The Power of Agile WIP Limits

Work is busy. Life is moving faster. Sometimes it is hard to catch up.

How do we keep up? What approaches do we know? What approaches do we try? What approaches work? What approaches work well and have a lasting effect?

Common Ways to Address Too Much Work

The pace of life is moving faster and faster. Sometimes it is difficult to even remember all the things that we need to accomplish within a week or even a single day. Over time and through experience many of us have created or learned about not so effective techniques to handle too much information and too much work, including:

  • Multi-Tasking: This approach is about doing more than one task or activity at the same time. This often used technique encourages each of us to have many things on the go with the ability to switch between tasks quickly and often. A simple example involves having one’s email application constantly pushing new emails as they are received while simultaneously trying to complete a more creative task such as preparing for a presentation. The problem with this method is that we are never really focused on a single piece of work so we become distracted. It causes challenges such as the inability to maintain quality because we have to ramp up our thoughts before we are able to concentrate and continue where we left off.
  • To-Do Lists: This method identifies all the tasks that need to be done in a short list. It can be useful if this is done daily and then thrown away at the end of the day. However, this can become overwhelming if the list becomes too long or progress is not being made against it.
  • Working Long Hours: This commonly held approach to completing more work by putting in more hours can be effective in the short term. It allows a person to finish more tasks within a day. However, this is not sustainable and multiple studies have shown that over time has plenty of negative effects such as decreased productivity.
  • Taking Short Cuts: This technique may help in the short term. It can identify problem areas, uncover opportunities for growth, and show evidence if a path is worth pursuing. However, a large problem with this approach is that by taking shortcuts one usually decreases the amount of diligence or quality that is invested in the work. As quality drops, the value delivered drops.

Along Comes the Agile Movement

The Agile era (that we are currently in) brought a key thought to the workplace – working in teams is more effective than working as individuals. This is not new, yet it was able to reshape this concept into a digestible approach.

This movement is linked and has a history that is strongly connected to Lean. Lean supported many concepts in the workplace that Agile has continued to build upon, including visualizing the work (usually done through a Kanban board), measuring our throughput, identifying obstacles early and solving them, and limiting the amount of work in process (WIP) to improve productivity and achieve flow.

How Do Agile Work-in-Process Limits Help?

Within the Kanban framework or when any Agile team uses a Kanban board, that team is able to limit the amount of work that is currently being worked on (commonly referred to as WIP). This simple, yet powerful technique can support the overall maturity of an Agile team by various ways. These advantages include:

  • To visualize too much work. Each stage of a Kanban board can be constrained with WIP limits which allow the team to see when the work goes over that limit. Within online tools, the team is able to see the stage of work turn red so that they can quickly swarm (gather together as a team) to deal with the problem. Within a manufacturing space, this would become true when work is piled up behind a workstation without that person or team being able to keep up.
  • To identify flow issues. One of the key powers of a Kanban board is to promote flow so that the work continues down the stages to completion in a regular and predictable way. When the work begins to pile up, the team is able to identify bottlenecks input to a stage of work and then to systematically resolve them. Once a team removes those bottlenecks they can move on to the next bottleneck thus improving the entire value stream.

Image above: many online tools display the column as “red” when the WIP limit has been exceeded.

  • To reduce multitasking. For some reason we believe that we can work on more than one task at a time and maintain quality – this is strange. They are plenty of examples why this is not true from trying to drive and text (now a law in many countries) to having a conversation while watching a movie. Why do we believe that we can multitask well?

Image above: an example of WIP limits in each of the stages

What Stories Do You Have About Teams Using WIP Limits to Improve

I have had the privilege of working with dozens of teams and seen plenty of creativity within these organizations. One such team wanted to visualize a number of defects in the queue (before it became WIP) by displaying all of them as red sticky-notes on a physical pillar next to the team space. Soon it became an eyesore which led to leadership discussing with the team on how to solve the problem.

What stories do you have on using WIP limits? Did id work? If yes, what was the result in learning and progress? If not, what happened?

I hope that each of you continues to focus on learning and experimenting with techniques like WIP limits. Through encouragement and mutual support, we will continue to contribute and embrace a better world.

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Originally posted via LinkedIn on May 2, 2016.

Warm regards,

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