Implementing Agile – Part II – WIP

The first big “Agile” change I implemented was standup. Without it you can’t even begin to know what’s going on in your team, let alone help accomplish all it needs. But all standup is, is a daily window into what everyone is doing.

That helps you know what’s going on, on a day-to-day bases. But that doesn’t help you take control over what’s getting done.

The second most impacting element of Agile I implemented was limiting Work In Progress (WIP). This is one of the fundamental elements of Kanban.

Kanban means “signboard” in Japanese. The origins are fascinating and you can read all about its origins at Toyota.

On its most elemental level it is a representation of a board consisting of:

  • Everything that needs to get done (Todo)
  • What is being done (Doing)
  • What has been completed (Done)

Why this is important?

When the WIP is not controlled what typically happens is that things that need to get done ASAP are secretly assigned to the people most likely to get them done. Regardless of what they’re working on at the time.

I’m sure you have “the someone” you go to, in each department, who will get done that thing you need ASAP. Likely, that person is the same person most people “in the know” go to as well.

You end up with work piling up on your team — a bottleneck. This overwhelms their cognitive load. People don’t actually “multitask” we just jump back and forth between tasks.

This is an important point. People are not good at multitasking. As more work is placed on a worker, they becomes less effective.

How it works

We mentioned above that there are three columns on your Kanban board: ToDo, Doing, Done. This can be adjusted as you develop a system, but these are the three most important pieces.

Each team member has a limit of how many cards in the Doing column that can be assigned to them.

This number can be anywhere from 1-3. Any more than 3 is unrealistic and counterproductive. Some people like jumping between tasks as their day progresses, so 1 isn’t necessarily ideal either.

Everything that has to get done is put into the ToDo column, and when tasks are finished, they’re put into he Done column.

If a task gets blocked by an external factor while it’s being worked on, it should be flagged and set aside. Once a task is flagged, another task can be picked up.

At standup make sure to review all the flagged tasks, and make sure something is being done to unblock the tasks.

The person who runs the board can prioritize the ToDo column, but they should not assign tasks.

This is for two reasons: First, people will be happier if they’re picking up their own work, at the pace they work. Second, people are not good at multitasking. As more work is placed on a worker, they becomes less effective.

If you need to assign an urgent new task to someone who is already at capacity, you need to free up that capacity first.

You can do this by either by having them un-assign a task from themselves — freeing it up for the next available person — or by waiting for them to be available.

Only once you’ve freed them up, you can ask if they are able to pick up the urgent task at hand.

What it does

This creates magic.

Seriously. People are more free to focus on the tasks at hand, and only those tasks. If something comes up to disrupt them, they put it in the todo list — the backlog — and refocus on the task at hand.

When they’re done with a current task they can see what’s next. They’re not juggling a dozen urgent tasks, wasting brain capacity on worrying about not dropping something.

No one person has too much on their plate, everyone is helping with the load.

If it becomes clear that *only one person* is relied upon for too many things, you can focus on how to un-silo that expertise, so your whole team is effective.


This will succeed or fail on your ability to funnel all the work that your team is doing through this board.

If you position yourself as the gatekeeper, people will go around you… to “their person” directly. So sell your team first on this. It’s to their benefit, as it will free them up to focus on their work, as they’re working on it.

So your team needs to be responsible for adding the “special” tasks to the backlog. Or forwarding those tasks to you.

Since you’re doing a daily standup, you will be able to see quickly if people are keeping to this — does their cards in the “Doing” column match what they say they are doing?

Have a visual board that everyone can see at all times. It can be a cork board, or digital. But it should be accessible to everyone.

Make sure your process is simple. If it’s too complicated, it won’t be adopted. This means that when a new task comes in, it should be easy for your the people on your team to add that task to the board.

The Bottom Line

People are not good at multitasking. As more work is placed on a worker, they becomes less effective.

Relying on “that person” to get all the most urgent things done in the company is a recipe for disaster. Things will fall through the cracks.

Limit your team member’s work in progress — 2,3 tasks at most.

Have them pick up tasks when they are done with the last task — don’t assign, prioritize.

If you do this, you’ll be balancing your resources more efficiently, and no one person will be overwhelmed by trying to juggle too many clandestine tasks.

If you’re not getting everything done. Well, at least now you know everything you’re not getting done.