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

Kanban boards are a powerful project management tool that can help you to visualize your workflow and optimize performance. However, when teams begin using Kanban they typically experience an uncertainty about how to use certain tools most effectively. Kanban WIP limits are one example of this. This blog will explain what WIP limits are, when to use them, how to use them, and some practical examples. 

What are Kanban WIP limits?

The ultimate goal of using Kanban boards is to help make projects as efficient as possible by cutting out wasted time and resources. Kanban WIP limits are a key tool for this because they set the maximum amount of work that can exist in a workflow.

WIP stands for “Work In Progress” and limits the number of work items in progress. This makes it easier to identify bottlenecks in a team’s delivery pipeline. 

WIP limits are represented as numbers on Kanban board statuses (columns) as in this example below:

kanban wip limits

This number shows how many items are being worked on at any one time, typically at either the individual or team level. This encourages a focus on as few tasks as possible, helping to encourage the completion of a task before moving on to the next. 

The benefits of WIP limits

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 complete them more quickly – and typically to a higher standard – by cutting down on distractions, delays, or handoffs.

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 cuts down on excessive meeting time, leading to fewer delays and higher productivity

It can also help to reduce errors and the need for reworking, which is the common 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. 

Kanban WIP limits also 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 

The best way to set WIP limits is by tracking the team work through a couple of sprints and taking the average number of work items in each status. A good rule of thumb to begin with is to set the WIP limit for the team according to the number of team members, plus one. Going by this rule, a team of 5 would have no more than six tasks in progress at once, a team of 10 no more than eleven tasks, and so on. 

You will want to ensure that each member of your team has enough work to be fully utilized but that no one is multi-tasking. Some teams prefer to optimize task completion, and so set a WIP that’s lower than the number of team members. This way, as team members finish tasks, they can support those tasks that remain unfinished until they are all done. Then the team moves on. 

Therefore, monitoring your team is 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. Monitor progress, get feedback from team members and adjust accordingly.

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

How to set the right WIP limits for your team

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 itself, 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? (You 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.

You can choose to set WIP limits for statuses, like this:

kanban wip limits

Setting Kanban WIP limits in Teamhood

There are multiple Kanban board providers in the marketplace, but Teamhood offers additional functionality that allows you not only to set WIP limits for swimlanes as well as columns.

kanban wip limits

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 swimlane. 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 WIP limits work and how to use them, you should be well placed to start using them on your Kanban boards. 

Get started using WIP limits in Teamhood:

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