Why Not a WIP of One?: Why Limit WIP Series, Post 2

Jim BensonPrimers10 Comments

With only two guiding principles – Visualize your work and Limit your WIP – much of Personal Kanban seems fairly straightforward. But it’s not as obvious as it seems, and there’s actually a lot going on under the hood.

Tons, actually. So let’s discuss.

We said in the previous post we want to limit our work-in-progress, our “WIP,” and set it within a reasonable limit. But there’s still some confusion about what WIP really addresses.

Does it mean:

A: At this very moment, what task am I actively doing with my hands?


B: At this very moment, what tasks am I am actually doing with my brain?

To be clear, your brain does more than your hands.

This goes back to the role of the visual control in your life. As a visual control, your Personal Kanban keeps you honest about the work being done in your head.  The visual control is not necessary there to track what’s going on in your hands.

So the Personal Kanban doesn’t need to tell you (A).

This comment was left on our latest post How to Set Your WIP Limit:

Interesting. My WIP limit on my personal kanban has always been 1. Perhaps it’s just the way I’ve got it set up. For instance, right now the card I have in work is “read blog posts and comment”.

Now, I have a ‘waiting’ lane for cards where I’m blocked from taking any direct action. So by having a different lane I suppose that’s an additional WIP item since it’s not complete, but I like to split that out if I can’t take any action on it myself at the moment. It re-enters my pull queue when the block has been resolved.

What do you think about that Jim? Can I do better?


We’ve encountered numerous people who set their WIP limit to one and believe they are working on only one thing at a time. They will actually move cards in and out of DOING to note whether they are actively working on them. Again, what you are doing with your hands should tell you this.

However, those tasks that were moved back into WAITING are still active. They are still IN PROGRESS. Simply because your fingers aren’t moving them right now, doesn’t mean your brain is not still DOING them.

This is important, as the Zeigarnik Effect tells us two things about how we work:

1: We have a psychological need to complete a task. Incomplete tasks tend to create intrusive thoughts, causing us to dwell on what we’ve left unfinished.

2: We forget things that we’ve completed.

In the book and in our talks, we go into great detail about how this impacts our work. For now, let’s focus on #1.

When we begin a task and leave it unfinished, our brain keeps thinking about it. Psychologically we need closure, which can come from two sources – actual completion or officially deciding not to complete.

If we have a column in our Personal Kanban that is just holding incomplete tasks, there will be an irresistible temptation to put more and more tasks in that column. We will come up with excuses like, “This one is more important” or “I don’t have time for that right now,” or “I’ll get to it later.”

We want the DOING column to exert pressure on us. Our goal with Personal Kanban is to have a realistic WIP limit that is honestly displayed so that we can understand our options, better manage our work, and finish what we begin.

More on this in future posts in the Why Limit WIP Series.

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Jim BensonWhy Not a WIP of One?: Why Limit WIP Series, Post 2

10 Comments on “Why Not a WIP of One?: Why Limit WIP Series, Post 2”

  1. Tobias Mayer

    Sometimes tasks that have dependencies on outside forces simply get stuck. In such a case should we break the stuck task into two parts, that which is done and that which isn’t, or leave it hanging, reducing our active WIP to 2? Right now I have a task that says “deal with traffic ticket” this particular ticket meant I needed to make a change to my vehicle and then get it signed off by the local police. I made the change, then went to the police station. It was closed. I went back the next day. Also closed. This time I clocked the opening times (!) but haven’t been able to get back during their opening hours. The task has sat in WIP since then (five days). I could break it into two tasks 1) make the vehicle change (done and 2) get sign off (not done) but isn’t this another form of “cheating”? The task has no value until both parts are done. I have simply marked it “blocked” thus allowing me to have three active tasks in WIP. Why might this be bad?

    1. Jim Benson


      Yes, that’s what we use The Pen for. There will be a future post on The Pen. This series has over a dozen planned entries.

      When there is a task that is specifically on-hold while waiting for an external resource, we use The Pen. Which sounds like it works perfectly for your ticket-task.

      The big difference is that it’s based on, as you say, a dependency – and not simply setting it aside to work on something else.

      “Blocked” is okay, but can cause clutter when a task is waiting on a long review cycle. For example, one of my tasks in The Pen is, “Get response from IRS”. That’s been waiting (no joke) for eight solid months. I did receive a letter from them last month saying, “we aren’t responding to you yet.” 🙂


      1. Tobias Mayer

        Thanks Jim. That makes sense. I guess the Pen is like the section I name Blocked, basically a cordoned off section of WIP (after all, it is still technically in progress, i.e. started and incomplete). It is at the bottom of the column to take it out of my face. Typically, where does the Pen section sit on your pk board?

        For team/org use it is useful information to see how many items are blocked and dependent on outside actions. This is information teams can use to demonstrate dysfunction (lack of focus) to management.

    2. Grant

      This is where I find some GTD comes in real handy. I particularly fell in love with the “Next Action” philosophy.

      To (badly) quote David Allen’s example: One client had a sticky note to remind him “Get new tires on truck”. So following the Next Action principle, the next step would be “Look up local tire shops.” David asked him if he knew where any local shops were. The client said, “Wait, I think my brother-in-law Eric said he knew of a great place that was cheap?” So he asked if he had Eric’s phone number. The client said no, but knew his wife did. So really, the Next Action was “Ask wifey for brother-in-law Eric’s phone number”

      Next Action is really the next tangible thing that you can do RIGHT NOW to move the project forward. What that always meant to me is taking the extra 20-25 seconds while you’re processing your inbox to sit, think, and figure out exactly what you have to DO with that item, then do that.

  2. Samuel A. Falvo II

    Just a comment concerning the quality of the video — the lighting makes it hard to see as you transition from a bright to dark whiteboard and vice versa. Also, the audio is pretty badly over-driven.

    I’d say, fix those two items, and you’ve got a winning video combination.

  3. David Lowe

    Yes, good point made about the “waiting” column. I have a separate “waiting for response” column – to differentiate between one’s that I’m fully in control of and those where others are driving. However, I have a joint WIP limit across both columns because, as you say, they are all n progress. Maybe Josh could try that?

  4. Pingback: The Importance of Limiting Your Work-In-Progress for Trademark Management

  5. Gil Friend

    This is very valuable. Thanks.

    But questions:
    – how (where) do you set “WIP limit”? In your mind? On the board? In a software setting?
    – my Pen keeps growing. (I call it “waiting on others”—as in other people’s actions. I don’t see to have control over that, but as you frame it here that means my effective WIP keeps growing too. Any suggestions how to handle?)


  6. Philippe Vaillancourt

    Taking into account you definition of WIP “at this very moment, what tasks am I am actually doing with my brain?” how would you handle meetings planned later today. I’m in sales and I have face to face meetings with prospective clients. The meeting might be set up for 2 in the afternoon but it will be occupying my brain during the morning. Even if I’m trying to get something else done, this upcoming meeting will occupy the back of my mind. I will be thinking about the client, his needs, what I’M going to say etc. Should this planned meeting enter my WIP several hours before the actual meeting, perhaps even enter WIP at the beginning of the day?

    What about other kinds of upcoming performances (say I have piano recital planned after-work and it makes me a bit nervous and anxious and I can’t help rehersing in my head throughout the day), should they take up a spot in our WIP even though we won’t actually be starting this “work” for several hours?

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