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Kanban WIP Limits – Why they’re useful & How to use them

It’s time to break free from the traditional approach and embrace a new way of managing your projects.

Kanban boards are a powerful tool in project management that can help you visualize your workflow and optimize performance. However, when teams begin using Kanban, most typically experience uncertainty about how to use the specific tools most effectively.

Kanban WIP limits are one example of this. WIP or work-in-process limits act as fixed constraints that guide your team toward eliminating waste and maximizing customer value.

Let’s explore how Kanban WIP limits can transform your approach to work and propel your team toward success. 

What are Kanban WIP limits?

The ultimate goal of using Kanban is to help make projects as efficient as possible by cutting out wasted time and resources.

Kanban WIP limits are a vital tool for this because they define the maximum amount of items that can be in progress at any time. This means that if your team has a WIP limit of 5, no more than 5 items can be worked on at any time. If you want to add on more work, some of the started items need to be finished.

But let’s take this one step at a time and answer the most common questions:

1. What does WIP stand for?

The abbreviation WIP stands for Work In Progress. Thus referring to all items on the Kanban board that have been started but not yet finished.

2. What’s the WIP limit?

WIP is a limit that controls how many items can be added to the in-progress columns or rows on your Kanban board. It aims to regulate the process in a way that prevents multitasking.

3. What is the WIP limit formula?

There is no specific formula or rules to define the WIP. But most practitioners will use this Kanban WIP limit calculation – number of team members + 1.

For example, if you have a team of 5 people, you would set a WIP limit to be 6. This way, each team member can only work on 1 task at a time and must finish before taking on new work. However, there is still some space when there is a bottleneck.

4. Where to find WIP limits?

Most Kanban board tools visualize WIP limits as numbers next to the status (column) name. In the example below, you can see how this is done in Teamhood – Planned status has a WIP limit of 5, and In Progress status shows a limit of 2.

kanban wip limits
WIP limits in Teamhood

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The benefits of WIP limits

You may wonder how limiting the items on my Kanban board helps improve the business goals. Here are 4 benefits you will experience with WIP limits.

1. Increased focus

The more work teams and individuals try to juggle at once, the harder it is for them to complete items, leading to inefficiencies and bottlenecks. Tasks take longer to complete, increasing the running costs and threatening project delays.

Increasing the focus on fewer tasks helps teams to achieve them more quickly – and typically to a higher standard – by cutting down on distractions, delays, or handoffs.

Battle the biggest thieves of time to become more productive.

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2. Reduced need for frequent meetings

Another potential drawback of working on too many tasks is the need for excessive meetings or video calls to keep track of progress. This leads to time being taken up by meetings instead of project work, on top of the difficulty of synchronizing calendars, which again takes up more time. All of this can also lead to delays and increased costs.

Keeping to strict WIP limits reduces excessive meeting time, leading to fewer delays and higher productivity

Tips for handling virtual meeting fatigue.

3. Reduced costs

WIP limits can also help to reduce errors and the need for reworking, which is the typical result of lack of focus, inaccurate or incomplete data, and poor communication. Visualizing work and assigning sensible WIP limits helps to improve communication and reduce errors. 

Learn more about cost management.

4. Reduced Handoff delays

Kanban WIP limits reduce handoff delays because having fewer work items in process at one time; there will be fewer handoffs, making them easier to track and manage effectively. 

In summary, WIP limits offer greater discipline and focus, leading to fewer delays, better communication, and less wasted time and resources. 

How to use WIP limits 

As mentioned above, there is no WIP limit formula. But there are a few ways to ensure the limits work for your team. 

Option 1

The most common approach is to set the WIP limit according to the number of team members plus one. You will want to ensure that each team member has enough work to be fully utilized but that no one is multitasking. 

Example: Going by this rule, a team of 5 would have no more than six tasks in progress at once, a group of 10 with no more than eleven tasks, and so on. 

Option 2

Some teams prefer to optimize for task completion. Thus they set a WIP limit that’s lower than the number of team members. This way, as team members finish tasks, they can support those remaining unfinished until they are all done. Then the team moves on. In

Example: In such cases, a team of 5 may have a WIP limit of 3 or a team of 10 may set their limit to 6. Thus urging the team members to collaborate on more tasks.

Option 3

There might be cases where the WIP limit must be larger than the standard approach. A long process or unpredictable factors may cause this. In such cases, it may be wise to separate the ‘In progress’ status into more detailed steps and set individual limits for each.

Example: The team is working with clients and submitting their work for client approval. While waiting, they could start working on a new task, which would breach the WIP limit. In such cases, the team would benefit from different statuses such as ‘Working’ and ‘Waiting for approval.’ Each status would carry a different WIP limit.

Therefore, monitoring your team and understanding the process is very important. You may find that tighter restrictions work better for you and optimize progress, or you might find that having more tasks is better to optimize utilization. The best approach is to monitor progress, get feedback from team members, and adjust accordingly.

How to find the right WIP limits for your team

WIP limits aim to help uncover inefficiencies and bottlenecks, ultimately leading to improved processes. This means teams should avoid the temptation to raise WIP limits so they are never reached. If you have persistent process problems, WIP limits will help you uncover them so you can solve them. 

It’s not unusual for your first attempts at setting Kanban WIP limits to go wrong. This is natural. It’s best to think of setting WIP limits as a work in progress, an iterative process that will take some trial and error to get right. 

To get started, ask the following questions:

  • How many tasks does your team need to keep them busy and reduce downtime
  • What is the optimum number of tasks the team needs to increase productivity?

Then set initial limits and allow your team to work for a set period of something like two to four weeks while you track results. At the end of the trial, ask yourself:

  • Did tasks pile up? (Your WIP limits are too high)
  • Did the team get overwhelmed? (Your WIP limits are too high)
  • Did some individuals run out of work to do? (Your WIP limits are too low)

Get the feedback, adjust the WIP limits accordingly, communicate them to your team, and then monitor results again. Using a constant feedback loop over time will help you to optimize your WIP limits.

Setting and changing Kanban WIP limits is usually very easy. Thus, you should not be afraid to experiment and test out the best approach. This is how you can set/update WIP limits in Teamhood.

kanban wip limits

Kanban WIP limits in Teamhood

Multiple Kanban board providers exist in the marketplace, but Teamhood offers additional functionality that allows you to set Kanban WIP limits for swimlanes and statuses.

If you categorize Kanban items, this additional limitation can prove to be quite helpful for prioritization or planning. In the example below, you can see the limits of 10 for engineering and administrative tasks and a limit of 20 for design tasks.

kanban wip limits
Kanban WIP limits in Temahood

On a Kanban board, a swimlane – or row – is an additional layer typically used for larger projects where there is a need to divide tasks. Swimlanes can be used for various purposes – prioritizing tasks or grouping them according to different projects, goals, or teams.

If urgent work arises, you can place it in a specific swim lane. Even if the Kanban WIP limit is reached, the team can take the task on and complete it before the other committed tasks.

As a result, Teamhood offers the functionality of setting WIP limits by swimlane, which looks like this:

kanban wip limits

Ready to start using WIP limits on your Kanban boards?

Now you understand more about how Kanban WIP limits work and how to use them, you should be well-placed to start using them on your Kanban boards

Alternatively, you can keep learning about Kanban project management to understand the practice better. You will find topics covering various terms and tips on getting started.

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