What is a Kanban WIP Limit? Why You Need It?

Learn why employing Kanban WIP limits is of such an importance and discover the benefits they will bring to your workflow.

Introduction

In short limiting work-in-progress with Kanban encourages higher quality and greater performance. The act of limiting 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 smooth workflow and prevents overloads.

Why Should You Limit Work in Progress?

Work in progress (WIP) limits restrict the maximum amount of work items in the different stages (kanban board columns) of the workflow. The implementation of WIP limits allows you to complete single work items faster, by helping your team to 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.

Why Should You Use Kanban WIP limits?

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

simple kanban board

In the context of Kanban boards, 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 bottleneck
Imposing WIP Limit on board 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 of throughput rates.

Exceeded limits, in such a case, would signal the need for reviewing the process and potentially assigning more people to the heavier work stage.

Setting Up Kanban WIP Limits

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 on a regular basis and to control WIP limits depending on the ever-changing factors such as new business requirements, customer demands, team’s size and capacity, unexpected technical issues, etc.

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

There is one general rule, in order 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 as of 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 the core rules and practices of Kanban.

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 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 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 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.

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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