Hey there my friend, I hope you’re having a wonderful day! Welcome to another article on Nave’s blog, where we talk all things Kanban.

Today, I’ll walk you through the most common mistakes I stumble upon when teams are just getting started with the Kanban Method. My hope is by the end of this article, you’ll have everything you need in your hands to fix them (or prevent them from happening in the first place!)

Without any further ado, let’s dive right in!

How to Get the Most from Your Kanban Data: 5 Pitfalls to Dodge

Let’s go through five mistakes that prevent teams from getting actionable insights from their data and explore what they mean for your processes.

#1 Don’t Default to Project-Level Boards

If your teams work on multiple projects simultaneously, chances are you’re tracking your work on multiple Kanban boards, one for each individual project.

If this is you, you might be thinking, “What’s the problem with this approach, Sonya?”.

Here’s an excellent walkthrough of things that may go wrong:

What happens when your teams work on multiple projects, and your data is all over the place?

If your teams’ work is spread across several Kanban boards, then each individual has multiple #1 priorities, #2 priorities and #3 priorities. How misleading would that be?

Furthermore, and arguably an even more pressing issue with this system design is that you won’t be able to evaluate the capacity of your teams. A team’s capacity is measured through the rate at which they deliver results. So, if you track your data on different Kanban boards, it can be quite challenging to come up with a reliable assessment.

And if you don’t understand what the capacity of your team is, how do you know when to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to an upcoming request?

These issues are caused by one simple mistake. Your boards represent your projects and should depict your teams’ work.

When visualizing the flow of work, remember that boards are created for each team, not for each project.

#2 Don’t Apply Statuses for Purposes They’re Not Intended For

How do you visualize your process on your Kanban board?

You might say: “Just create a few statuses and add the names of your steps.”

Sounds like a simple thing to do, right? You’ll be astonished at how many teams do it wrong from the get-go.

Kanban board | Example

What’s wrong with this board?

First, there is a column called IT. IT is really not an activity. It’s more of a department. There is also a column called Sent to IT. Not really sure what that is either. Creative also sounds like a form of a department.

Here’s the thing.

Visualizing your workflow is all about the process of knowledge discovery.

If you see your process steps as containers for people, you might hinder your ability to make reliable data-driven decisions and thus miss opportunities for improvement.

Your workflows consist of activities. The keyword here is “activities.” When you string these activities together, they form your workflow. Let’s be clear about what activities are not:

Activities aren’t merely handoffs, disciplines, team members, departments, or software environments.

They are none of those things. Activities truly revolve around collaboration. Think about how people naturally come together to get work done effectively.

A well-defined activity has a clear start and end. Consider two individuals closely collaborating yet coming from different disciplines. If it’s unclear when one person’s role ends and the other’s begins, you may not actually have two distinct activities, even if they belong to different departments or have different skills. If that’s the case, instead of using separate columns, you could consolidate them into one.

I’d like to give you some advice about naming columns. First, we want to use tense-free naming. We don’t want to use past tense or future tense. We just want a common approach to naming our columns. Each of our columns should have a unique name and each column should represent an activity.

Activities frequently involve collaboration across disciplines and departments. I can’t emphasize this enough, your activities are all about managing the work itself, not just the individuals involved.

#3 Don’t Use a Blocked Column

Back in the day, in my early years as a product manager, the main issue I was struggling with was how to reduce the amount of blocked work in our workflow.

We were constantly discovering internal and external dependencies, and the time the work was waiting for a resolution was our main source of delays. The bigger problem was that blocking work became a routine and I didn’t have a clear strategy to address this challenge.

We had a dedicated blocked column to hold all the suspended work. If we discovered a blocker and we knew that it wouldn’t get resolved any time soon, we usually went with two options. We either moved it back into the backlog so that we could reschedule it or it was indefinitely positioned in our blocked column.

Today, when I look back, I realize how many mistakes I made by following this approach. Probably, part of the motivation behind that behavior was that we didn’t want to blow up the WIP limits for the columns in which the blocking issue was discovered.

But remember, your workflow represents the activities that your team is performing to deliver customer value.

Having a blocked column contradicts the nature of a workflow. It communicates that blocking work is a standard step in your delivery process!

