responsibly can each day on his skis or mountain bike.

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