The good, the bad and the truth about the Work in Progress limit

Early morning. Standup. Broken Work in Progress (WiP) limit.

These phrases mean a lot to those of us using Kanban and limiting the number of tickets in progress per column. The moment we exceed the WiP limit, a whole dynamic is set in motion.

In front of the Kanban board, you meet the usual suspects: the fans, the haters, and the hostages. Only few topics can trigger such energetic discussions on early morning standups as broken WiP limits do.

At its worst, WiP limits can be seen as limiting, arbitrary, or completely unnecessary. To not break WiP limits, teams might compromise on transparency and don’t make all the work in progress visible on the board. I have seen WiP limits give life to evergreen discussions on teams, resulting in agile coaches either pushing too hard or ultimately giving up on those limits.

But why? Why limit work in progress? What does it bring us? Here are my four reasons.

Peace of Mind Protector: Do you ever find yourself in the situation that you have so much going on that it feels like information poisoning? It limits you to fully process ideas and have a complete overview. You have a constant nagging in the back of your mind that is hard to pinpoint. For most of us, the need for variety and the urge to make progress on all fronts makes us start way too many things at the same time. That same need leads to a high discomfort level that is often left unnamed. The Zeigarnick effect is exactly this discomfort, created by every ongoing task in our minds that takes energy to mantain and update. The WiP limit helps us stay disciplined and keep focus by decreasing this discomfort. You can try this not only on your boards but also on your personal projects and goals.

Savvy Business Partner: The WiP limit helps you decrease lead and cycle time by giving you focus. Instead of working on five features simultaneously and delivering them all at (almost) the same time, you deliver them one after the other by focusing (check Littles Law). This way, your product is reaching your users earlier. Reaching your user earlier means giving and receiving value earlier.

Gentle Mentor: What happens when you cannot pull any more tickets in progress because you would break the WiP limit? Often one feels blocked and helpless. However, that does not mean there are no options. One can always ask around if anyone needs help, get out of the comfort zone and peak into a new discipline, or use the time to finish those small tasks that were left aside. If none of that applies, there is always slack time, reflecting, and marinating on the way we get things done. In any case, the WiP limit nudges us to look away from “our column”, and rather clean-up and explore.

Conversation Starter: WiP limits can be very graceful conversation starters. The point is not to never break WiP limits, but for when you do break them to pick that up as a conversation starter. Asking why and digging deeper into your flow will often take the conversation away from the board to the real challenge. For example, instead of ignoring the piling up of tickets in QA, you get to talk about how to increase cross-function cooperation and finish tickets faster.

And what to do when this is not convincing enough? Well, you could keep repeating these reasons — but sometimes the harder you push, the more defensive the team gets. Do you give up and stop doing Kanban and remove WiP limits? Do you turn to Scrum? Do you try something completely different? That is up to you. What helped me was to experiment, manage expectations, and talk:

Experiment. Remove WiP limits for a limited time and see what impact it has on your metrics. Use your data to compare before and after. Gather insights in a retrospective to see how it impacted the collaboration in your team.

Manage expectations. No user flow, no process, and no WiP limit will always be right. You can aim for the most fitting one, but there is always going to be that one ticket that does not fit the flow or will break the WiP limit. When this happens, you should welcome it as a good point in time to question things, even if after that you agree not to change them.

Talk. Talk. Talk. Create an open space for sharing. See what the needs are that the WiP limit is not fulfilling. What is the real underlying issue that is bothering your team? Dig deeper in understanding the root of the problem.

So the next morning you are in front of your Kanban board, follow your flow… and make sure people have already had their coffee.

Thanks to Bas Thomas Broek, Melissa Lang, Gastón Salgueiro and Jens Mayer.