Furthermore, by using a blocked column, you’re actually getting into even more trouble:

You’re losing focus on delivering the work because somehow, any blocked work item somehow feels like it is no longer your responsibility.

You wouldn’t be able to make accurate delivery commitments because it will be very difficult to measure the actual amount of time it takes to complete work that was started, returned to the backlog and then started again later.

You’ll probably kill the joy of work well done. Starting, pausing, restarting, stopping, then starting again… Rework, or work that is shelved pending and eventually closed as “Won’t Do,” is an engagement killer for anyone who puts their heart and soul into a job.

Last but certainly not least, if your blocked column doesn’t have a WIP limit is a black hole. I’d even go further – a Kanban board with columns without WIP limits is not a Kanban board.

Here’s how to manage blocked work effectively to make the most of your data.

#4 Don’t Discard Work Items in Progress

When your teams start new work, they commit to delivering it.

Once your work items get pulled into your workflow, your teams commit to meeting their customer’s expectations and finishing the work. It’s a promise that should always come with a high level of confidence that they are going to keep it.

Nevertheless, very often, work items get aborted in the middle of the delivery workflow. And here is the thing:

The further your work has moved through your value stream, the higher the amount of time and effort you’ve already spent on it.

If this is a behavior that you observe, it is tremendously important to acknowledge that fact and take action to prevent it from happening again in the future.

The bad approach to handling this situation is to pull the card out from the board or delete it altogether. There are two reasons that prove this point.

First, by removing a task in progress, you break Little’s Law assumptions. Little’s Law defines stable systems. One of Little’s Law assumptions states that “all work that enters the system must flow through the completion and exit of the system”.

Little’s Law assumptions | Image

By deleting a card in the middle of the process, that assumption won’t hold anymore. Therefore, you will affect the stability of your system. The less stable it is, the less predictable it becomes.

And second, by dropping cards out from the board, you lose opportunities for improvement. Aborting something you have already started is a bad practice in every sense.

You want to know what caused that behavior and how often that happens. It is important to learn a lesson from it and identify opportunities for improvement in order to prevent it from happening again. By dropping out discarded items from the board, you don’t solve the problem, you cover it up.

In order to preserve Little’s Law assumptions and enable the possibility to analyze your discarded work, it would be much better to add a “Discarded” label to the ticket and move it to your “Done” column. You can then collect all the discarded items and investigate what has caused that behavior to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

#5 Don’t Move Cards Backward

Moving cards backward on your Kanban board is one of the most common antipatterns that agile teams practice. And often, the negative effect it has on your productivity is not obvious.

If a card doesn’t meet the criteria from the previous step, the first response of many teams will be to move it backward in the process. This may feel intuitive, but in reality, moving work back and forth in your process not only causes odd behavior in your flow metrics and analytics but it also hinders your performance by contributing to the main causes of delivery delays.

Let’s take a look at the Cumulative Flow Diagram, for example.

Cumulative Flow Diagram | Example

When an item goes backward, the card is first added and then subsequently removed from the arrival rate calculation. That action introduces the possibility of you ending up with a negative arrival rate.

Here’s the thing:

In practice, work either has arrived, or it hasn’t – it is not possible to have a negative arrival rate.

Moving work backward then will introduce odd behavior in your flow metrics and as such, it’ll hinder your ability to make accurate data-driven decisions.

Even if we forget about the negative impact on your work management practices for the moment, your goal should always be to reveal the obstacles in the workflow in order to shed a spotlight on your system, understand what is affecting your delivery times and attack the main sources of inefficiency.

The main point of adopting a Kanban is to bring more transparency into your process and help you improve your delivery speed. By moving your work backward, you’re not exposing the problems, you’re hiding them.

Instead, reveal the problems, embrace them, and work upon their prompt resolution. That’s the most effective way to improve your performance and reduce your delivery times.

My friend, I hope this has been helpful. Please share it with your colleagues across your social media channels. I strongly believe this message is important, and I would highly appreciate it if you could help spread the word.

I’ll see you again next week, same time and place, for more managerial insights! I wish you a productive day ahead. Bye for now.

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