Work In Progress Limits Cause Pain

My team recently instituted a work in progress (WIP) limit to stop things from feeling chaotic and getting out of hand. It’s a good move.

But three days in, they’re crying out “These WIP limits are causing pain! We need to relax them by bringing in special rules as to what defines a work in progress task. We need to be busier than we are”.

No, stop! This is good pain. It’s the pain that is stopping you from being busy, and forcing you to be effective.

If everyone is busy but you aren’t achieving the sprint goal, what the hell is the point?

One of the key metrics behind a high performing team is an understanding of their cycle time and how tasks progress from left to right. WIP limits prevent the team from starting new work before existing work is finished. Understanding cycle time allows you to experiment with your process and see if the changes are impacting the flow of work positively and negatively.

OK, so the two metrics aren’t directly related, but taken out of context, WIP limits seem obscure and limiting. However when you look at WIP limits in the context of improving flow (i.e. getting shit done instead of just being busy), they make complete sense and are a powerful tool for a team’s self reflection.

Here are some common scenarios, and potential solutions:

We’ve hit our work in progress limit, but not everyone on the team has something to do.

Maybe your work in progress limit is too low? If you consistently finish all the work in your sprint, maybe it is. If you finish all your committed stories for the sprint, experiment with increasing it in the next sprint.

We’ve hit our work in progress limit, but the tasks in progress are blocked!

If you can’t do the work on your board and push it through, something is wrong. Should the story even be in progress? Why start a story that you know will likely be blocked by another team? This isn’t a problem with work in progress, this issue needs to be escalated and management need to take action. There is a problem somewhere else, and work in progress limits are highlighting it. Don’t hide the problem by increasing the work in progress limit.

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