Once teams are visualizing their work with Kanban, the next step is to learn how to optimize their workflows for value delivery. The most effective way to optimize flow in Kanban is to learn how to limit WIP, or work-in-process. WIP limits unlock the full potential of Kanban, enabling teams to deliver higher quality work faster than ever before, in a healthier, more sustainable environment.

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The benefits of WIP limits include helping teams manage capacity and identify opportunities for continuous improvement.
The benefits of WIP limits include helping teams manage capacity and identify opportunities for continuous improvement.

Read on to learn how WIP limits can help teams:

  • Manage capacity
  • Practice systems thinking
  • Identify opportunities for continuous improvement
  • Introduce slack into the system

What are WIP Limits?

WIP limits are fixed constraints that individuals, teams, or organizations impose upon themselves in order to limit the total number of work items in play at any given time. They are most commonly used by teams to limit how many cards can be in an active lane at once, although WIP limits can also be placed on specific individuals or specific lanes on a board.

WIP limits are communicated as a number. For example, “This board has a WIP limit of 7,” means that up to 7 cards can be in process without exceeding the limit.

Why Do We Need WIP Limits?

In Lean thinking, waste is defined as anything that does not add value to the customer. We operate in environments that are inherently wasteful, where focus and clarity are luxuries. Waste comes in many forms, including:

  • Context switching
  • Excess meetings
  • Communication breakdowns
  • Rework
  • Duplicate effort
  • Handoff delays
  • Missed deadlines
Without limiting WIP, it’s incredibly difficult to identify wasteful and inefficient processes.

The impact on our system can be disastrous, in terms of speed of delivery, work quality, cost, and morale.

Benefits of WIP Limits

Implementing WIP limits can be challenging, but the benefits of approaching our work with focus, clarity, and discipline far outweigh the pains of change. Here are four of the many benefits of using WIP limits to optimize our workflows.

1. WIP limits enable us to manage capacity

Every team has a finite amount of time, energy, and brain power every day with which it tries to maximize customer value. Most teams have very little understanding of how to effectively manage their capacity. A typical approach is to try to maximize the capacity of each individual on the team, so every team member can reach 100% utilization.

Work is not valuable until it reaches the hands of the customer. In most teams, very little work is truly “solo” work; most work requires the effort and expertise of several team members.

If each team member is at 100% utilization on the tasks to which they’re assigned, that means they have no capacity for collaborating with their team, responding to questions, or helping each other deliver work across the finish line. So in reality, 100% utilization means that everyone is impossibly busy — but nothing is actually getting done.

WIP limits help us more effectively utilize the collective efforts of our team members, so instead of a system where each person is trying to push their tasks to the next step, we create a system in which the team collaborates to move work from start to finish as quickly as possible.

This means that although less work is being done at one time, and although some team members may be underutilized at different points in the process, more value is actually getting into the hands of the customer.

2. WIP limits encourage us to practice systems thinking

WIP limits force us to work as a team to prioritize, plan, complete, and deploy work. This is a practice known as systems thinking – making decisions that benefit the entire team, so that our efforts contribute to achieving team goals. Systems thinking enables teams to make better use of their collective resources.

WIP limits ensure that teams operate with respect to the system’s overall capacity, in turn ensuring a fluid, consistent flow of value.

Most teams use WIP limits at the team level, while also imposing unofficial WIP limits on individuals as well (after all, a team WIP limit of 7 wouldn’t do much to improve productivity if one person was assigned to 5 of the cards on the board).

Many teams practicing Kanban hold daily / frequent standups to review their boards. This is an opportunity to assess the team’s current workload and discuss as a team how to move cards off the board as efficiently as possible. They might ask questions like:

  • What’s closest to being done? What can we do today to move it off the board?
  • Is anyone working on anything that’s not on the board?
  • Is anything currently blocked from making progress?
  • Is anyone available to help move card X to “Done”?

Instead of asking, “What should I pull next?” WIP limits force us to ask, “What can I help move off the board before I pull something next?”

When they are unable to contribute to any of the cards currently in process, team members pull cards with consideration for the downstream impact of the work: If, for example, a marketing team’s only designer has 3 cards currently in progress, with a team WIP limit of 7, a team member might choose to pull a card that does not require design resources. These kinds of decisions help ensure smooth, consistent flow of value across the team.

3. WIP limits help us identify opportunities for process improvement

When we’re overburdened with too much WIP, we don’t have the bandwidth to observe and analyze our process. We do anything we need to do to get the work done, without paying much attention to how we go about doing it.

Implementing WIP limits allows us to gain clarity around what our processes actually are, and whether or not they are working for us. In addition to implementing WIP limits, many teams find it useful to implement clear process policies and hold each other accountable to following the guidelines decided by the team. These can be things like:

  • What card details need to be filled out before a card can be prioritized?
  • Who assigns team members to cards? Do we self-assign or is it okay to assign someone when we need them?
  • How do we define “done” as a team?
  • What criteria need to be met before work can leave our “Review” lane?
  • What criteria need to be met in order to pull in a card that exceeds our WIP limit?

Following process policies ensures that everyone is using the board in the same way. This creates a baseline from which the team can analyze trends over time.

Teams can work to identify patterns in things like bottlenecks, blockers, handoff delays, etc. They can discuss these patterns in their daily standup and hold periodic retrospectives to discuss and implement improvements to their processes.

4. WIP limits introduce slack into the system

Earlier, we learned that sometimes, introducing WIP limits means that some team members will be underutilized. In Kanban, underutilized time is referred to as slack time, and it’s seen as a sign of a healthy system.

Slack time creates space for improving the way we work. Team members can use slack time to implement continuous improvement efforts, watch educational webinars, or brainstorm ideas to optimize recurring programs. They can organize their Kanban boards, update outdated documents, or do anything else that is important, valuable and that can enable them to be more effective at their jobs.

Slack time is an incredible opportunity for professional development during work hours and can contribute greatly to job satisfaction. Without WIP limits, slack time doesn’t exist. WIP limits enable us to slow down enough, and work intentionally enough, to create space for growth.

Stop Starting, Start Finishing

Learning to limit work in process can be challenging, for many reasons: WIP limits force us to have the discipline to say “no” when we’re accustomed to saying “yes.” They encourage us to abandon the frantic, chaotic way of working that we’ve come to define as “productivity.”

They expose our bad habits and hold us accountable to the work of not just ourselves, but our team. Our calendars might free up, giving us more time to sit at our desks and do valuable work. We might even have slack time.

Over time, you’ll begin to see the method to this madness: You’ll get more done with less resistance and less stress. You’ll rediscover the power of effective collaboration. Your team will operate with a synergy that you may not have ever thought possible. You’ll regain the luxuries of focus, creativity, and clarity, which will allow you to engage with your work in a more fulfilling way.

To get started with WIP limits, we highly recommend going through the exercises in our Kanban Roadmap with your team.