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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Don’t Limit Work in Progress

Don’t Limit Work in Progress post image

I’m a long-time fan of visual management. Visualizing work helps to gather low-hanging fruits: it makes the biggest obstacles instantly visible and thus helps to facilitate the improvements. By the way, these early improvements are typically fairly easy to apply and have big impact. That’s why we almost universally propose visualization as a practice to start with.

At the same time a real game-changer in the long run is when we start limiting work in progress (WIP). That’s where we influence the change of behaviors. That’s where we introduce slack time. That’s where we see emergent behaviors. That’s where we enable continuous improvements.

What’s frequently reported though, is that introducing WIP limits is hard for many teams. There’s resistance against the mechanism. It is perceived as a coercive practice by some. Many managers find it really hard to go beyond the paradigm of optimizing utilization. People naturally tend to do what they’ve always been doing: just pull more work.

How do we address that challenge? For quite some time the best idea I’ve got was to try it as an experiment with a team. Ultimately there needs to be team buy-in to make WIP limits work. If there is resistance against a specific practice, e.g. WIP limits, there’s not much point in enforcing it. It won’t work. However, why not give it a try for some time? There doesn’t have to be any commitment to go on after the trial.

The thing is that it usually feels better to have less work in progress. There’s not that much of multitasking and context switching. Cycle times go down so there’s more of sense of accomplishment. The pressure on the team often goes down as well.

There’s also one thing that can show that the team is actually doing much better. It’s enough to measure start and end dates for work items. It will allow to figure out both cycle times (how much time it takes to finish a work item) and throughput (how many work items are finished in a given time window).

If we look at Little’s Law, or rather its adoption in Kanban context, we’ll see that:

Little's Law

It means that if we want to get shorter cycle time, a.k.a. quicker delivery and shorter feedback loops, we need either to improve throughput (which is often difficult) or cut work in progress (which is much easier).

We are then in a situation where we understand that limiting WIP is a good idea and yet realize that introducing such a practice is not easy. Is there another way?

One strategy that worked for me very well over years was to change the discussion around WIP limits altogether. What do we expect when WIP limits are in place? Well, we want people to pull less work and instead to focus on finishing items rather than starting them.

So how about focusing on these outcomes? It’s fairly simple. It’s enough to write a simple guidance. Whenever you finished work on an item first check whether there are any blockers. If there are attempt to solve them. If there aren’t any look at any unassigned items starting from the part of the board that’s closest to the done column (typically the rightmost part of the board). Then gradually go toward the beginning of value stream. Start a new item only when there’s literally nothing you can do with ongoing items.

Kanban Board

If we took a developer as an example the process might look like this. Once they finish coding a new work item they look at the board. There is one blocked item. It just so happens that the blocker is waiting for a response from a client. A brief chat in the team may reveal that there’s no point in pestering the client for feedback on the ticket for now. At the same time it may be a good time to remind the client about the blocker.

Then the developer would go through the board starting at the point closest to the doneness. If the process in place was something like: development, code review, testing and acceptance by the client, the first place would be acceptance. Are there any work items where the client shared feedback, i.e. we need to implement some changes? If so that’s the next task to focus on. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether the developer was the author of the ticket but if there are any tickets that used to be his it may be input for prioritizing.

If there’s nothing to act upon in acceptance, then we have testing. Are there any bugs from internal testing than need to be fixed? Are there any tickets that wait for testing that the developer can take care of? Of course we have a century-old discussion about developers not willing to do the actual testing. I would however point that fixing bugs for the fellow developers is equally valuable activity.

If there’s nothing in testing that can be taken care of then we move to code review and take care of anything that’s waiting for code review or implement feedback from code review that’s been done already.

Then we move to development and try to figure out whether the developer can help with any ongoing work item. Can we pair with other team members? Or maybe there are obstacles where another pair of eyes may be useful?

Only after going through all the steps the developer moves to the backlog and pulls a new ticket.

The interesting observation is that in vast majority of cases there will be something to take care of. Just try to imagine a situation where there’s literally nothing that’s blocked, requires fixing or improvements and nothing that’s in waiting queue. If we face such a situation we likely don’t need to limit work in progress any further.

And that’s the whole trick. Instead of introducing an artificial mechanism that yields specific outcomes we can focus on these outcomes. If we can guide the team to adopt simple guidance for choosing tasks we effectively made them limit work in progress and likely with much less resistance.

Now does it matter that we don’t have explicit WIP limits? No, not really. Does it matter that the actual limits may fluctuate a bit more than in a case when the process has hard limits? Not much. Do we see actual improvements? Huge.

