Enhancing Productivity with Work in Progress Limits: A Guide to Agile Development

by Riversafe

Work-in-process (WIP) limits are boundaries that help eliminate unnecessary tasks in team processes. They’re like a speed limit that encourages teams to optimise their workflows for maximum productivity by limiting the number of tasks they can work on simultaneously. By reducing the amount of incomplete work, WIP limits increase throughput and minimise waste. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at WIP limits and how they can help agile teams be more productive.

The WIP Limit Concept

The concept of WIP (Work in Progress) limits originated from the Lean manufacturing philosophy in Japan during the mid-20th century. Its goal was to minimise waste and maximise efficiency by following a “Just-In-Time” approach. This approach requires producing only what is necessary, when it is needed, and in the required amount. To achieve this, limits were set on the number of unfinished products or work items in the production process, which forms the foundation of the WIP limits concept. Over time, various industries have adopted the concept of WIP limits to improve productivity, reduce waste, and enhance efficiency.

Let’s imagine a software development team responsible for delivering new features and improvements to a web application. The team handles multiple projects simultaneously, each involving several tasks that require completion. However, they frequently experience problems like delays, rework, and unfinished tasks that hinder their ability to meet deadlines and deliver high-quality work.

To tackle these challenges, the team decides to implement WIP limits. They set a WIP limit of three tasks per team member, which means each person can only work on up to three tasks at a time. This limit ensures that team members can complete their existing work before taking on new tasks.

As a result of implementing WIP limits, the team observes an improvement in their workflow. They notice a decline in incomplete tasks and bottlenecks, and they can deliver work more consistently and predictably. Additionally, they have more time to focus on high-priority tasks and can collaborate more effectively because everyone understands the work in progress clearly.

Defining WIP Limit Workflow

The WIP limit workflow is frequently adopted in agile development methodologies, including Kanban and Scrum, where teams work in sprints with a specific set of tasks to accomplish during each sprint. By imposing a WIP limit, teams can ensure that they do not overburden themselves with excessive tasks, which can culminate in project delays, missed deadlines, and low-quality work. This approach fosters an environment where tasks can be completed efficiently, and resources can be allocated effectively, leading to a reduction in lead times and an increase in work quality.

The WIP limit workflow involves establishing a limit on the number of tasks or work items that can be active at once and visualising the workflow to make sure that jobs are progressing through it effectively. To prevent overworking the team and to boost productivity and quality, the WIP limit is monitored and regulated. The workflow is reviewed frequently in order to find areas that need improvement.

Why WIP Limit is Crucial to Development Process:

Limiting the amount of work-in-progress (WIP) is essential to the development process in several ways. Here are some of the main arguments in favour of WIP limits.

Reducing Team Burnout:

When teams don’t have WIP limits, there’s a significant risk of team members taking on too many tasks. This is especially true when there’s no established system for prioritising work. The accumulation of tasks can lead to stress and burnout, which can have a detrimental effect on team morale and output. Overworked team members may struggle to complete their duties within deadlines, leading to delays and missed targets. In extreme cases, team members may leave, resulting in expensive hiring and training costs, as well as decreased productivity for the company.

How WIP limits can help reduce team burnout:

Clear Prioritisation, by restricting the amount of works in progress, WIP limits can help to ensure that the most crucial tasks get finished first. Teams can prioritise the work that needs to be done and make sure there is a clear path on the most critical activities by defining WIP limits at various phases of a project. WIP limits reduces the quantity of work that is “nearly done” and improve throughput by making the team concentrate on a fewer number of activities in line with team’s capacity.

Assuming a software development team makes a list of all the tasks that need to be completed, they start working on several of them at once. But as time goes on, they start to understand that they are dealing with pressure, inconsistency, and burnout.

To help them control their workload, the team decided to put WIP limits into place. They limit the number of tasks that can be active at once and rank the most important ones in order of importance. This enables the team to concentrate on finishing the most crucial task before moving on to the less vital ones.

Fundamentally, WIP restrictions promote a culture of “done.” More importantly, WIP limits highlight bottlenecks and obstacles. When there is a clear indication of what existing work is creating a bottleneck, teams can rally around it to have it understood, implemented, and remedied. Work starts to flow again across the team after obstacles are removed.

Increasing Quality of Work:

Reduced concentration can significantly affect the effectiveness and quality of work. It might be challenging for team members to focus completely on any task when there is no systematic process of ensuring quality control and efficiency. This may result in errors, omissions, and lower-than-expected quality in the work that is generated. As team members spend more time jumping between tasks and trying to remember where they left off, lower focus can also result in decreased efficiency.

