Kanban WIP LimitsForget Unfinished Tasks & Transform Your Workflow

Is your team often left with a long list of unfinished tasks at the end of the day? Do you suspect the team's performance isn't reaching its full potential? Perhaps multitasking is the norm, or your workflow regularly comes to a standstill. There's a solution – introducing Work In Progress (WIP) limits.

Through limiting the number of tasks in progress, you can help your team maintain a steady work pace, complete existing tasks before starting new ones, and ensure that no one is overwhelmed with an increasing to-do list. Read on to discover how WIP limits can help establish and sustain an efficient workflow.

The origins of WIP limits

WIP limits are closely associated with the Kanban method, which originated decades ago at Toyota to address inefficiencies in stock management. Over time, it evolved into a simple yet powerful project management approach suitable for knowledge-based work, such as software development and business operations. The Kanban method centers on visualizing the workflow and implementing WIP limits, therby providing clarity and insight into the entire process while enhancing productivity by monitoring the number of active work items.

A simple Kanban Tool board with a WIP limit

When should you consider WIP limits?

Implementing WIP limits is beneficial if you aim to:

  • Increase task completion rates: Shift your focus from starting new tasks to prioritizing and promptly completing ongoing ones.
  • Identify bottlenecks: Discover where and why work piles up in your process to apply WIP limits accordingly and better allocate resources.
  • Assess actual capacity: Limiting open tasks will help you gauge your team's capacity and accurately estimate completion times.
  • Balance team engagement: Create a more structured workflow to improve resource distriburtion during busy periods and reduce idle time on slower days.
  • Boost efficiency and reduce costs: Focus on completing ongoing work will result in a more efficient flow, ultimately reducing production costs. Additionally, WIP limits will reduce the need for excessive meetings.
A couple of teammates looking at a progress chart in an office

Selecting the WIP limit values

Choosing the appropriate WIP limits depends on your team's size and collaborative nature. Experiment and adapt over time to strike the right balance between productivity and pressure.

For example: if you have a team of eight software developers, with half working in pairs and half independently, a natural limit value would be six - one task per person/pair. But you might choose a WIP limit value of twelve, to allow for process breaks, consultation, and priority shifting. It's essential to fine-tune your limits to maintain an optimal workflow without causing undue strain.

Optimizing your workflow

Remember, your process can only move as quickly as its slowest stage. If bottlenecks occur in steps other than the "working" stage, limit those stages too, or consider redistributing resources to resolve the blockers promptly. Additionally, consider restricting the weekly backlog, introducing request priorities, or assessing task difficulty to ensure your team focuses on the most critical tasks first.

Signs of effective WIP limits

After implementing WIP limits, monitor your workflow. If tasks continue to queue at all stages, your limits may be too high. Team members feel torn between multiple tasks? The limits may be too generous. Conversely, if you notice idle workers waiting for new assignments, your limits might be too low. Avoid the common traps of continually raising the limits to show that the team is not exceeding them, or of using long-term, broad tasks as WIP limit fillers when no new tasks are present.

Kanban boards - Kanbantool

Identify bottlenecks with Kanban boards

Visual Kanban boards play an instrumental role in identifying process bottlenecks. When work items accumulate at a specific stage, it becomes evident to everyone viewing the board.

A well-defined WIP limit empowers your team to:

  • Make informed decisions
  • Improve task completion speed and quality
  • Reduce multitasking and context switching
  • Achieve a predictable workflow
  • Determine the actual number of tasks possible at any given time
  • Minimize waste caused by rework and incorrect assumptions
  • Enable a pull model where work awaits available team members

While WIP limits won't solve all your team's problems, not implementing them is likely to lead to process wastes. Moreover, the lack of WIP limits makes pain points and blockers identification less straightforward, slowing down process improvements.

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