What are WIP Limits? Definition and Set them in Kanban

Max 6min read

In the world of software development, efficiency and productivity are essential. Teams often implement strategies such as Kanban to optimize workflow and ensure smooth progress. 

One fundamental aspect of Kanban is the concept of Work-in-Progress (WIP) limits. WIP limits are a crucial tool to manage the flow of work and prevent bottlenecks, enabling teams to deliver high-quality results within set timelines.

So, what exactly are WIP limits? During any given period, a WIP limit represents the maximum number of tasks or items that may be in progress. They act as a constraint, encouraging teams to focus on completing existing work before starting new tasks. By enforcing WIP limits, teams can improve collaboration, minimize multitasking, and reduce the likelihood of delays or overburdened team members.

For software professionals seeking to optimize their workflows, understanding and effectively implementing WIP limits in Kanban can lead to improved productivity, reduced lead times, and enhanced overall team performance.

So, let’s dive deeper into the world of WIP limits and explore how they can revolutionize your software development processes.

What Are WIP Limits?


WIP limits, or work-in-progress limits, are a way to manage the flow of work by setting a maximum number of tasks that can be in progress at any given time. It helps prevent bottlenecks, improve focus, and ensure that tasks get completed on time.

Here are some of the benefits of WIP limits:

  • Improved productivity: WIP limits can help teams work more efficiently by preventing them from doing too much work at once. It can lead to shorter turnaround times and increased output.
  • Reduced errors: When teams are not overloaded with work, they are less likely to make mistakes. They have more time to focus on each task and double-check their work.
  • Improved focus: WIP limits can help teams to focus on the most important tasks by preventing them from being distracted by less important tasks. This can lead to higher-quality work and better customer satisfaction.

Here’s how WIP limits work:

  • The team identifies the different stages of its workflow, such as “to do,” “in progress,” and “done.”
  • The team sets a WIP limit for each stage. For example, the team might decide that there can be no more than five tasks in the “in progress” stage at any time.
  • As tasks move through the workflow, the team tracks how many tasks are in each stage. When a stage reaches its WIP limit, the team can’t start any new tasks in that stage until some tasks have been completed and moved to the next stage.

Benefits of Setting WIP Limits

Work-in-progress (WIP) limits are a powerful tool that can enhance the efficiency of a team’s workflow. Here are some of the benefits of using WIP limits:

  • Improved flow: WIP limits help ensure that work moves smoothly through the workflow without getting bogged down at any stage. It can help reduce delays and improve the team’s overall efficiency.
  • Reduced work-in-progress: WIP limits help to prevent team members from taking on too much work at once. It can help in reducing stress and improve focus, leading to higher-quality work.
  • Increased throughput: WIP limits can increase the rate at which work gets completed. As a result, team members focus on completing tasks before starting new ones.
  • Improved quality: When team members focus on completing tasks rather than starting new ones, they are more likely to take the time to do the work thoroughly. This can lead to improved quality and fewer errors.
  • Healthier work environment: WIP limits can help reduce team members’ stress and anxiety. This is because there is less pressure to work on new tasks constantly.
  • Increased focus and productivity: WIP limits can help team members focus on the most critical tasks. It can lead to enhanced efficiency and productivity.

How to Set Limits in Kanban

Kanban is a workflow management methodology that helps teams visualize work, manage flow, and optimize processes. One of the key concepts in Kanban is limiting work-in-progress (WIP). WIP limits are a way of ensuring that teams do not overload themselves with work and that they can focus on completing tasks one at a time.

Here are some tips on how to set limits in Kanban:

  • Consider the team’s capacity: How many team members do you have? How much work can they realistically handle at any given time? Consider the team’s skill set, experience, and availability when making this assessment.
  • Analyze the type of work involved: Different types of work may require different limits. For example, complex tasks requiring more time and effort may warrant lower limits to avoid overwhelming team members. Conversely, smaller, more straightforward tasks may allow for higher limits. Tailor the limits based on the nature of the work and the team’s ability to handle it effectively.
  • Consider the desired flow: Determine the selected workflow through your Kanban system. This involves visualizing the stages of your workflow and the expected progression of tasks. Align the limits with this flow, ensuring tasks move smoothly from one stage to another without unnecessary bottlenecks or delays.
  • Set a challenging but achievable limit: Strive to set limits that push the team to be productive and efficient but remain realistic and attainable. The limits should encourage a sustainable pace of work and avoid overloading team members. Starting with conservative limits and gradually adjusting based on team performance and feedback can help strike the right balance.
  • Monitor and adapt: Continuously monitor the workflow and regularly review the effectiveness of the set limits. Observe how tasks progress through each stage and identify areas where work tends to pile up or become stagnant. Use this data to fine-tune the limits, making adjustments as needed to optimize the flow and productivity of the team.

