How To: Setting Your Personal WIP Limit

Jim BensonUncategorized4 Comments

There are only two rules in Personal Kanban.

Visualize Your Work


Limit Your Work in Progress

Since there are only two, it stands to reason that they are both important, vital even. When people see the value stream and the stickies, they feel they’ve received clear direction in setting up a Personal Kanban’s visualization. But how to come up with a number for your WIP limit?

This is much easier to describe, but much harder to get the point across.

Start With 3

Why do we start with 3? 3 seems to be a good rule-of-thumb number. Three stickies are easy to see, easy to grasp. Three tasks will always be visible on a computer screen. They are easy to remember.

Three is also a good balance number. Three is large enough to involve multiple stakeholders, but is small enough to manage. Three is a large enough number for other people to respect. One tasks becomes a zero-sum game where people can argue for hours about how you are using your time, three spreads out your work footprint to involve enough different things to diffuse such arguments.

But three is not the only number. It’s just a handy, arbitrary one.

What We Want To Do

Goal: The goal in setting a WIP limit in Personal Kanban is to ensure that we do not take on more work than we can handle.

Fact: People obsess over the WIP limit number because it is a number, which they take to be a rule. “If my WIP Limit is 3, I can never ever do more than 3 things.”

That’s dangerous.

Emergencies are Emergencies

If you’re in the middle of a report, some accounting, and waiting for a team member to reply to an email – and your WIP limit is three – you have met your WIP Limit.

If all that stuff is happening and you have a heart attack – you should deal with the heart attack even if it breaks your WIP. Don’t type faster to finish your report so you can pull the heart attack sticky!

What we want for that WIP Limit to do is keep reminding us at all times that we are much more effective if we limit our work-in-progress. Emergencies will remain emergencies, they are real, we must attend to them.

Variation in our Capacity

Let’s look at Karl on three consecutive Mondays:

Monday 1: Karl wakes up after a relaxing weekend. He eats a good breakfast. He is ready to attack the day. He arrives at work and finds his partner June equally ready. Together they feed off mutual creative energy and the day is off to an excited start.

Monday 2: Karl wakes up after a stressful weekend. He slept little last night and is now hitting snooze over and over again. He misses breakfast and stumbles into the office late. He’s searching for enthusiasm.

Monday 3: Karl wakes up, the weekend was fine, but he’s distracted – something doesn’t feel right. He gets to the office and he and June discuss this feeling he’s having. They spend the morning sipping coffee and talking until they finally figure out what is bothering Karl. It is an oversight they’ve had with their new product line. Luckily, it is something that they can work out. He and June spend the rest of the day coming up with solutions to the problem.

In all these instances, Karl – the very same Karl – has a different capacity for new tasks each day. One Monday 1 it might be 3, on Monday 2 it might be2 and on Monday 3 it is probably just 1.

Our WIP limits therefore can vary with our moods and our context.

Don’t feel that your WIP limit is an advised speed at which you must travel at all times. If you are tired or need to focus, by all means, drop to a lower number of tasks.

Diet and WIP Limit


Diet is Good for the Soul

Studies have shown that throughout the day our glucose levels also fluctuate throughout the day. In the mid-morning and mid-afternoon, we are susceptible to dangerous drops in glucose that make our brains fuzzy, our decision-making questionable, and our productivity low.

This is why smart businesses have fridges stocked with juices and bananas. (At Modus, Tonianne and I have apple breaks). This is also why energy drinks go flying off the shelves after lunch.

Human beings are amazing machines, but we still need to be tended to. Our brains use a tremendous amount of our body’s energy – 20% of our total energy usage or more. The brain, after all, is running on electrical charges and the more you think the more you produce.

If you let yourself get run down, your WIP will drop accordingly.

The same is true for sleep and rest.

Conclusion: You Gotta Use Your Brain

You, whether you like it or not, are the one who has the information necessary to set a personal WIP limit. You are a system that is self-regulating. You choose when to rest, when to eat, when to drink water. You know what external pressures are resting upon you.

Starting with 3 is always safe.

But know your variation.


Photo by Tonianne

Jim BensonHow To: Setting Your Personal WIP Limit

4 Comments on “How To: Setting Your Personal WIP Limit”

  1. Kanban School

    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?


  2. Pingback: Why Not a WIP of One?: Why Limit WIP Series, Post 2 | Personal Kanban

  3. Liz Day

    That’s a really helpful answer. It makes sense to me that it’s not about numbers, although numbers help as a guideline (and specifically the number 3). It’s about sensing limits, and being mindful that being realistic about limits leads to greater effectiveness. We’re not machines – we’re human beings, and there are many variables to contend with on any given day. Thank you!

  4. Pingback: Don’t be WIPed | Hypotyposis on a Good Day

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