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WIP Limits Must Die!

A drastic title, but I really mean it. Some people have a fit when I say that you should limit the work in a Kanban system. The notion of limiting them, and the work, leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. At the implementation level, it sounds like, “You think I’m not capable of doing two things at once?” At higher levels, for instance in portfolio management, it sounds like, “We are rejecting customer orders.”

In the world of working effectively, WIP limits are a core element. Their purpose is to simply prevent you from getting bogged down. This bogging down is most apparent when the only thing being discussed is starting initiatives, proposals and projects. Meanwhile, we know multitasking is a myth and companies are not successful because they start as many projects as possible, but rather when they finish as many projects as possible.

Nothing can fly where everything lands

Here’s the thing: We do not want to restrict or constrain work with WIP limits. Rather, we want to get to the point where arrival and departure rates in the system are nearly equal. I like to compare this to an airport: When there are more airplanes landing than taking off, the entire area will be piled up with airplanes in very short order. It is absolutely logical that an airport has a certain capacity (WIP limit) and that arrivals and departures are planned based on this capacity (starting and completing work). If the airport is at capacity, airplanes must depart (work must be completed) before the next airplanes can land (new work can be started).

Most importantly, limiting the amount of work in a work system is a means to an end. There should not be more work started than can be finished. To prevent the system from becoming clogged, there can only be a certain amount of active work, and this amount is represented by the WIP limit. Even though my inherent enthusiasm for WIP limits will probably never waver, and from every possible practical and theoretical point of view they simply make sense, I find myself more and more often trying to avoid the term “limit”. It prompts many people to make an incorrect association. But I am baffled at the moment how to phrase WIP limits differently.

Does anyone have an idea? I would be thankful for any suggestions.

Klaus Leopold

11 comments

  1. Navin Anand Reply

    Great point Klaus. A suggestion that comes to mind – label it by key outcome it aims to achieve, rather than what it is. Maybe something like “Work Flow Balancing Criteria”.

    • François Bachmann Reply

      Sustainable Juggling Capacity

    • Tim Nolan Reply

      How about “balanced work flow” or simply “balanced work?”

  2. Julia Wester Reply

    Level can replace Limit. WIP Level. Optimal WIP level. If you go beyond, you are reducing the ability of the system to deliver at its full potential.

  3. Troy Tuttle Reply

    Work Overload Limit.

  4. seamus doherty Reply

    First impressions are important.
    My experience sofar indicates that just using “WIP” is better for conversations and softer buy in, but sometimes WIP is very tightly associated with “WIP Limit”, also WIP sounds very like WHIP!. So I have used “Work In Progress” (long hand) in conversations and it gets more doors open for continued conversation around team/process overload. Also just using “work in progress” is probably more in line with starting out with Kanban by showing what the current flow/phases are. One can also transition to “WIP Limit” later on when group is comfortable with concept.
    Also I like Julia’s idea of using “level”, it’s softer, more transitionary and is like a half way house.

  5. Anton Reply

    I think balanced system capacity or effective flow pressure could fit here.

  6. Marco Reply

    My suggestions are:
    work in progress target
    or when combining other good answers: flow speed indicator

  7. Prateek Singh Reply

    Optimal Operating Capacity! There should be good reasons for being under or over the capacity. By violating it in either direction we are making a conscious choice to run a sub-optimal system.

    • Sathish Mohanraj Reply

      Great point, Klaus. I really like the way that Prateek was referring it as “Optimal Operating Capacity” or just “Optimal Operational Capacity” :-).

  8. Klaus Leopold Reply

    Thanks for the great ideas! I’ll test them and report what a wider audience says 🙂

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