How to use Work in Progress (WIP) Limits in Recruiting

One of the key principles in Sprint Recruiting is the use of Work in Progress (WIP) limits to help manage candidates through the process.

The AGILE methodology defines WIP limits as fixed constraints that individuals, teams, or organizations create to limit the total number of work items in process at any given time. They are most commonly used by teams to limit how many cards or products can be active at once.

If you want an idea of how WIP limits help any process, think of the infamous scene with Lucille Ball and her cohort trying to keep up with the factory belt at the chocolate factory. As the speed increased, she and her friend frantically try to keep up the pace wrapping each of the chocolates. It’s one of the best scenes of the show!

There are a lot of similarities between that scene in the chocolate factory and recruiting. I felt just like Lucy 9 out of the 10 days prior to implementing Sprint Recruiting.


In late 2017, I attended an AGILE training to learn the methodology and how we would be implementing it throughout our organization. We participated in an activity that reminded me a lot of the scene from the chocolate factory. After several failed attempts, the facilitator imposed WIP limits on us for each stage of the process. Ironically, placing limits on the process actually increased our production and efficiency.

I remembered the mind blown feeling I had coming out of the excercise as I tried to wrap my head around how limits created more productivity. I guess I had become accustomed to thinking the more you were doing at one time increased efficiency and productivity.

Similarly, when I introduced WIP limits to the team for our beta version of Sprint Recruiting, all of us struggled trying to place limits on stages of the process. The limits we chose to use were number of candidates in each stage or bucket of the process.

If you think about any recruiting process, it really comes down to three lanes or stages:

1. Recruiter Screening/Interviewing

2. Hiring Manager submissions

3. Hiring Manager interviewing

We ran some tests on each stage to determine what the WIP limits should be. We had some recruiters who did high volume recruiting and others who worked on more mid to executive level jobs. There was a lot of debate around whether there should be different WIPs for high volume roles versus the others. We tested this theory but found that establishing the same WIP limit across the team was easier to monitor and there was very little variance between the two volumes of recruiting.

Once we agreed on what he limit should be for how many we should have in the recruiter screening or interviewing stage, we moved on to test the Hiring Manager submission stage. This stage we defined as when the manager is sent a candidate to review.

We set the bar high initially at ten candidates in this stage but discovered quickly that was too many. Managers were either complaining that we were sending too many candidates or complaining they didn’t have enough time to review the candidates. We also had other managers who would go into over analysis paralysis. Once we decided the WIP for this group was five, we began seeing a lot of progress.

When we got to the next stage, Hiring Manager Interviewing, we decided to learn from our previous test and set the WIP at five. We determined if managers became easily overwhelmed with five submissions, they’d be even more overwhelmed with more than five interviews in process.

For those who are visual learners, here’s what our process looks like:

As you can see above, candidates are pulled through the process versus the traditional recruiting method of pushing candidates through. If all you do is continuously push candidates through the various stages of your process, you’ll begin to resemble the chocolate factory and not the pristine recruiting shop you want to run. Candidates who are disqualified at any point in the process open up a slot for a potentially qualified candidate to take their place.

Our managers had to come around on this process but most of that was because of their inherit fear of missing out on “the other good candidate out there”. Let’s face it, we lose a lot of a great candidates in our broken processes because managers keep thinking their candidate in shining offer hasn’t been discovered. Oftentimes, the perfect candidate had already been identified and interviewed but chose to take another opportunity due to the length of the recruiting process.

WIP limits cure that problem.


After almost a year in our Sprint Recruiting methodology, we love our WIP limits. They help us not only keep track of candidates but prioritize our focus and work. When the process becomes bogged down by managers not giving timely feedback or a backlog of candidates who need to be reviewed or interviewed, we can quickly identify the obstacle, address it and keep the process going.

It’s perhaps one of the hardest aspects of Sprint Recruiting we had to implement but has paid dividends in our ability to meet the needs of our candidates and clients.

Published by Trent Cotton

I joined the HR industry in 2004 after working as a sales leader in the Financial Services Industry for eight years. After spending his first couple of years in HR trying to fit in, I found my voice. Now I leverage all of the things I once hated about HR to become a consultant and invaluable partner to the businesses I support. My passion to lead, innovate and engage the HR industry. I use my blog at NakedHR.me to reach thousands of readers and provides unique insights into a range of HR and business topics. I currently write for NakedHR.me and SprintRecruiting.com. I contribute to the HRGazzette and to DataDrivenInvestor on Medium. WARNING: my writing style is raw and in your face, not what you would expect from an HR executive. Connect with me on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/trentcotton or on Twitter @TrentCotton.

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