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 improve their delivery speed 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 efficiently manage blocked work in Kanban to drive evolutionary change and deliver work in a quicker,… https://t.co/NINEr9yPZxFollow
Rely on data, not instincts. Nave Power-Up for Trello builds immersive analytical charts over your Trello boards. T… https://t.co/AfHkWytZeBFollow
High flow efficiency is vital to sustaining a scalable, productive business. Learn how you can calculate, analyze a… https://t.co/TjXc2yOgqvFollow
Follow this guide to quickly and easily set up Nave in Jira. We've broken down the process in three simple steps so… https://t.co/6RsMGcCUFFFollow
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/lVOh9ARV7jFollow
Get straight to the essence of your Azure board data and analyze your processes with our immersive data-visualizati… https://t.co/wzeM5fv1UTFollow
Optimizing workflow efficiency is often at the forefront of project managers’ minds, but eliminating individual's i… https://t.co/QqQ6lcK9dkFollow
Yesterday's webinar was a great success. It was such a pleasure to have so many people passionate about making reli… https://t.co/4hszHx1h5hFollow
Rely on data to build better software. Your Jira project, visualised across enhanced Kanban analytics. Try out our… https://t.co/oc8pksGwkTFollow
Improve your business' performance while working remotely with Kanban. Presented by SquirrelNorth along with guests… https://t.co/FvuqFHClcHFollow
Learn how to make accurate, data-driven estimation to stay on track, meet deadlines and keep a high level of custom… https://t.co/MHXZoGOVY1Follow
With the Nave Kanban Analytics Power-Up for Trello, you'll see beyond your Kanban boards. Analyze your workflow, id… https://t.co/s0XiH8VYCjFollow
If you haven't registered for our free webinar "How to Set and Manage Realistic Goals Using Your Past Performance D… https://t.co/Z4L1V3vqhVFollow
Are you always short on time and on budget, even though your team is motivated and skilled? Learn how our team at N… https://t.co/e0f66KmA3lFollow
The Throughput Breakdown could help you emphasize the high volume of expedite requests you’re handling. Learn more… https://t.co/qkPWoS3CrJFollow
Find out what the Service Request Manager and Service Delivery Manager roles entail and how they drive flow efficie… https://t.co/bntY4NtsnRFollow
The dotted horizontal lines on the Cycle Time Scatterplot are called percentiles. We use percentiles to define the… https://t.co/JBcIb7aI7PFollow
This book is for every consultant, coach, corporate change agent, and manager who leads enterprise business agility… https://t.co/zkf0MI5IvQFollow