Work In Process Limits, Revisited

This content is syndicated from LeadingAgile by Mike Cottmeyer. To view the original post in full, click here.

I am noticing a troubling trend with many of the organizations I interact with. The project teams have a release date, a relatively fixed team size, and somewhere between 5 to 10 times more work in the backlog than they are ever actually going to get finished. People are in absolute denial about how much work can really get done in the time allotted. When I call them on this fact, they often mumble about contractual obligations and executives that just expect them to get it done.

Let’s level set for a moment… Scrum limits work in process by enforcing the simple rule that the Product Owner gets to decide what gets built, and the team gets to decide how much gets built. The velocity of the team becomes the work limiting factor for the sprint. Kanban teams limit work in process by setting explicit limits on the number of items that can be in any given queue at any given time, forcing the team to remove the bottlenecks before taking on any new work.

Not rocket science, right?

Here is what is hard… far too many organizations are way too overcommitted. Very senior people have made very visible commitments, to very visible customers, and going back on those commitments can be career limiting. I am convinced that many managers would rather live in denial than face the reality of their situation. They would rather live under the illusion that if they put more pressure on the organization, more stuff will get done.  Somehow we have to get past this barrier.

So here is the deal… limiting work in progress requires an agreement across the entire organization to limit the work in progress. Makes sense huh? Abstracting a gigantic backlog behind a product owner, or even a work in process limit, only works if you have agreement from your senior leaders that they are willing to play by the rules and actually limit work in process. If you try to enforce a rule that they haven’t agreed to, that is formula for frustration and poor performance reviews.

Should I use Scrum in this situation? I don’t care. Should I use Kanban? I don’t care about that either. What I want you to do is visualize all that work you have in queue and come to terms with what can actually be done. No wishful thinking allowed… past performance will be our only indicator of future performance. Once you have a solid idea of what is possible, help your organization come to terms with that reality. Pretending is no longer allowed.

Warning… this is a VERY difficult conversation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

two × 4 =

There are 101 ways to do anything.
To find the best way, sometimes you need expert help

What People Say

“Kelly was engaged as a Program Director on a complex business and technology transformation program for Suncorp Commercial Insurance. Kelly drew on his key capabilities and depth of experience to bring together disparate parties in a harmonised way, ensuring the initiate and concept phases of the program were understood and well formulated. Excellent outcome in a very short time frame. ”


“Kelly and I worked together on a very large project trying to secure a new Insurer client. Kelly had fantastic commercial awareness as well as his technical expertise. Without him I would never had secured this client so I owe a lot to him. He is also a really great guy!”


“I worked with Kelly whilst at Thoughtworks and found him to be a most inspiring individual, his common-sense approach coupled with a deep understanding of Agile and business makes him an invaluable asset to any organisation. I can't recommend Kelly enough.”


“Kelly is an Agile heavy-weight. He came in to assess my multi-million $ Agile development program which wasn’t delivering the right throughput. He interviewed most of the team and made some key recommendations that, when implemented, showed immediate results. I couldn’t ask for more than that except he’s a really nice guy as well.”


“Kelly revolutionised the way our digital department operated. A true advocate of agile principles, he quickly improved internal communication within our teams and our internal clients by aligning our business and creating a much enhanced sense of transparency in the decisions the business was making. Kelly also introduced a higher sense of empowerment to the development teams...”


“Kelly’s a leading program director with the ability to take charge from day one and keep strong momentum at both a program and project level driving prioritisation, resourcing and budgeting agendas. Kelly operates with an easy-going style and possesses a strong facilitation skill set. From my 5 months experience working with Kelly, I would recommend Kelly to program manage large scale, complex, cross company change programs both from a business and IT perspective.”


“I worked with Kelly on many projects at IPC and I was always impressed with his approach to all of them, always ensuring the most commercially viable route was taken. He is great at managing relationships and it was always a pleasure working with him.”


“Kelly was a great colleague to work with - highly competent, trustworthy and generally a nice bloke.”


“Kelly was a brilliant CTO and a great support to me in the time we worked together. I owe Kelly a great deal in terms of direction and how to get things done under sometimes difficult circumstances. Thanks Kelly.”


“Kelly came to the department and has really made a huge impact on how the department communicates, collaborates and generally gets things done. We were already developing in an agile way, but Kelly has brought us even more into alignment with agile and scrum best practices, being eager to share information and willing to work with us to change our processes rather than dictate how things must be done. He is highly knowledgable about agile development (as his active blog proves) but his blog won't show what a friendly and knowledgeable guy he is. I highly recommend Kelly to anyone looking for a CTO or a seminar on agile/scrum practices - you won't be disappointed!”


“Kelly is an extremely talented and visionary leader. As such he manages to inspire all around him to achieve their best. He is passionate about agile and has a wealth of experience to bring to bear in this area. If you're 'lucky' he might even tell you all about his agile blog. Above all this, Kelly is great fun to work with. He is always relaxed and never gets stressed - and trust me, he had plenty of opportunity here! If you get the chance to work with Kelly, don't pass it up.”



To explore how we can help you, please get in touch