WIP Limits

A kanban team with work in progress

In any project, it’s good to know your overall workload and the current work in progress (WIP). If you’re practicing the Kanban approach to Agile project management, limiting your WIP is one of the most important aspects.

We’ll walk you through WIP limits, why they’re essential to your project’s success, explain how to use WIP limits in a Kanban approach, and share some best practices.

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What are WIP limits?

WIP limits refer to the constraints you (or the owner of the backlog) set upon the work in progress. These limits will be different from project to project but are important to put into place before each sprint.

WIP limits could include the roles involved in a particular sprint, the amount of story points the team can take, or the number of tasks or story points that individual team members can be assigned. These limits can change from sprint to sprint and adapt as the project progresses, like all approaches in Agile project management.

Why are WIP limits important?

Setting WIP limits is key in ensuring your project is successfully completed on time and on budget. It’s important to ensure all of the work assigned in the current sprint can be completed on time from a capacity standpoint.

For instance, if you have three developers on your team and 60 development tasks that will take roughly four hours each, you’ll have 240 hours’ worth of development work needed to complete that current sprint. If you have a two-week sprint, and each developer has 20 hours each to spend on your project, it won’t be possible to complete these tasks on time. You’ll need to set limits on how many development hours can be spent each sprint or find new resources.

Knowing your WIP limits ahead of time can prevent costly, time-wasting mistakes that can be hard to correct later on in the project timeline.

Lastly, whatever your WIP limits are, be sure the entire team understands them to avoid any confusion before the sprint starts.

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Using WIP limits in Kanban

Since the Kanban approach to Agile is largely visual, it often makes sense to set limits before arranging your Kanban board. This allows you to visually double-check the WIP limits you put into place by making sure your story points for the current sprint add up correctly and no one’s workflow will impede another group from accomplishing their tasks.

It is possible to set your limits after building your Kanban board if you need a more visual representation to work from before finalizing your sprint. Using a cumulative flow diagram along with your Kanban board can help identify common bottlenecks in your workflow, optimize WIP limits, and improve cycle time.

To do this, you’ll move the tasks you believe should fall into the next sprint into your Kanban board and start setting limits based on the visual flow. Use a Kanban-style task board, like Workfront’s intuitive work management solution, to better view your WIP limits. You’ll want to run through these limits with your team at your sprint planning meeting.

WIP limits best practices

There’s no one way to set WIP limits, but there are some best practices you can keep in mind. Here are a few expert tips to help you get started.

Be careful when changing WIP limits

If tasks are being accomplished faster than planned, it can feel tempting to change your WIP limits to move to the next steps. However, doing so after a cycle has started could cause challenges and confusion. Be sure to consult with the entire team to make sure pulling tasks forward makes sense before making this decision on your own.

Don’t change WIP limit definitions

You might find partway through that the WIP limit you set doesn’t seem to work for certain tasks. For instance, maybe there are a handful of final development tasks that are complete but will be pending client review for weeks, making it impossible to mark them as “Done” during the current sprint.

Instead of changing the meaning of the status “Done” to mean “Pending Approval,” use the retrospective meeting to discuss any tasks that are exceptions and couldn’t be fully completed as planned. This could save you from falsely marking tasks as completed that may need changes later on in the project.

Keep realistic limits

While completing a project quickly can be rewarding, it’s important to ensure the WIP limits you set are achievable and don’t lead to team burnout. Set reasonable limits based on capacity and project priorities.

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Set WIP limits early for successful projects

WIP limits help your project run smoothly by ensuring your capacity and resources are not stretched too thin. Be sure to set your WIP limits ahead of each sprint and use retrospective meetings to discuss any limits that need to be reset.