a blue background with "WSJF Your Life" in yellow text accompanied by an illustration of a man with a table

by Brian Ralph | 4 Minute Read

As a coach, I was having trouble identifying if I was spending my time in the right areas and prioritizing my work appropriately. I decided to grab my journal and try to write my way into clarity. As I reached into my bag for my notebook, I found a rumpled sheet of paper. It was a grid I had filled out at an Agile conference I had attended that same month. At the conference, a speaker presented a tool that helped her focus her energies on the right places. When she approached work, she measured her passion around the task, her ability to accomplish it, and the value it brought to the organization. She handed us this grid and had us fill out three large chunks of work we had accomplished that week. Mine looked something like this:

Chart for Hobbies

She then had us weight each item using Fibonacci numbers.

Chart of updated details

Adding the numbers helped me think through each item. For example, writing: I loved doing it, I was good at it (you be the judge of that), but was anyone in the organization reading it? Was writing valued in that client’s environment? It was valuable to me, but what about the community I was investing in? The inverse with dashboards: I avoided creating dashboards, partly because I wasn’t good at it, but the client needed visibility into their work and a way of making that information meaningful to them. Knowing that motivated me to do more of it, which increased my ability to do it, and thus increased my passion around it.

I looked at my totals. Should I coach more? It was only slightly higher than Dashboards and Writing. But there was something missing, and in WSJF I found the missing piece. Job size.

When sequencing large bodies of work, companies often use a Lean manufacturing technique called Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF). In short, it measures the cost of delay (COD: cost of not doing something) against the size of the work. If you have a winning idea that could corner a market segment, and there is a risk it will leak out, causing you to lose that very segment, the cost of delay is high. If the job size is small, and the product or service can be released into the market fast, comparing the high cost of delay against the small job size informs us that this work must jump to the front of the line. Some frameworks create sub-categories of COD to enable businesses to think deeply about COD.

The formula looks like this:

WSJF Article Image 3

Taking a leaf out of the WSJF world, I added Job Size to my grid.

Chart for Hobbies

I looked at writing. My passion was high but so was the job size. It was taking me away from the other items. In that particular season with that client, was it right to spend so much time on it? Although I was passionate about coaching, I realized I was doing little of it, and increasing it just a little could bring great value. I adjusted the job sizes, lowered the amount of time I was putting into writing, increased the coaching time and muscled through the dashboards to a point where I enjoy the process of creating.

Getting the Most Bang From Your Buck with WSJF

Prioritization frameworks serve as a compass to guide teams toward valuable outcomes rather than relying on guesswork. Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) offers a simple yet powerful formula for ordering a backlog. As we talked about in my example, this lean approach accounts for business value, time commitment, risk, and other factors to sequence the most impactful work first.

Since borrowing this method some years back and adding in job size, I’ve used this tool to check in with myself and my leaders to determine if my energy is being spent in the right areas.

Organizations struggling with prioritization can take a page out of my book and use the same tactic to assess whether you are consistently accounting for Job Size when prioritizing your work.

So, let's take a deeper dive!

The Anatomy of WSJF

WSJF calculates job priority based on two components:

Cost of Delay – How much does waiting to complete this item potentially cost the business in terms of lost revenue or competitive advantage? High cost of delay scores reflect urgent items.

Job Size – How much time, resources, and effort does this project require? Larger, riskier endeavors receive lower scores.

WSJF then divides the Cost of Delay by the Job Size to generate a final ratio. Teams tackle backlog items with the highest WSJF scores first, optimizing for maximum value. The framework intentionally favors small, valuable contributions over lengthy processes that may not pan out.

Every organization customizes WSJF scoring to their strategy and objectives. For example, a non-profit may rank grant applications by likelihood of approval and donation amount compared to preparation time. A bank may score IT ticket requests by revenue impact and implementation costs. Regardless of business model, WSJF pushes teams toward the workstuff that delivers the most value.

Balancing Speed and Value

WSJF stands apart from other frameworks by fusing urgency and impact together. Simple priority rankings often fall short by focusing narrowly on one dimension:

  • Cost of Delay alone favors small, trivial items that create a distracting whack-a-mole culture rather than driving complex strategic goals. You knock out tasks without moving the needle.
  • Job Size/effort alone pushes teams into endless analysis paralysis. They end up building castles when a wooden shed would do just fine for delivering value.
  • First In/First Out queues strangle productivity through arbitrary sequencing unrelated to actual value.

WSJF strikes a balance by screening for speed and value together. It curbs teams losing sight of the forest for the trees in both directions. They don’t hyperfocus on inconsequential tasks nor stay stuck evaluting theoretical work forever.

Ready to Try it Out?

Follow these best practices for rolling out an effective system:

  • Start small rather than boiling the ocean. Pick a narrow pilot project first before expanding org-wide. Learnings from that small scope beat endless hypothetical debates.
  • Involve team members in formulating value metrics specific to their domain. Collaborative design ensures better buy-in downstream compared to top-down dictates.
  • Review and reassess scoring criteria quarterly as business conditions and strategic goals shift. WSJF only works when kept relevant to current priorities.
  • Use WSJF to frame conversations, not replace healthy debate. Scores offer a starting point for deeper analysis around tradeoffs, not the final word.

The ultimate goal of WSJF adoption remains increasing value throughput within constrained means – the very essence of lean operations. Paired with agile execution models, WSJF accelerates teams down the highest impact path forward amidst ambiguity. The simplest solutions often prove the most powerful.

And as always, if you are looking for a partner to help you on this journey, reach out and let us help!