Optimal Operating Capacity (…WIP Limits?)

Prateek Singh
3 min readOct 11, 2017

The ever insightful Klaus Leopold recently posted “Wip Limits Must Die”. In the article, Klaus makes the argument that having the word “limit” in the description “prompts many people to make an incorrect association”. The term itself might be deterring people from adopting the practice of limiting work in progress. Moreover, it might be focusing too much on the mechanics of the practice, without evoking the reason behind adopting it.

The nomenclature “WIP Limit” runs counter to some of the best marketing advice I have ever heard. When marketing or selling something, you want to appeal to the product’s product’s product. Figure out what is the need your product fulfills (A Subaru provides you with a reliable car), and how people feel when that need is fulfilled (A reliable car makes you feel safe about your loved ones driving it). That feeling (your product’s product’s product) is what you market and associate your brand with. Read more about it on Miles Beckler’s blog. He does a great job of describing it.

As Kluas notes, the term “WIP Limits” evokes that feeling of progress being limited (while, in fact, it does the opposite). When executives and senior management hear WIP limits, they often hear teams saying “No” to customers. This is primarily because, many a time, they don’t have (or spend) the time to truly understand how these limits work. In essence, we might be missing out on buy-in at multiple levels because the marketing of the term is off.

We need a term that gets at the “Product’s product’s product”. WIP limits create a pull system and that results in the most optimal operation of the process. Maybe the term should be “Optimal Operating Capacity”. The system’s right capacity for work which allows it to operate with optimal efficiency. This might also make the concept easier to understand. A system that has much less work than it is capable of handling, is being starved and has the potential of producing more. A system that has a lot more work than it can handle is overloaded and is very likely to under-perform and be highly unstable. There is a small band of overall capacity between these two extremes that helps the system operate in an optimal manner. That is the system’s “Optimal Operating Capacity”.

This term will hopefully help in having more focused conversations on a daily basis. “Are we working at our Optimal Operating Capacity?” is a different question than “Are we over our WIP Limit?”. It reemphasizes the fact that being too far under your Optimal Operating Capacity(OOC) is as bad as being too far over it. Hopefully it drives people at every level of the org to find the optimal capacity for the parts of the system that are their responsibility. It also challenges us to redefine and adjust our capacity as the system changes. Adding people to the team maybe means our OOC has changed. Adopting pair programming means our OOC is likely to have been cut in half from what it used to be. In any case, it would be a number being continuously being optimized.

The language seems like a minor point, but it is what sticks. I don’t necessarily think that Shakespeare had it right. Names and terms convey their connotations. The term “WIP Limit” can have everyone from Developers to Executives thinking that we are saying they are “limit”ed in their capability to handle work. It is true that the ability to handle work is limited at each level, but the word “limit” has a rather negative connotation. Using a more positively inclined term might change the thinking around the concept of limiting work in progress. What is even more important is to communicate the intent of the term. Optimal Operating Capacity, at least to me, has more of a continuous re-evaluation sound to it. It should encourage folks to look for the “Optimal” number.

I am not married to the term Optimal Operating Capacity. I do think it represents what we mean by WIP Limits better and in a more palatable way. It markets the product’s product’s product better and aims to get a broader buy in. Whether it is the one I propose or another, if the term promotes broader understanding and acceptance than the traditional term, lets move on to it.