Close this search box.
Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Limiting Work in Progress (WIP) – some anecdotes worth thinking about when using Kanban with Scrum


Co-Creating and teaching the new Professional Scrum with Kanban class has given me an opportunity to get back to geeking out on WIP limits, flow metrics, and all things Kanban. And it’s been fun!

One of the key Kanban practices is Limiting Work in Progress. If you want to be pedantic, actually what this practice aims for is Reducing and stabilizing Work in Progress. This improves flow, provides predictability, and is actually even more important for creating a pull-based Kanban system than visualizing your workflow using a Kanban board. I worked with several clients who limited their WIP but didn’t use Kanban boards. One could argue that maybe this practice deserves to be first in the list of Kanban practices, ahead of Visualization.

Anyhow, when a Scrum Team implements Kanban they should definitely figure out how to limit and reduce their Work in Progress. This is a key part of their definition of “Workflow”. First of all, when we say flow we mean flow of valuable items – so flow of PBIs (rather than tasks).

Now, a question comes up: Who should define the WIP Limit? Let’s assume the team is using Kanban to improve the Sprint flow by visualizing and managing flow in the Sprint Backlog. Sprint Backlog is owned by the Development Team so it would make sense for them to own their workflow and specifically the WIP limits in this case.

What if the team is using Kanban from a more holistic perspective, starting from the Product Backlog and including refinement work as well? In this case, it would be the Scrum Team that would own the workflow and therefore would need to discuss WIP limits.

Now, what if the Dev Team actually wants to involve the Product Owner in their Sprint flow – e.g. to review and accept a story during the Sprint before it goes through testing? Who decides whether to do this? Who owns the Sprint Backlog in this case? I think it is the Scrum Team.

Ok, so we understand who defines workflow and therefore WIP limits. Now let’s assume a team is mid-Sprint and there’s an important valuable item the Product Owner wants to add to the Sprint Backlog. It is aligned with the Sprint Goal. The team is currently at its WIP Limit. Could they add this item? Should they? What needs to happen to the WIP limit?

My take on this is that first of all a decision needs to be made on whether to pull this item into the Sprint Backlog. This discussion isn’t related to Kanban at all. It is a core Scrum question and the answer is that it is up to the team to agree to pull a new item into the Sprint Backlog. The Sprint Goal can be used to assess how aligned this item is with the current focus.

In case the item is pulled into the Sprint Backlog, then the Dev Team needs to figure out whether they can actually start it right away. This depends on the WIP limits and the current WIP. If the team is at their WIP they shouldn’t pull in that new item until some room frees up. If their backlog items are pretty small, an empty WIP slot will free up pretty quickly. If items are big, it can take a while.

The longer it might take to get a normal pull slot ready, the more pressure there might be to actually expedite this card. What is expediting? going beyond the current WIP limits and pushing this item along on top of the existing flow. The typical way to do this is NOT to change the WIP limit definition but to go above WIP and note a WIP exception. These exceptions can then be a topic for inspection and adaptation come time to retrospect.

In general, I don’t recommend changing WIP limits on a whim just because there seems to be a need during the Sprint. I’d rather see an exception and discussion rather than hide the problem under a policy change. Most of the time, Scrum Teams should adjust WIP limits during the Sprint Retrospective out of an attempt to create a better flow strategy, not a way to manage at the tactical level. This is similar to the definition of Done. We don’t change the definition of Done during a sprint just because we have a problem creating a Done Increment. We note the exception, maybe even fail to create a really Done Increment, and we discuss the definition during our Retrospective.

One last thing to note about limiting WIP is that while we typically talk about limiting WIP as per-lane constraints on your workflow, this is actually just one specific way to do it. You could limit the amount of work in progress per person, per the entire team throughout their workflow, or actually, you could limit WIP by time. E.g. “we won’t work on more than 10 items this week”. Hey – that sounds familiar! #SprintForecast.

NOTE: Updated to emphasize that we want to limit WIP by valuable PBIs (rather than tasks). Thanks, Giora for suggesting to make that explicit.

Subscribe for Email Updates:



Sprint Retrospectives
Managing Projects
Process Improvement
System Archetypes
Scrum Primer
Nexus vs SAFe
Rapid RTC
An Appreciative Retrospective
PI Objectives
ScrumMaster Tales
Scrum Master
Nexus Integration Team
speed at scale
Jira admin
Agile Release Planning
Applying Agile Methodology
Accelerate Value Delivery At Scale
Achieve Business Agility
Agile Product Ownership
Enterprise DevOps
lean agile change management
Lean Startup
Lean Agile Management
Lean Agile
Large Scale Scrum
Scrum Values
Lean and Agile Principles and Practices
SAFe Release Planning
Systems Thinking
Professional Scrum Master
Jira Plans
Value Streams
Program Increment
Artificial Intelligence
Product Ownership
PI Planning
Business Agility
Release Train Engineer
Portfolio for Jira
Agile Release Management
Daily Scrum
Lean-Agile Software Development
Lean Budgeting
Development Value Streams
Software Development
Lean-Agile Budgeting
Agile Techniques
Agile Games and Exercises
Continuous Improvement
speed @ scale
Limiting Work in Progress
Operational Value Stream
Professional Scrum with Kanban
Advanced Roadmaps
Legacy Enterprise
Agile for Embedded Systems
Scrum With Kanban
Risk-aware Product Development
Agile Risk Management
Product Management
Change Management
Elastic Leadership
Built-In Quality
SAFe DevOps
Continuous Delivery
Kanban 101
Nexus and Kanban
Lean and Agile Techniques
Principles of Lean-Agile Leadership
Agile Product Development
IT Operations
Agile India
Lean Agile Basics
Agile Israel
Agile Basics
Scaled Agile Framework
What Is Kanban
Lean Agile Organization
System Integration Environments
Manage Budget Creation
Agile Israel Events
Scrum and XP
Managing Risk on Agile Projects
Kanban Basics
Hybrid Work
Implementing SAFe
Agile Community
Jira Cloud
Scrum Master Role
Agile Assembly Architecture
Nexus and SAFe
Scrum Guide
Coaching Agile Teams
Agile Project
Kaizen Workshop
Iterative Incremental Development
Kanban Kickstart Example
Professional Scrum Product Owner
Agile Mindset
Introduction to Test Driven Development
Lean Agile Leadership
Agile Development
Continuous Deployment
Quality Assurance
Introduction to ATDD
Legacy Code
Games and Exercises
Sprint Iteration
RTE Role
Agile Outsourcing
AI Artificial Intelligence
ALM Tools
Releases Using Lean
Agile Project Management
Agile Testing Practices
Test Driven Development
Agile Contracts Best Practices
The Agile Coach
Acceptance Test-Driven Development
Kanban Game
The Kanban Method
Agile Delivery
Reading List
Effective Agile Retrospectives
System Team
Entrepreneurial Operating System®
ART Success
Agile in the Enterprise
Implementation of Lean and Agile
Software Development Estimation
Continuous Planning
Story Slicing
Risk Management in Kanban
Agile Exercises
Risk Management on Agile Projects
A Kanban System for Software Engineering
Continuous Integration
Agile Program
Engineering Practices
Lean Software Development
Certified SAFe
Agile Games
Agile and DevOps Journey
Lean Risk Management
Sprint Planning
Perfection Game
Pomodoro Technique
Enable registration in settings - general

Contact Us

Request for additional information and prices

AgileSparks Newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter, and stay updated on the latest Agile news and events

This website uses Cookies to provide a better experience
Shopping cart