When workflow isn’t column, column, column

What do you make of the board above? Chaotic? Crazy? – and how would you model it online?

I’m not recommending the board above. It has a number of interesting, possibly unique, features we can learn from but I’m not dissecting it today. What I do want to do is point out: work doesn’t always happen in neat little well defined columns.

⁃ Visualising work is an important step to improving workflow
⁃ But workflow can be complex and most online tools can’t handle complex layouts
⁃ That is fine for big-upfront-change Scrum
⁃ But not for Kanban (and Xanpan) when you “start with where you are” and improve incrementally
⁃ I’m delighted to have found KanbanZone

While you might want work to flow rationally, in neat stages, columns, that is often the endpoint not the starting point. The To do, In Progress and Done “triple column” layout might be the default board layout for teams, and it might be you preferred layout. It might even be a starting point or an end-point. But none of that means it is the right layout for your team now.

The team with this board tried several other designs but they didn’t work for them. Eventually they came up with this, it worked for them and it hung around for a while. I always thought it was over complicated but it worked for them.

As an advisor, be it a coach or mentor, I often need to decide whether a team should undertake lots of change up front. Or, whether it is better to “drip feed” change in. Minimal change to start with but a longer tail of change.

Sometimes ramming change through at the start can be the right thing: when team and leaders are up for change and they want to see rapid results. Jumping straight to a triple column design and embracing Scrum cab be the right thing to do.

But this approach can fall down for several reason. Perhaps the team are not keen on change. Or perhaps there are multiple sources of work – a lot of BAU and random “unplanned but urgent” work. Perhaps when there are multiple products and projects in play, perhaps with multiple product owners. Or perhaps, because you can’t see what the end state risk is high.

The alternative is to model what we have now, change it as little as possible to make the model work and then watch it in action. The board mirrors the workflow. This is why I say “A board is a team’s lightsaber, every team has to build their own.”

Over time the design is tweaked and changing the board design now changes the workflow. The two mirror each other. The board has become a voodoo doll, or perhaps I should say “digital double”. To start with the board visualises the workflow but in time the workflow implements the board. They are the same thing.

I’m describing the Kanban principle: “Start with what you are doing now.” Rightly or wrongly I think of this as “Start with where you are” – I’m told this is very Buddhist!

This contrasts with the Scrum approach, “Scrum exists only in its entirety” says the Scrum Guide which leads to a change model of “Do Scrum, change everything!”

We are back to the Kanban paradox: Kanban is easy to start but to make it work, and to keep improving, after the initial start you need more expert help. Scrum in contrast front loads the change so all the help is needed at the start and later on there is less change and less expert help needed. But Scrum can also mean change stalls.

The Kanban incremental change model isn’t risk free. Without early wins it is harder to build trust. When leaders see a lot of change happening they are more willing to accept the argument that the changes are bedding and there will be more jam tomorrow. Without early wins or big changes they wonder what is happening.

Both approaches can suffer from the “I’m feeling better” problem. Teams see results and loose the energy to change while leaders see results and stop paying for the consultant.

Even before Covid companies and teams wanted to use electronic tracking tools. Back then I always suggested teams start physically and only go electronic with some experience. With remote working in the post lockdown world this is just about impossible.

Now we have a problem: Almost every tool I’ve ever seen works the same, in columns.

If you want to “start with what you are doing now”, if you want to model the current workflow then quite possibly you can’t. Which means you either create an inaccurate model, force workflow changes right at the start (make work fit the model), or maybe create an even more complex and subtle model which is mentally taxing and requires you to think a lot about what you are seeing. A good board speaks without the need to thinking too much.

Put it simply: there is an art to board design and most tools limit your thinking.

If I had written this blog six months ago I would have said “All tools” but I have found one which is different: KanbanZone.

Before Christmas I was struggling to model one clients work with others tools. Then I found KanbanZone that changed. I now have a tools which allows me to model complex board layouts and which teams which love it. Once teams can visualise the work they can reason about it and rethink about their processes.

Now forgive me. This is a KanbanZone partner link. You get a 60-day free trial and I make a little money if you buy it later. But money is not the reason I’m recommending it, I’m recommending it because I think this tool is different to the others I’ve seen.

2 thoughts on “When workflow isn’t column, column, column”

  1. Tara E Santmire

    I think you should look at Agile Place formerly LeanKit from Planview. I have done some very complex boards with it.

    1. Allan Software Strategy

      Yes, I LeanKit used to be my go-to tool. But when I went to the Planview website a few weeks ago it wasn’t clear whether it was still available as a tool in its own right. Looked as if you needed to by the Planview suite.

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