The Kanban Method revolves around the concept that work should be released early and often. To that end, product teams are focused on the constant delivery of value. The challenge lies in defining realistic goals and build sustainable team commitment.

Kanban teams manage to eliminate multitasking and focus on current priorities by limiting the amount of work in progress. However, supporting an environment in which timeframes and goals aren’t present leads to accumulating waste and team demotivation. Kanban encourages adopting a culture of continuous improvement (kaizen). Teams need to challenge themselves to be able to improve their performance and increase the stability and predictability of their workflows.

The Importance of Maintaining User Stories that Define Customer Value

So, how do you introduce metrics to maintain a healthy environment for your workflow? The simple approach that Kanban suggests is to estimate and set the exact same duration for each individual task the team commits to deliver. In Kanban, the team commitment begins as soon as they pull it from the To-Do list until it enters the Done state. A task should have a due date at the moment it enters the flow. At this point, you might be wondering if you should now cut down your tasks to set up more relevant due dates. The answer is no!

Kanban is all about managing the flow of work in order to identify the process issues that reduce a service’s ability to deliver quality work quickly, efficiently, and sustainably. To do that, your user stories should reflect items of true customer value. Naturally, these items will come with different sizes and varying degrees of complexity. Nonetheless, some teams incorrectly conclude that, in order to properly forecast delivery in Kanban, user stories must be cut down to the same size and complexity.

This is one of the most common Kanban misconceptions. Instead, teams should let reality be what it is and let their user stories present a unit of customer value. That means retaining their intended use instead of cutting them into pieces artificially.

This leads to the inevitable question of how to determine relevant due dates and achieve a predictable and managed commitment to delivery without breaking down user stories.

Using Flow Metrics to Set Realistic Due Dates

The answer to the problem of setting realistic due dates lies hidden in the flow metrics, which are based on your past performance. In order to set suitable due dates and commit to realistic goals, your team needs to determine the cycle time of a task and the degree of certainty of it being accomplished. The best way to do this is to look back into your past performance using the Cycle Time Histogram. This analytical chart presents the overall distribution of completion times for all tasks in your process over a given period. The number of user stories necessary to obtain an accurate prediction depends on several factors, but you should have a moderate degree of confidence in the overall bounds of your process after as few as five items have been completed.

Team commitment in Kanban - Cycle time histogram

The Cycle Time Histogram can help you determine both a planned duration along with the probability of achieving that duration. For example, an 85th percentile represents 85% of the user stories measured, while the X-axis shows the cycle time. If at the 85th percentile, the cycle time is 5 days, then we can say with an 85% level of confidence that any story will be delivered in a maximum of 5 days. This is your team commitment.

It must be stressed that this is not an individual commitment. The challenge manifests itself when teams have to coordinate all the work in progress and deal with bottlenecks to achieve that common goal. To smooth out the process, make sure your team has a plan, and discuss it during your daily standups. It’s good practice for everyone to write down which task they’re working on. Review the progress together, and verify whether the plan moves as expected. While going through your Kanban board, pay attention, and focus on the assignments with nearby due dates.

Using the above approach, you will be able to act on time if any impediments appear. Soon, those 5 days will point to your 95th percentile line, which means you will reduce your cycle times and your process will become more predictable.

Avoiding Burnout by Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement

It’s very important that you don’t consider team commitment to be a contract. You should not blame your team if they don’t meet their commitments. Some teams will commit to more work just to find out where their threshold is, and that’s a perfectly healthy thing to do so long as it doesn’t lead to burnout.

In Kanban, feedback loops are essential, since they’re exactly what fuel a culture of continuous improvement. If your team fails to meet its commitments, look back to evaluate what has happened. During your retrospectives determine how many tasks have been overdue and why. This will help you make sure your goals are achievable and don’t lead to overburden. Finally, analyzing your past performance will help you determine an optimal delivery speed.

The Kanban Method provides the means to monitor continuous improvement efforts. As the systems improve, cycle times decrease, and team commitment becomes more sustainable. This fosters an environment in which people are motivated to grow. Motivated teams are happy teams, and that’s exactly what you need to increase customer satisfaction.

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