Setting up WIP Limits in Kanban – Why do you need it?

• Agile

Do you find your projects stalled by mountains of nearly-finished tasks? Bottlenecked for no apparent reason? Is your team inexplicably losing time even though everyone is working hard? If so, you should definitely start implementing WIP limits. They are a game-changer when it comes to productivity.

What is a WIP limit?

WIP stands for work in progress, and a WIP limit is a cap on the number of tasks your team is actively working on. It is a fixed constraint on a kanban board that enables teams to finish the tasks already in the system before introducing more work.

wip limits in kanban

In digital collaboration tools, the WIP limit is a feature that allows you to set a maximum number of tasks allowed in each category or phase of project completion.

Why do you need WIP limits?

The goal of Kanban is to provide maximum value while eliminating waste. When teams juggle between multiple tasks, they waste a lot of time, become inefficient, and don’t get a lot of work done. According to Dr. Gloria Mark, it takes approximately 25 minutes to get back to a task after being distracted. The WIP limits prevent exactly this.

Here are some of the reasons why you need to limit the number of tasks your team is working on at any point in time:

1. Nothing is getting finished

Maybe your team is great at starting tasks but not so great at finishing them. You end up with many things partially done, very few completed, and an increasingly confusing backlog of items that need to be addressed.

WIP limits prevent that backlog by keeping new tasks out of the workflow until previous tasks have been finalized.

2. You’re losing time and don’t know why

This may come as a surprise to some people, but multitasking is not a thing. When we think we’re multitasking, we’re actually switching rapidly among tasks, and those switches cost us in time, concentration, and accuracy. Similarly, when we intentionally switch from one task to another before the task is completed (maybe from frustration or because we get a new idea), we lose the momentum we had on the first task and sacrifice the time it takes for our brains to get settled into the second task.

In task management, work-in-progress limits keep the number of active tasks small so that everyone concentrates on the items at hand rather than getting distracted by less urgent ones.

3. You have bottlenecks

Most teams deal with bottlenecks at one point or another. Things just tend to pile up. WIP limits not only keep the piles smaller, but they help you identify the exact location of the bottleneck and take measures to correct the issue before your bottleneck turns into a complete blockage.

4. Work is being duplicated

There are few things more frustrating than getting well into a task only to discover someone else has been doing the exact same work just a few feet away from you. WIP limits, alongside an easy-to-navigate collaboration tool, prevent duplicate work by keeping every active task visible to all team members.

5. You want to be more efficient

Maybe your team doesn’t have time management or duplication issues– that’s great! Still, most of us could work on being more efficient. Even if there aren’t serious problems in your workflow, WIP limits can increase your team’s efficiency by giving everyone a unified focus on a limited number of tasks.

How do you determine Kanban WIP limits

There’s both good news and bad news. The bad news is that your first attempt at setting WIP limits might go wrong. The good news is they are easily changeable.

While managing projects, you will need to experiment, track, and reassess to find the number that works for your team.

Begin by answering two simple questions:

  • How many people are on my team?
  • How many tasks do I need them to work on at once?

Depending on the kind of work your team does and the number of people on it, a good starting point is probably somewhere between the number of team members plus 1 and twice the number of team members. For example, a good WIP limit for a team of 5 people is probably somewhere between 6 and 10 tasks.

Remember, productivity is always a work in progress, and you can iterate until you find the best WIP limits for your team. Once you’ve established your initial WIP limits and gotten buy-in from your team, give it at least two weeks before you make changes. It takes people time to learn new patterns.

Observe what happens during those two weeks. Did tasks continue to pile up or did the team seem overwhelmed? Your WIP limit may be too high. Was there too much idle time or did your team members complain of having no work to do? Your WIP limit may be too low.

Make adjustments and reevaluate after another two weeks. Make sure to keep good communication with your team so you can all work together to establish good WIP limits.

Where do you use WIP Limits?

Like any tool, WIP limits don’t stand alone. They need a system to work properly. Two important contexts for WIP limits are scrum and kanban.

Scrum and kanban

Contrary to popular misconceptions, kanban and scrum are not interchangeable, but they’re also not opposed to one another. While there are some differences, the two project management methods can be used together. WIP limits can be implemented in either scrum or kanban or in a workflow that utilizes both methods.

Originating from rugby play, the Scrum methodology involves dividing projects into short “sprints” in which team members work closely together to complete each element of the project. The Kanban method uses a board and card system to give team members a visual overview of an entire project. Many scrum teams adopt kanban boards as a way to visualize their workflow.

How to set up WIP limits in Kanban

So where do WIP limits come in? A WIP limit may be applied to the project as a whole, to individual phases, or sometimes to individual team members. A good digital project management tool will allow you to set WIP limits in the way that best serves your team. Digital project management tools with no WIP limits can easily become cluttered and overwhelming for its users.

As the leader of a team, you can determine the appropriate number of tasks in progress and use your digital project management software to set those limits. You may decide your team can collectively handle 8 tasks at a time and implement a simple WIP limit for the project as a whole.

In some instances, it’s helpful to establish more targeted WIP limits; you may see that certain phases should only have 2 active tasks while others have the capacity for 3.

In rare cases, one team member may regularly be overwhelmed by tasks, so it could be beneficial to give her a personal WIP limit preventing teammates from sending more work that the individual can handle at any given time.

If team members attempt to add a task that would cross the WIP limit, a popup will alert them and prevent the new task from being added. This prompts them to address active tasks and to assist coworkers as needed, keeping everything moving smoothly and making everyone more productive using a Kanban board software.

Get Kissflow Project to manage WIP limits better

If you need a digital project management tool that makes implementing WIP limits simple and intuitive, sign up today for a free trial of Kissflow Project. It helps your team work together more effectively to increase productivity, which makes for a happy team and happy customers.