So here’s an idea. Don’t focus on practices. Focus on understanding and outcomes. It may yield similarly good or better results and with a fraction of resistance.

in: kanban, project management

13 comments… add one

  • Yavor October 26, 2015, 4:58 pm

    Little’s law I think should rather be: Avg WIP = Avg CT * Throughput

  • Bruno Baketaric October 27, 2015, 2:25 am

    If managers don’t understand the benefits of limiting WIP; why can someone be confident that they understand the value of outcome in contrast to output?

    I don’t experience any resistance at the people doing the work to “Stop starting and start finishing” – even with WIP Limits. And it’s the WIP Limits that allow to apply TOC-Thinking to optimize the System as a whole.

    But of course I agree that replacing WIP Limits by a “finish first”-rule may be a valid option if there’s no benefit in having WIP Limits.

  • Ann Holt October 27, 2015, 11:16 am

    Very interesting. I have a team new to Kanban and we’ve played some games to understand WIP limits but they are having trouble applying what they learned in the real world.

    This is an excellent idea for how to get them to look at finishing the remaining things that are outstanding.

  • Pawel Brodzinski October 28, 2015, 2:26 am

    @Yavor – No. Your equation would suggest that reducing WIP would likely result in reducing throughput. That’s pretty much the opposite to what Little’s Law shows.

  • Pawel Brodzinski October 28, 2015, 2:31 am

    @Bruno – Good to hear that you don’t experience any resistance in introducing WIP. This is, however, a pretty typical problem as it is, in fact, an artificial mechanism steering good behaviors.

    On a side note, I’d point that in vast majority of cases WIP limits aren’t used to optimize the whole, but rather its part. A classic example would be a development team adopting WIP limits. They’re just a (small) part of the whole value stream. It is a fairly rare case when organizations start with the whole value stream, which typically is portfolio level (and thus my interest in portfolio management).

  • Janne October 31, 2015, 9:04 am

    @Bruno: I have experienced massive resistance to WIP limits from “the people doing the work”, so it’s not as clear cut as you might think.

    @Pawel, re Little’s Law: Your equation does not make any sense mathematically. If you look at the units, CT / Throughput would be [time]/[1/time] = [time]^2 for WIP.
    Yavor’s version instead leads to the correct unit of [1] for WIP.
    Indeed, if you look at the Wikipedia page you linked, you will find that it supports Yavor’s version.

    So either Little’s Law does not apply here, or its conclusions are not what you wrote.

  • Pawel Brodzinski November 1, 2015, 9:51 am

    @Yavor & @Janne – You’re indeed right. My bad. Fixed.


  • Carolina November 22, 2015, 7:55 am

    Excellent article, Pawel. In a multitasking world WIP usually tends to be resisted. I do like this approach and will put it into practice with my clients.
    Thanks for sharing!

  • John Coleman November 23, 2015, 2:35 pm


    I didn’t like the title but you got my attention, which was probably the intention. I like your suggestions. And I will try them. In a sense it’s like Featureban for real without WIP limits though. Run charts don’t look good for that round of Featureban. But I like your angle, bringing people on a journey so to speak.


  • Javier Bonnemaison February 8, 2016, 5:48 pm

    Hi Pawel, as always great article. I consistently find your insights deeply thoughtful as well as highly practical. I tried a very similar approach to the flow management policies you describe (basically stop starting/start finishing at the team level) with my last client and it works very well. However, adding WIP limits signaled “permission” to go off and work on improvement tasks rather than overloading their primary dominant activity with more WIP if there was no chance to help finish other work (which as you point out is fairly rare anyway). This helped maintain predictability and sustainability, and made room for continuous improvement (which includes reading, going for a walk to think, or talking to other teams). In addition we also scheduled improvement tickets that came out of service delivery reviews (aka retros) on a weighted round robin basis (i.e. one out of n tickets must be an improvement ticket).

  • Tibor Halasz April 20, 2016, 5:29 am

    Hi Pawel,
    Great article!
    We worked with Kanban without WIP limits for a while, couple of months ago we introduce into our boards and we saw instant improvements in our flow.
    Was not any resistance from our team, quite the opposite, we started on one, but rolled out on many other boards because the team recognised benefits.
    I shared our experience in here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/power-work-in-progress-limits-kanban-boards-tibor-halasz

  • adam mitchell April 27, 2017, 7:57 am

    Interesting, it’s one of those things that sounds very simple therefore it can’t work surely! I’ll give it a try with one of my teams and see how it goes.

  • Zoé June 27, 2017, 9:03 am

    Very good! Congratulations, great content.

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