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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 more excellent performance. The act of restricting WIP helps you optimize work capacity by allowing you to pull new work only if capacity is available.

Before we dig deeper, let's see what WIP is.

Definition of WIP

WIP warning

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. 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 amount of work items in the different stages (kanban board columns) of the workflow. Implementing WIP limits allows you to complete single work items faster by helping your team focus only on current tasks.

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 your customer as fast as possible. This makes WIP limits a valuable asset in the Kanban method.

Benefits of Using WIP limits with Kanban

Actually, limiting work in progress is one of the main practices that frame the Kanban method and makes it so efficient. Kanban WIP limits ensure that your team will keep an optimal work pace without exceeding its work capacity.

simple kanban board

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 otherwise would flood your processes.

Additionally, applying WIP limits on your Kanban Board will help you to reveal work process blockers and to 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 bottleneckImposing WIP Limit onboard exposed a process bottleneck.

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 assign more people to the heavier work stage.

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Setting Up Kanban WIP Limits

In Kanban, WIP limits have to be adjusted if needed. There isn't a predetermined formula that will tell you how to set up optimal work in progress limits. 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 have in mind that your workflow will be changing dynamically because it is not an isolated system.

Therefore, you need to monitor the workflow of your team regularly and to control WIP limits 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.

There is one general rule to be sure that the Kanban system will work for your team. WIP limits should not be exceeded at any cost unless there is an urgent task that needs to be considered the highest priority. However, prioritizing tasks in this way should be an exclusion.

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 WIP limits if needed. After all, every workflow is dynamically changing, and it needs continuous improvement.

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 and your members have to wait, they are static.

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.

Bottom Line

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. 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 been 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.

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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