Healthy Constraints: Why Limit Your WIP VI

Jim BensonExpert, Primers3 Comments

Great floods have flown from simple sources. ~ William Shakespeare

flood before and afterWhen we employ healthy constraints, we encourage flow. In the economy we create, our goal is create a flow of work that results in a flow of value creation that in turn results in a flow of revenue that enables us to keep up with the flow of work.

Healthy Constraints – Flow

As with a river, the right constraints make healthy flow. We have a garden on the shore, as commercial boats travel up and down the waterway. In this controlled environment, we enjoy predictability and they ability to act.

In this case, the healthy constraints on the river give us the first picture. Water is tamed and the couple are enjoying the view.

No Constraints – Flooding

When the river does not adhere to these constraints, we get destructive flooding. Water goes everywhere. There is no predictability. Rather than having a garden, we spend our team reacting to the flood waters, working to avoid destruction rather than create value.

In this case, a lack of constraints caused by too much WIP (water in progress?) caused destructive flooding which not only drove the couple inside, but also utterly destroyed the beautiful garden.

Too Many Constraints – Diminished Flow

The other extreme would be a huge dam upstream from the property which would remove all water from the river. This would leave a big muddy mess, no commercial boat traffic, and no view for the couple to enjoy.

Balance and Healthy Constraints

When we limit our work-in-progress, we are seeking to place healthy constraints into our work economy that promotes healthy flow.

Too Much: If we limit our WIP too much, we will be single mindedly working on one task at a time and ignoring all else – with large potential social costs. We will dry up our ability to converse. We will over-focus.

Not Enough: No WIP limiting creates the flood of work we see every day.

Balance: You know, there’s a reason that they call it a “balancing act.” The world spins on its axis as it hurtles through space. Our continents are all inexorably continuing their drifting ways. Tectonic plates cause tremors in the most stable of locations.

Change is constant. Disruptions are the norm. Balance, forever and without fail, is impossible.

Understanding what it is we are balancing – that’s vital.

What Makes a Healthy Constraint

If you’re interested in ‘balancing’ work and pleasure, stop trying to balance them. Instead make your work more pleasurable. ~ Donald Trump

Yes, that’s right, even Donald Trump gets it.

When we go to balance, we need to understand that creating too many rules (constraints) is self-defeating. Each rule that we add is another brick in the dam of our river. Yes, it can control the flow – but it’s a brick. Once it’s there, you can only remove it with force and the removal will have impacts.

So, as the Donald is suggesting, sometimes the creation of a healthy constraint is based on your point of view.  Often limiting work-in-progress does not require us to make new rules, but to simply accept that overloading ourselves is counter-productive.

Simply setting a WIP limit on our Personal Kanban or our team kanban, is a visual indicator of our commitment to this minimal constraint.


This Personal Kanban shows the minimal constraint of Derek Huether’s WIP limit of 3. In this board, if Derek were to run into a situation where he had to pull a 4th item into his WIP column – he can do that.

Derek has taken no blood-oath saying he will never exceed his WIP limit. This is healthy constraint – not a law.

This flexibility gives Derek the freedom and autonomy to deal with situations as they arise. The forth work item in WIP will not make him pay a fine or cost him his job – but it will make him very aware that he is violating the constraint and that there will be penalties for completion time and quality of the items currently in-flight.

He will also work, as quickly as possible, to get back to his WIP limit of 3.

To drive this point home: let’s quickly definite healthy and unhealthy constraints:

Healthy Constraint: Does the minimum required to reward a desired behavior while retaining maximum flexibility.

Unhealthy Constraint: Codifies and makes mandatory desired behavior and limits flexibility.


This is post 6 in a 10 part series on Why Limit Your WIP. Read post 7 Focus: Why Limit Your WIP VII in the Why Limit Your WIP series.  Also, see the index for a list of all of them.

Personal Kanban image courtesy of Derek Huether

Flood image courtesy of Melissa Will

Jim BensonHealthy Constraints: Why Limit Your WIP VI

3 Comments on “Healthy Constraints: Why Limit Your WIP VI”

  1. Pingback: Why Limit Your WIP: A PK Info Series | Personal Kanban

  2. Brian Hodgman

    Hi Jim,

    If you have a moment, it would be great if you could tag this post with “wip” like the 9 other posts in the “Limit Your WIP” series.


  3. Pingback: Creating an Economy: Why Limit Your WIP V | Personal Kanban

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