Does Your Team Need Minimum WIP Limits?

I spoke with an agile coach whose team works in flow, similar to this board. They don’t use iterations—they plan on demand.

The column on the left, “Stories to Workshop” is their backlog refinement column.

Recently, the team decided they need “minimum” WIP (work in progress) limits. Especially on the Workshop column. Why? Their product owner doesn’t spend enough time with the team. The PO needs the team signal.

The PO does not use information from the various minimums. The PO is so busy, the PO can only grab already-existing ideas/stories off the roadmap.

This approach uses “how much” thinking, instead of “how little” thinking. Agile approaches let us finish when we’re done—not when we’ve done it “all.”

Why Minimum WIP Limits Cause Organizational Problems

When we can change the ranked backlog, we can create organizational agility. If we assume the roadmap never changes, we’re not thinking in an agile way. And, we create problems for ourselves:

  • The PO is working off an old roadmap or a strategic view of the product. The PO isn’t taking advantage of new information. We don’t have an agile roadmap.
  • The organization isn’t taking advantage of stopping one product (or feature set) and starting another.

When the team signals they need more, they also signal they might be done with this feature set or this product.

They might not be done.  And, if they’re not, why isn’t the PO hanging out with the team to see what they complete every day?

Create Business Agility with Change

Does your product require more discovery than delivery? If so, the POs and Product Managers need to re-assess the current roadmap on a regular basis.

We can get business agility when we change what we plan and what we deliver.

In the case of a program, the Program Product Owner (often a product manager) would take that signal to work with a product value team to decide what to do next.

In the case of a project, maybe the team can work on a different feature set.

And, for the project portfolio, maybe the team can stop work on this product for now, and start working on another product?

If the product owners only take the strategic view of the work, they’re not acting like product owners. They are product managers. (See the PO Role series.)

We need product managers. We need the strategic view that gains information from customers and the greater market.

And, if we don’t have product owners with the team, what do we get? We get faster waterfalls. We don’t get business agility, that’s for sure.

Minimum WIP Limits are an Anti-Pattern

If your team needs minimum WIP limits, there’s something wrong with the team’s process. Every organization I’ve worked with has way more work waiting for teams than the teams can possibly complete. Minimum WIP Limites means someone like a PO is not paying enough attention to the team.

If the team signals they need more work, maybe that work should be on a different product. With a real product owner.

Published on Java Code Geeks with permission by Johanna Rothman , partner at our JCG program. See the original article here: Does Your Team Need Minimum WIP Limits?

Opinions expressed by Java Code Geeks contributors are their own.

Johanna Rothman

Johanna consults, speaks, and writes about managing product development. She helps managers and leaders do reasonable things that work. You can read more of her writings at
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