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What Is a WIP Limit in Kanban, and Why Is It Important?

Learn why employing Kanban WIP limits is important and discover the benefits they will bring to your workflow.

In short, limiting work-in-progress with Kanban encourages higher quality and improved delivery performance. The act of restricting WIP helps you optimize work capacity by allowing you to pull new work only if capacity is available.

Let’s dig deeper and define what WIP limit is, what benefits it brings and how to limit the work in progress in your process.

Table of Contents

Definition of WIP

The acronym WIP stands for Work In Progress. WIP is the number of task items that a team is currently working on. It frames the capacity of your team's workflow at any moment.

WIP limits Kanban PracticeLimiting Work in Progress on a Kanban Board

Limiting work in progress is one of the core properties of Kanban. It allows you to manage your process in a way that creates a smooth workflow and prevents overloads.

Why Do Agile Teams Use WIP Limits? (and You Should Too)

Work in progress (WIP) limits restrict the maximum number of work items in the workflow's different stages (kanban board columns). They can be defined per person, per work stages/type, or for the entire work system. Implementing WIP limits allows you to complete single work items faster by ensuring your team focuses on finishing current tasks before starting new ones. 

Most importantly, by applying WIP limits, your team has the opportunity of locating bottlenecks in their working processes before they become blockers.

WIP limits are considered an important prerequisite for delivering value to customers as fast as possible. This makes them a valuable asset in the Kanban method.

How to Set Up Kanban WIP Limits?

According to the first State of Kanban report, limiting work in progress is one of the most utilized Kanban practices.

WIP limits Kanban PracticeImage Credit: State of Kanban

But how exactly do you set them up? In Kanban, the work in progress limits have to be adjusted if needed. There isn't a predetermined formula that will tell you how to calculate WIP limits to set up an optimal number. Here are 3 things to help you get started.

A good start would be to review how you deliver your services on a team level and consider how work items are aging on your board.

Before applying WIP limits to your Kanban board, be it physical or software-based, you should remember that your workflow will be changing dynamically because it is not an isolated system.

Therefore, you need to monitor your team's workflow regularly and control how you limit WIP depending on the ever-changing factors such as new business requirements, customer demands, team size and capacity, unexpected technical issues, etc.

For these purposes, most modern online Kanban platforms are equipped with powerful Kanban metrics tools, where you can check and analyze essential information regarding your team's workflow.

To ensure that the Kanban system will work for your team, try to respect the limits you configured. It's a good practice not to exceed WIP limits unless you have a good reason for that (ex. an urgent task that comes with a higher priority). It’s also wise to provide an indication (ex. the top of a Kanban board’s column turns red) and a reason whenever that happens so your team can immediately see what’s currently happening with the workflow.

wip limits exceededVisualization of exceeded WIP limit on a Kanban board

Otherwise, you will miss the point of creating a smooth workflow and increasing your team's efficiency. This is why it is important to make sure that your team understands Kanban's core rules and practices.

Naturally, you will set WIP limits according to your team's current work capacity. However, once you set them, you need to observe the work process and adjust the limits if needed. After all, every workflow is dynamically changing, and it needs continuous improvement.

Benefits of using WIP Limits

Let's go over why limiting work in progress is one of the main practices in the Kanban method that make it so efficient for proper work delivery.

Keep Optimal Work Pace

Kanban WIP limits help your team keep an optimal work pace without exceeding its work capacity.

In the context of Kanban boards, the Kanban WIP limit is the gatekeeper that makes sure you start only as much work as you finish throughout the organization. This prevents the accumulation of unfinished work, which can otherwise flood your processes.

WIP limits on a Kanban boardConfigured WIP limits on a Kanban board

Reveal Process Blockers

Additionally, applying WIP limits on your Kanban Board will help you reveal work process blockers and prevent team members from regular context switching between tasks. These steps will have a positive impact on efficiency and will improve your team's productivity.

process with a bottleneckExposing process bottlenecks through a WIP limit on a Kanban column

Prevent Multitasking

In a team of two, installing a limit on work in progress of one task per person would prevent context-switching and immediately reveal the difference in throughput rates.

In such a case, exceeded limits would signal the need to review the process and potentially look for ways to increase capacity in the heavier work stage.

Deliver Value Faster

Introducing the practice of limiting work in your system and experimenting with it based on observations is an indicator that you’re constantly improving. Adding WIP limits will help you complete the number of active work in progress faster, which is considered waste in Lean. That's because the more active work you have in your system, the slower real customer value is delivered. Furthermore, limiting WIP improves your delivery rate (throughput), so you can continuously meet or exceed customer expectations.

"Kanban works, with 76% reporting Kanban to be more or much more effective than other methods."

State of Kanban Report 2021

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The WIP Limits Paradox

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

What these two scenarios have in common is that your team is unproductive and inefficient. To escape from this paradox, you have to carefully monitor your KPIs when you 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 to ensure smoother flow.

The Practice of Limiting WIP in a Nutshell

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 strict way on how to set up your limits. It is a journey in which you have to travel to achieve excellence. Setting the right WIP limits is part of the continuous improvement process. 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. 

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 are just getting started, then you can tweak and improve as you go.

In Summary

Applying WIP limits allows you to create a smooth workflow and use team’s work capacity at optimal levels by:

  • Preventing overloading of your work processes
  • Helping to locate blockers and to alleviate bottlenecks in your workflow
  • Giving you the opportunity to deliver value to end customers as fast as possible
  • Preventing a constant context switching between work items

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