By following these tips, you can effectively set limits in Kanban and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your team’s workflow.

Monitoring WIP Limits

Work-in-progress (WIP) limits are a crucial concept in Kanban. They help teams to avoid overloading themselves with work and to focus on completing tasks one at a time. However, it is essential to monitor WIP limits effectively to ensure they work as intended.

Here are some key steps to effectively monitor WIP limits:

  1. Track the amount of work in progress: This can be done visually on a Kanban board or using project management tools that provide WIP tracking features. Regularly update the status of tasks and visually represent the work in progress to have a clear overview.
  2. Adjust the WIP limit as needed: Regularly assess the performance of your team and the flow of work. If you notice bottlenecks, delays, or an imbalance in the workload, it may be necessary to adjust the WIP limits. Consider reducing the limit for stages where work tends to accumulate to encourage a smoother flow. Conversely, you may increase the WIP limit to optimize productivity if stages have excess capacity.
  3. Communicate the WIP limit to the team: Ensure that the entire team is aware of the WIP limits and understands their significance. Communicate the limits clearly, explaining why they are in place and how they contribute to a more efficient workflow. Encourage open dialogue and feedback from team members regarding the limits and their impact on their work.
  4. Regularly review and analyze data: Continuously review and analyze data related to WIP limits and the flow of work. Collect metrics such as cycle time, lead time, and throughput to gain insights into the team’s performance and the impact of WIP limits. Use this data to identify areas for improvement, address bottlenecks, and make informed decisions when adjusting the limits.
  5. Foster a culture of continuous improvement: Encourage the team to participate in the monitoring process actively. Regularly discuss the effectiveness of the WIP limits during team meetings or retrospective sessions. Seek input from team members and encourage them to share observations, suggestions, and ideas for optimizing the workflow.

By following these steps, you can effectively monitor WIP limits and ensure they work as intended. This will help to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your team’s workflow. 

Implementing WIP limits in Kanban can optimize workflow and boost productivity. Benefits include improved flow, reduced work-in-progress, increased throughput, enhanced quality, and reduced stress. Set limits based on team capacity and desired flow, monitor progress and adapt as needed. Ready to unlock your team’s potential with WIP limits in Kanban?


Q: What is a WIP limit?

A: A WIP limit is a maximum number of tasks that can be in progress at any one time. WIP limits are used in Kanban to help teams focus on completing tasks individually and avoid overloading themselves with work.

Q: Why is there a WIP limit?

A: WIP limits serve several purposes:

  • Prevent work overload: WIP limits help teams avoid taking on more tasks than they can effectively handle. This can lead to stress, burnout, and decreased productivity.
  • Encourage focus and productivity: WIP limits help teams focus on completing tasks one at a time. This can lead to better quality work and increased productivity.
  • Identify bottlenecks: WIP limits can help teams identify bottlenecks in their workflow. Bottlenecks are areas where work slows down or stops. By identifying bottlenecks, teams can take steps to improve their workflow.
  • Facilitate a balanced distribution of work: WIP limits can help teams ensure that work evenly gets distributed among team members. This can help to prevent team members from feeling overwhelmed or underutilized.
Q: How can I reduce my WIP limit?

A: To reduce your WIP limit, consider the following steps:

  • Analyze your current workflow: Evaluate your existing workflow and identify stages where work tends to accumulate or get stuck. This could indicate areas where the WIP limit may be too high.
  • Gradually lower the WIP limit: Start by progressively decreasing the WIP limit for specific stages or tasks. Monitor the impact of this adjustment on the flow of work and team productivity. Continue gradually reducing the limit until you find a balance for a smoother workflow.
  • Monitor and adjust: Continuously monitor the impact of the reduced WIP limit. Observe the flow of work, team performance, and any potential bottlenecks. Based on the data and feedback from the team, make further adjustments as necessary to achieve an optimal WIP limit.
  • Communicate and involve the team: Ensure that the team is aware of the reduced WIP limit and understands the reasons behind it. Encourage their participation in monitoring and adjusting the limit, as their insights and experiences can provide valuable feedback for further improvements.

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