Bypassing WIP Limits

Can you break the rules?

I was recently asked a question on managing activities on a Kanban board, specifically in the context of "on-hold" activities or where significant delays are introduced that cause a bottleneck situation. I thought I would share the question and my response. Note: The question and response has been edited for privacy and clarity.

"One thing I’d like to know is how should we handle things that we consider strategic and put on the board but has been on hold for months due to dependencies from our HQ in [another country]? To be specific, we put in “ISO9000” as one of our cards on the board that we want to focus on. However, there are pending budget approvals and we fear it might be put on hold until Q1 next year. What has been the best practice for this situation?

We were thinking of a two ways:
Keep it there but note it’s on hold (which will mean we could be exceeding WIP limits if this in the board)
Take out the card completely"


I'm always happy to answer any of your questions.

This question is not as easy to answer as you might think. There are multiple answers depending on the context or state of the activity. In general, I would look at 4 key approaches.

  1. If you haven't started the activity - Take the card off the board, or put it in a pending/backlog state with infinite WIP. While activities aren't meant to move backwards, I would consider this an accidental move (and shouldn't have been put there in the first place).
  2. If you have started but haven't made any substantive progress - Take it off the board for the same reason as #1. The WIP and pull rules of Kanban are strict, but aren't meant to be followed without some application of common sense.
  3. If you have started and are about 1/2 way through - Can you split the card in two? In other words, have you reached a logical point where you can complete/finish a component of the work? If so, move the current card to Done (or wherever is appropriate) and create a new card for the remainder (and put that in the backlog). If not, you should keep it on the board, but be pragmatic. If it is causing artificial bottlenecks, temporarily increase the WIP by 1. This should be an exception however. If you are finding this is happening frequently, undertake a root cause analysis to find out what is causing these issues.
  4. If you have started, and are nearly finished but waiting on approval/final activities - Keep this activity on the board as a means of keeping pressure on the organisation to finish this activity.

I hope this answers your question?