One word that I continually think of when I think of WiP limits is “Focus”. Essentially, WiP limits create a focus for working on the right things at the right time. The absence of WiP limits means that there is often a lack of focus in the organisation.
Often when teams are doing many of different things, they tend to start lots of work, but tend not to finish anything. It really doesn’t help drive them towards their key goals and purpose. Having WiP limits in place will help focus a team on what’s key to be doing right now.
Sometimes there may be a mix of work types or priorities / classes of service for work. Using WiP limits more explicitly can help you ensure that your efforts are balanced appropriately across the different types. This helps people focus on the different things to the right level and see them through to completion. It can help ensure the right balance of work.
If teams are resistant to the use of explicit WiP limits, I would say something along the lines of “What’s our focus for this week / month” at their daily stand-up / kanban meeting. That invariably leads to a conversation around, “well we don’t have to start this yet, as it’s not our focus” or “this is critical for hitting <key focal point> for the month”. Teams tend to collaborate towards this shared goal and deliberately avoid the “noise” from other activities.
I often hear of / see things in organisations along the lines of “We have 100 people delivering projects, and 120 projects currently underway”. Clearly, in this kind of scenario there is a lack of focus for the organisation. What really needs to occur is to limit the number of projects in progress so you can focus your group efforts on achieving key outcomes.
In this kind of scenario, trying limiting the number of projects to, say, 20-30 and put a policy in place that says, you can only start a new project when an old one is completed. You start to create a bias towards delivery and completion of work to reap benefits sooner.