Do Less to Do More: Kanban WIP Limits
Have you felt like your team is always busy, but nothing is ever quite finished? With a constant stream of new requests from clients and management, it’s easy to jump from task to task without delivering results.
Kanban WIP limits stop too many tasks from getting stuck in the “Doing” stage – and get more Done. Apply them to your Kanban board to improve team focus, reduce cycle times, and increase customer satisfaction.
What are Kanban WIP limits?
Work In Progress (WIP) limits are an essential component of the Kanban method. The name is self-explanatory – they are simply a limit on the number of tasks that can be “In Progress” at any one time. When processes have multiple possible workflow states – To Do, Ongoing, etc – a WIP limit will be applied to each.
On a Kanban board, WIP limits are applied to every work in progress state. Once the Kanban WIP limit has been reached, no new work items should enter that state until one of the outstanding items is completed.
Why do you need WIP limits?
Kanban WIP limits keep tasks from getting stuck before completion. It’s an easy pitfall for a busy team. For example – a feature just needs one more tweak to be released, but other high priority tasks caused it to fall by the wayside, or an article needs to be reviewed before publishing, but the editor was on holiday and no one followed it up.
When outstanding tasks must be cleared first, the whole team is able to focus on resolving blockers. The visual nature of the Kanban board means blockers and bottlenecks can be spotted immediately.
Little’s Law and WIP Limits
Cycle Time = WIP/Throughput
For a team with consistent throughput, reducing the amount of work in progress means cycle times are reduced and work is delivered faster. Faster work delivery means higher customer satisfaction!
Why multitasking makes things worse
Little’s Law can seem obvious: of course, you can do half the work in half the time! However, it doesn’t take into consideration how much time is wasted by multitasking. Team members don’t switch between tasks immediately – moving from one task to another repeatedly causes the team to lose focus and waste time.
Context switching is estimated to cause at least a 10% penalty per switch. Multiple switches quickly add up to huge losses in productivity. Multitasking makes your team members feel busier while delivering less. Giving a task undivided attention is a much more effective approach to completing it efficiently.
Choosing WIP limits
When confronted with longer-than-ideal cycle times, very often project managers feel that they are falling behind and begin working on more tasks. Their reasoning appears to make sense – surely if tasks are taking too long, they should be started earlier to give the team time to finish them regardless of the current work in progress. The true result is that team members are unable to fully concentrate on and complete every single task in a timely member because the team efforts are spread too thin.
So how do you select the optimum WIP limit for your Kanban team? The best WIP limits ensure that no team member has to multitask and that everyone has something to do. The exact limit will depend on the number of people in your team if your team is cross-functional and the size of your project tasks. A good starting point is 1-2 items less than the number of people in your team.
Tips for working with Kanban WIP Limits
If your team hasn’t limited WIP before, they may be resistant to the change – it can feel counterproductive! It’s important to resist the urge to take on more tasks at once. Here are some tips to help smooth the transition:
- Encourage idle team members to pair up with others or swarm outstanding tasks. This helps build cooperation and new skills.
- Consider Swimlanes to organize your Kanban board. Teams often have members who cannot collaborate on the same tasks – customer service and development, for example. In this case, Kanban swimlanes should be used to set individual WIP limits for these roles.
- Use Classes of Service to set WIP limit policies for priority tasks. One common example is an “Expedited” Class with a WIP limit of 1 to handle emergencies.
Stop your team from being overwhelmed with unfinished tasks and focus on getting things done. Implement Kanban WIP limits to reduce cycle times, find and resolve blockers, and improve customer satisfaction.
Has reducing your WIP limit impacted your team productivity? How did your team find the change in the working method? Did WIP limits help you deliver results to clients faster? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.
Meet the Author
Sonya Siderova is a passionate product manager and a driving force behind Nave, a Kanban analytics suite that helps teams become more efficient through data-driven decision making. When she's not catering to her two little ones, you might find Sonya absorbed in a good heavyweight boxing match or behind a screen crafting a new blog post.
Learn how to integrate the Principles of Influence with the Fit-For-Purpose framework and the Kanban Method through… https://t.co/97I5jdsIG1Follow
Two Kanban roles, Service Request Manager and Service Delivery Manager have emerged to equip teams with important d… https://t.co/QrpmJ0i45SFollow
Are you struggling to perform accurate delivery predictions? Download our complete guide to forecasting!… https://t.co/KSThETGbKMFollow
Product teams who use Nave to analyze their workflow can make empirical predictions based on their performance data… https://t.co/FPYPwRmuhLFollow
Are you ready to recap the benefits Kanban analytics can bring to your workflows? Choose your platform, and get sta… https://t.co/Id41c55WmZFollow
With the Nave Kanban Analytics Power-Up for Trello, you'll see beyond your Kanban boards. Analyze your workflow, id… https://t.co/7OqdMb1R5RFollow
Learn more about the Kanban System Accelerator and how is it used within Duke Energy’s Agile Capability Center.… https://t.co/mjtRIiKo8gFollow
Businesses that are truly fit for purpose are positioned for long-term survival and success. Here's an in-depth rev… https://t.co/0tMEyPT8R0Follow
Try our advanced Kanban analytics suite for free on your favorite tool and start leveraging the power of data-drive… https://t.co/nFM71d32nLFollow
Product teams often argue which is better, but the focus should be on how to merge Kanban and Scrum together to del… https://t.co/rd9rS1VZPlFollow
Learn more about the experience of changing an organization with 130 years of history and more than 2,000 employees… https://t.co/T6YfSoJBL2Follow
Did you ever wonder what’s cooking behind the doors of Nave laboratory? Now you can take a peek inside our product… https://t.co/cAHqkCD8enFollow
The key to battle process bottlenecks is to fully recognize but not fight the symptoms. Instead, managers need to a… https://t.co/SLO3QON7B1Follow
Are you ready to recap the benefits Kanban analytics can bring to your team? Start your free 14-day trial today!… https://t.co/hfT9ty5esnFollow
Having a self-funded SaaS company keeps your mind sharp and reminds you how important your initiative is from both… https://t.co/BXKt2ZIFVpFollow
Jira teams can now use Nave to optimize their software development processes. Follow our three-step guide to get st… https://t.co/DtxfR4IykCFollow
It’s all about trust, respect and appreciation. If your employees are engaged, have a purpose and feel motivated, t… https://t.co/sBYwDottlRFollow