Agile in Practice: Kanban

July 8, 2020 | Peter Cronin

3 Tips to increase Workflow visibility (and reduce meetings) in Agile Software Teams

So, you’re probably already using Kanban boards or some other type of system that allows you to visualise work, limit the work in progress, and maximise the flow of work (efficiency) through your team. The team knows what work needs to be done during the current sprint, what work people are doing (or have started), and what work has been done (completed)…

But, do you find that you still need to have a lot of meeting to find out what someone is working on right now, course-correct priorities for ‘urgent’ jobs, or chase up jobs to see when they’ll be finished?


The limitations of Kanban-style boards

Kanban boards and other Kanban-style systems provide increased visibility of the work planned for the current sprint, and the work that is in progress during the sprint. However, what you’ll frequently see is multiple ‘doing’ tasks for each developer. In some cases, that might be unavoidable, but it presents two main issues:

  • There is a rise of work in progress and multitasking that occurs when individuals have multiple tasks in progress at the same time. This means they’ve got all these things on, there’s a mental burden of switching between the tasks, understanding what needs to be done, and getting back into the zone.
  • It’s not that visible what people are actually working on at any given time. If your team has just got a to-do list and there are multiple things in it to be done, and that have been started, considering it’s meant to be a system for visibility, it’s not that visible what you’re actually working on. This means team leaders and managers can end up needing to have more meetings just to be updated.

Meetings for updates of progress only ever occur when it’s not visible where things are anyway.

If it was obvious where things are you wouldn’t have to have the meeting. So, if there’s uncertainty around which of the tasks ‘being done’ a person is focusing on right now, that’s going to put on more meetings which is going to give more interruptions and that’s all just from a lack of visibility of where things are at.

Yes, Kanban-style boards provide visibility around the work in progress, but if there’s not much more information on the board, then managers are going to end up asking for more details about where it’s at how it’s progressing, everything like that.

How can we increase the visibility of our work if we already use Kanban-style boards?

The simplest way of increasing visibility of work on your Kanban-style board is setting up a system that allows the team to quickly add more information, and is easily seen.  Increasing the information that can be easily applied, and easily seen allows everybody to be more in tune with where tasks are at, how the work is progressing, and the team doesn’t have to spend so much time meeting and discussing it. The information should be easy to be applied so that it becomes a habitual behaviour when updating the board. Over-engineering a solution here also runs the risks of more time to meet to discuss what the extra information means!

1. Tracking burn-down rate against time for each sprint – is this task on track to finish on time?

The ideal way to track the burn-down rate of progress for a two-week sprint is to have 10 columns on your Kanban board for ‘doing.’ There are 10 business days in that time, so one column for each day. Once work is released or given to the team to do at the start of the sprint, you can actually see how the team is progressing towards the end of the sprint, and literally shuffle the task cards along to represent the passing of time. Each day you come into work, for example, maybe when you do your stand-up, you move all the task cards one column to the right. Then, as the tasks are completed, you can either whip them off the board, put them in the ‘done’ column, or you could do something like fold them in half. In most cases, the tasks are on Post-it Notes so it’s pretty easy to do either option.

What this does is give your team and team management visibility over how the progress of completion is tracking against the actual deadline of the sprint. People can see whether they’re on track or whether the team is off track and whether they’re likely to hit that target or whether appropriate actions need to be taken.


2. Write the estimated time to handover on each ticket dependent on a chain of people – when will this be ready for the next person?

Another thing you can do to add visibility to the status of a task is to make the individual task cards a little more advanced. Currently, you’ll have what the actual task is and the assigned person’s name on there, if you’ve got the task on the system it might have the ticket number on there. To go a step further, you can also write the estimated time for completion on the ticket.

What this allows you do to at stand-up meetings, when someone talks about, “Oh, I should be finishing that one today at this time,” you can put it on the task card so that people who are next in the chain of tasks can be prepared. They’ll know, “Oh, yeah, that’s going to be ready tomorrow at…” so they can start something that they can finish around about by the estimated handover time.

3. Use pattern recognition to create a small set of rules

There are multiple things you can do to enable pattern recognition; you can get stickers, you can use coloured dots which mean different things, or use highlighters over the task card just as a quick strike over things you want. The rules should be simple, quick things, things that are easy to see, where the team will instantly know what the rule is and know what that means. Along with being quick to see, they should also be really quick and easy to apply so that people don’t take forever to try and update task cards, they can just go put a mark on it.

Highlight or mark the current item being worked on

One rule you can use can also help decrease the occurrence of people having more than one thing working at once. Instead of folding the Post-it Note over when the task is completed, draw a line through them if they’re actually done and then fold over the Post-it Note for when you’re working on something because that way you can fold it when you’re working on it, and unfold it when you’re no longer working on it. That means things that are started, you’ll be able to see it has been started by what’s had a fold on it in the first place. And then actually fold over the specific one you are working on right now.

And that lets you see, at a glance, what everybody in the team is working on, and the manager can see where things are.

Priority items – use stickers or a colour to mark high-priority tasks

To show a task or job is high priority, you can fold it in half, you can put a gold star on it, maybe a red priority. Reserve this rule only for when it’s now priority, or if it’s at risk of running late.  At the stand-up meeting, the discussion would then include, “All right, gold star all the ones that you need to make sure that when it’s ready for you, that’s the next on your priority list. Whack a gold star on them, then you know, “Oh, there’s a gold star one coming up for me. I’m going to be ready to take that one on.”

Every team will be different, and every team will prefer different rules and patterns to mean different things. The trick is to get your team to create the set of rules together but limit it to no more than three or four rules. If there are too many rules, no one will remember which rule they should apply, or what it means, and then you’ll need to have more meetings again to work it out.