What’s a WIP limit?

WIP limits or Work-In-Progress limits, in the context of the Kanban board, stand for the maximum amount of work items a given phase or the whole workflow can hold. These phases could be represented by a column, cell or even the entire board. There are two attributes in Kanbanize by which you can limit WIP – by position (cell, column and etc.) or by the user (e.g. John can have 3 cards which are in “In Progress” state). The attributes could be used separately or together.

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Why limiting WIP?

There are many reasons why WIP limits exist. At a glance, WIP limits ensure that the team keeps a steady rhythm without overloading the members. Another benefit of limiting WIP is that you complete your tasks faster. It is known that by focusing on only one task you would achieve better completion time than by working on two tasks at the same time. THIS experiment by Harvard Business Review proves the statement.

Another thing is that by eliminating the number of times you switch between several tasks you keep your focus and concentration making sure that you produce the best output.

Where to start?

Artists agree that the hardest part of painting is making the first stroke on a blank canvas. The same is also true for setting up the initial WIP limits.

In the best case scenario, a given person should have a WIP limit of 1 but this is really hard to achieve and maintain, especially in the modern and dynamic business where ad-hoc tasks arrive all the time. This is why we recommend starting by setting a WIP limit of 3 per person. When setting up the board limits you will also have to take into account the number of members. This way if you have 4 members and each of them has a personal WIP of 3, your “In Progress” columns should have a limit of 12 (4 members x 3 cards per person). This basic foundation will give a good place to start and room to improve as you go.

Setting up WIP limits

As I mentioned at the beginning there are two attributes by which you can limit WIP – members and positions. These two can work, both together and separately. Setting up the board limits is useful for controlling the processes that are taking place on it but one big flaw is that doesn’t take into account the distribution of members. For example, a given member could be part of multiple projects and multiple boards on which he/she has a limit of 3. This way the limits don’t serve their purpose very well. In order to avoid this case in Kanbanize, we have created personal WIP limits where every member has a global limit.

Limits can also be defined by the state. In some scenarios, there isn’t much sense in setting up limits for the “Requested” or “Done” state but in others, it is a must.

In Kanbanize there are 3 ways to configure your WIP limits:

  • Allow exceeding limits – this way the limits serve only as indicators
  • Allow to exceed limits but with reason – you are allowed to exceed the limit but by only providing a reason
  • Don’t allow the limits to be exceeded – you can’t and won’t be allowed to exceed the limits

You can configure your limits from the Project settings -> Global board settings.

The WIP limits paradox

Having too high WIP limits means that probably your team is working on multiple tasks, switching context all the time and not meeting the deadlines. Having really low limits on the other side means that when a given item is pending on a 3rd party, and your members have to wait, they are static.

What these two scenarios have in common is that your team is unproductive and inefficient. In order to escape from this paradox, you have to carefully monitor your KPIs when you either increase or decrease your limits. If you change your team’s WIP limits and your KPIs go in the opposite direction of what you’d expect, then you’re probably a victim of the paradox and you have to examine your team’s operations closer in order to ensure smoother flow.

Bottom line

WIP limits have proven to be very useful especially when done right. By using WIP limits you ensure that the whole team keeps a steady and productive rhythm.

WIP limits are the way to build a pull system and are probably the biggest differentiator of best Kanban apps from the rest of project management applications.

There isn’t a rule on how to set up your limits, it is a journey which you have to travel in order to achieve excellence. Setting the right WIP limits is part of the continuous improvement process and it changes over time when members join or leave the team along with other variable factors like efficiency. Be mindful and honest about your limits when you have to change them. Do you really need to increase them or it is just because “I really don’t want to work on right now and it’s messing my flow”.

Start your journey today by setting up your boards’ and/or members’ limits and improve your process. Remember 3 cards per person is the magic number when you just get started, then you can tweak and improve as you go.

Stay tuned for more of the Kanban 101 blog series and happy kanbanizing! 🙂

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