The single most important metric for measuring marketing efficiency may be one that you’ve never heard of: the Average Age of WIP.
Marketers are generally measured along two dimensions: are they producing the outcomes the business needs (effectiveness) and are they producing these outcomes efficiently in terms of budget and time. Most of us are familiar with measuring effectiveness by measuring outcomes (leads, conversions, pipeline, revenue).
But what about effectiveness? We mostly measure effectiveness in terms of budget (cost per lead, for example). What about effectiveness in terms of time? How do teams measure this and over time, how do teams improve the amount of work that they can get done in a given amount of time?
This post will take a look at several alternatives for measuring and improving effectiveness, including the most important measurement, the Average Age of WIP.
The Basics: Limiting WIP and Measuring Cycle Time
WIP is defined as “The tasks currently being worked on by a team.” Limits to WIP are established by teams to limit the amount of multitasking going on and to identify bottlenecks, ensuring smooth flow and helping identify inefficiencies.
We’ve written previously about the importance of limiting WIP to improve your marketing workflow. As we said in that post, “Limiting WIP is not just about managing tasks; it’s about fostering an environment where quality, efficiency, and team well-being are paramount.”
Another key metric that Agile teams should measure is Cycle time. Cycle time can be defined as the amount of time it takes for a work item to move through the workflow process from initiation to completion. Think of it as the time it takes for a team to finish a particular work item once they start it.
Clearly, some work items take more time than others. It takes more time to create a marketing video than it takes to create a single image for a marketing email. Teams can either measure average cycle time, with the assumption that over time, the mix of large and small items stays relatively constant. Or teams can measure cycle time for particular types of work items: the cycle time for creating a YouTube video, for example.
Cycle time measures completed work. It doesn’t tell the team anything about their current work in progress, and so it is less helpful on a day-to-day basis in telling the team what’s taking too long, what’s stuck and not moving forward in their workflow, and what actions the team should take. This is where measuring the average age of WIP can help.
Average Age of WIP to the Rescue
The average age of WIP is calculated by dividing the sum of the ages of all the team’s tasks on a certain day by the total number of tasks. The team might have a low cycle time because they’re doing all of the quick, small tasks while the larger and perhaps more significant tasks languish in their workflow. If the team does complete these larger and longer tasks, their cycle time will skyrocket, because these long cycle times tasks are now included in the calculation.
Measuring the Average Age of WIP lets the team know in advance when they can do something about it that some tasks have long cycle times. Measuring the Average Age of WIP helps teams become more predictable. Cycle times even out, rather than being low and suddenly jumping up.
Implementing WIP Age Measurement
Teams can begin measuring the Average Age of WIP by doing the calculation daily: dividing the sum of the ages of all their tasks on a certain day by the total number of tasks. Some tools provide this statistic, some teams will need to calculate this on their own.
Teams can manually calculate the Average Age of WIP or use a tool.
Many tools provide the age in days of a particular task. If not, it can be calculated by subtracting the date the task was started from today’s date, either in a calculated field or manually. With Trello, PowerUps like Card Age for Trello or Card Age Badge show the age of each card. Someone on the team would have to manually calculate the average of all cards in progress, which sounds daunting, but if the team is limiting WIP, this calculation should not take long.
Using a Tool
Tools like Nave or Kanbanize provide reports that report the Average Age of WIP. Nave’s report is shown at the top of this post. Kanbanize shows the Average Age of WIP on their dashboard, along with last week’s and last month’s figures.
There are also add ons to Jira for calculating the Average Age of WIP.
Integrating WIP Age Analysis into Team Meetings
At team standups, one part of the meeting could be devoted to examining WIP age and taking action based on the metric. Is the average Age of WIP going up or down? Are there particular items that have been in a particular stage of the team workflow for more than a certain number of days without moving forward?
By asking these questions regularly, teams can avoid sudden spikes in their cycle time and improve their predictability.
Teams that measure and act on the Average Age of WIP metric become more efficient and predictable. While it is a metric that is not in common usage, it may be the most important metric for teams wanting to increase their efficiency and produce good work predictably.