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 look into the consequences that such behavior has on your workflow, as well as the most effective approaches to avoid it.

The Negative Impact of Moving Cards Backward on Your Kanban Board

Cumulative Flow Diagram with decreasing bands

Let’s analyze the Cumulative Flow Diagram (CFD) above. We see that on August 6th, the band that represents the ‘Code Review’ (Done) state is going down. What does this mean?

You might argue that the diagram hasn’t been constructed properly, because the lines are decreasing, which violates the properties of CFDs. However, you should always remember that the Cumulative Flow Diagram, just like any other analytical tool, is representing your workflow within your own context. So, if the bands are going down, this means that cards are moving backward on your Kanban board, or they have been discarded altogether.

If you see this pattern on your CFD, this only means that your workflow supports that antipattern and it is time to start asking the right questions.

If that’s the case, there are a few other side effects that you’ll most probably observe. The top line of each band on the CFD represents the arrival rate of tasks in this process state, while the bottom line shows their departures.

Workflow efficiency - arrival rate and departure rate

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. And 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 hinder your ability to make accurate data-driven decisions as it will introduce odd behavior in your flow metrics.

Furthermore, you will be constantly breaking your WIP limits. WIP limits are designed to help you align demand with capability, eliminate multitasking and context switching, and improve the efficiency of your flow. If your team is working at full capacity at any of the previous process states, moving cards back on the board will ultimately exceed these limits, which in turn will affect your performance. 

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 board and Kanban analytics 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.

Reveal the Root Cause behind the Obstacles Hindering Your Performance

Let’s say you don’t have enough information at your disposal to work on an item further. You’ve already spent time and effort on it, and you got blocked along the way. By moving the card back to the backlog, you are discarding all the time and effort that you’ve already spent on it. Essentially, what you’re doing is communicating that this item has never been started. 

You’re actually covering up a problem which, if you had analyzed, could have been tackled properly. It would have led to a much smarter solution, like introducing DoD, DoR or AC, to make sure everyone is aligned with the goal the work is supposed to achieve. The main point is, you are losing an opportunity for improvement.

What if an item that is currently in progress no longer makes sense from the customer perspective, so you’d be best to stop working on it? If you move it to the backlog or even worse, if you discard it altogether, you won’t be able to investigate what has caused that behavior and figure out the means to prevent it from happening again. A much better solution would be to categorize the card as “Abandoned” and complete it instead.

If this is the situation you are facing right now, you probably need to think about an alternative prioritization mechanism that will keep your focus on the work that brings value to your business and your customers. In our Sustainable Predictability digital course, we address this challenge by building the foundation of a risk management framework that will help you sequence your work items by their value, at the moment you add them to your backlog.

By moving your abandoned work to your ‘Done’ state instead of deleting them altogether, you preserve the knowledge you’ve gained, which will ultimately prove useful during your Retrospectives later on. 

Another common scenario that often triggers this antipattern is handling defects during the ‘Testing’ phase. If you discover an issue with the implementation, instead of moving the work item back and forth, block it in the ‘Testing’ state and create a new defect card in the ‘Development’ (Queue) state.

Moving cards backward on your Kanban board - handling defects during testing

That way, the new card will count towards your WIP limit, and the focus will move to sort out all quality issues before initiating new work. This approach will enable you to evaluate the number of defects that you are handling in the long run and better understand how failure demand impacts your customer demand overall.

View Your Workflow as a Knowledge Discovery Process

Moving cards backward on your Kanban system may only feel intuitive if you are treating the columns on your board as containers for specialties. Your workflow steps are not containers for specialties, these are the activities in your values stream and they should represent your knowledge discovery process.

Representing your knowledge discovery process means that on the left side of the board, you start with the activities in which you have little knowledge and, as you go further through the process, you collect more information about the problem you’re solving.

Each column is then a phase of unearthing more knowledge, and it doesn’t exclude the rest of the activities.

Moving cards backward on your Kanban board - knowledge discovery process

If your work item is under the ‘Development’ state, nothing prevents the analysts from performing additional research on the work, even though it is no longer under ‘Analysis’. In the same way, nothing prevents the developers from implementing automation tests, even though the task moved to the ‘Testing’ state in the process. 

You need to look into your process steps in terms of the flow of work, not from a specialization perspective.

If you perceive your workflow as a knowledge discovery process, it won’t make any sense to move work backward, because all the previous states do is denote that you have less knowledge about what you’re working on. As you spend more time on an item, you discover more information. So, it only ever makes sense for the card to move forward in the process.

Moving cards backward on your Kanban board can hinder your ability to make accurate data-driven decisions and lead to lost opportunities for improvement. 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.

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