How WIP limits can help increase quality of work:

WIP limits can be implemented by outlining the team’s process and allowing just a certain number of tasks at each stage. WIP limits, for instance, can be established for each column on the Kanban board, which stands in for a particular step of the workflow, in a Kanban system. By restricting the number of projects that may be worked on concurrently, WIP limits help to reduce multitasking and puts in place key controls that regulates quality of work and definition of done. By allowing team members to concentrate on finishing one task at a time rather than often switching between tasks, this can enhance the quality and efficiency of work.

Assuming a team in your company is working on numerous projects at once with no WIP limits. Each developer is accountable for their work, and they have a strict deadline. One of the developers is working on two features at once because of the burden, which results in mistakes and unfinished work.

However, with WIP limits in place, the team is aware of the maximum number of tasks they can complete at once. As a result, each developer may concentrate on just one feature at a time, resulting in effective and professional work. As a result, each feature is thoroughly tested, analysed, and improved before being moved on to the next, resulting in higher quality work and fewer mistakes.

Reducing Resource Wastage:

Resource management issues can have a substantial impact on a project’s progress and overall performance. It may be challenging to successfully manage resources in the absence of WIP limits when organisational resources are not correctly assigned to projects of high priority. It is difficult for organisations to deploy and distribute resources at the necessary rate when there are no WIP limits. This encourages waste and raises unneeded production and development costs.

How WIP limits can help in managing resources:

By giving a defined framework for task management and prioritisation, WIP limits assist in resolving resource management problems. WIP limits guarantee that resources are directed to the most important activities, enabling teams to operate more productively and efficiently by limiting the amount of work in progress at any given time. This lowers the cost of production and development while also preventing resource waste.

Let’s observe a scenario where a software development team is engaged in a project that necessitates the assignment of resources like developers, testers, and designers. Without WIP restrictions, the team might take on too many task at once, which would result in a lack of resources, which would cause delays and subpar output. The team could, however, restrict the number of tasks in progress at any given time if they adopted WIP limits. This would enable them to assign resources in accordance with their importance and prioritise the most crucial tasks, ensuring efficient utilisation of those resources.

Improve Team communication:

As a result of misconceptions, miscommunications, and delays in decision-making, the absence of WIP limits can significantly affect team communication. Again, without WIP restrictions, team members might not be aware of one another’s workloads and priorities, which would prevent cooperation and collaboration. As a result, team members may unintentionally focus on the same tasks or miss out on possibilities for collaboration, which can result in wasted time and effort.

How WIP limits can improve Team communication:

WIP limits encourage team members to collaborate more effectively. Team members are more inclined to communicate and work together on shared tasks when there is a defined structure for task prioritisation and resource allocation. This results in a more cohesive and efficient team.

Consider a scenario in which a team of software developers is working on a new feature for their product and faces a backlog of work. Without WIP restrictions, the team might begin working on every assignment at once, which could result in overload, confusion, and communication problems.

The team may choose to cap the amount of tasks in progress at any given time, say to three tasks, though WIP limits are in effect. This allows team members to concentrate on finishing those three tasks before beginning any new ones, which fosters improved teamwork and communication.

For instance, team members can discuss their progress on the three active tasks during a daily stand-up meeting, identify any obstacles or problems, and work together to find solutions. Team members may communicate more effectively, cooperate more effectively, and arrive at better conclusions if they have a clear grasp of the work that is currently being done and the priorities.

 Team Management and Leadership:

The absence of WIP limits can have serious consequences for team management and leadership. When there are no restrictions on the quantity of work in progress, it can be difficult for managers and leaders to keep track of what tasks are being worked on, who oversees them, and how they are progressing. Due to lack of visibility, it might be difficult to provide direction and support to team members, resulting in confusion and inefficiency. Furthermore, without explicit WIP limits, managers and leaders may struggle to make informed judgements about resource allocation, task prioritisation, and overall project management.

How WIP limits can help  management and Leadership:

WIP limits enable team leadership to keep an eye on development and adapt as appropriate, such as raising or lowering the WIP limit for a specific stage. Decisions are made based on the work output that WIP limits implementation allows for, not on assumptions. This aids managers in determining the team’s strengths and weaknesses as well as what tools and training are needed to increase team productivity.

Are you looking to implement WIP limited to increase your team’s productivity and efficiency while minimizing waste and maximizing quality?

At Riversafe we provide a comprehensive guide on WIP limits by providing simple yet powerful tools that can revolutionise your development process. From prioritizing tasks to improving communication and resource management, WIP limits offer countless benefits that can elevate your team’s performance.

Contact us to discuss how we can help you.


By Riversafe

Experts in DevOps, Cyber Security and Data Operations