How to Distinguish Between Activity and Queues on a Kanban Board

My Kanban boards follow a certain pattern, what I call the “Step In Progress then Done” pattern. By default each step in my process has an “In Progress” column and a “Done” column. Some people don’t like that. You wouldn’t believe the number of conversations I’ve had about it. These conversations more or less boil down to me explaining that “Done” is a queue, not an activity. And I want my Kanban board to make it clear that each activity has an associated queue.

Step In Progress then Done

I have steps in my process along the lines of

  1. Spec
  2. Development
  3. Test
  4. UAT
  5. Live

On my Kanban board each step in the process has a column, and each step has two sub-columns: “In Progress” and “Done”. I was doing this anyway but noticed that David Anderson also uses this “Step In Progress then Done” pattern in his book on the The Kanban Method (Anderson, 2010).

Here’s part of such a board:

Kanban Board Step In Progress then Done

Kanban Board Step In Progress then Done

This shows a “Development” step with two sub-columns: “Development In Progress” and “Development Done”.

I like the language here. I can talk about “Development In Progress” and “Development Done”. “Development In Progress” means the “Development” step is “In Progress”. The development activity is actually happening. Somebody is actively working on that card. “Development Done” means the “Development” step is “Done”. The developers are finished and the card is in a queue for the next step – in this case the “Test” step. I can ask the developer “Are you done?”. Ditto for other steps in the process.

My other reason comes from value streams. Kanban boards are meant to reflect the value stream. Value streams map activities and the queues between activities. Time in an activity is adding value. Time in a queue is waste. So I like Kanban boards that make that distinction. The “Step In Progress then Done” pattern does this. It distinguishes between the step, the activity and the queue. “Development” is the step, “Development In Progress” is the activity, and “Development Done” is the queue before the next step. Ditto for other steps in the process such as “Test”.

Kanban Board Step In Progress then Done Activity Queue

Kanban Board Step In Progress then Done Activity Queue

Now I’ll look at some alternatives that I’m not so keen on.

Ready for Step then Step In Progress (misaligned)

Some people look at my boards and say something along the lines of “Instead of ‘Development Done’ you should call it ‘Ready for Test'”. If I did literally what they are suggesting then my board would look like this:

Kanban Board Ready for Step then Step In Progress misaligned

Kanban Board Ready for Step then Step In Progress misaligned

I don’t like because “Ready for Test” is not about the “Development” step at all. it is all in the name. “Ready for Test” is about the “Test” step. I’ve colour coded the steps to highlight this mis-alignment.

Ready for Step then Step In Progress (aligned)

“Come on Steven, get a grip. Just shove the column over”. Yes, you can shove the “Ready for …” columns over to the next step where they belong. You’ll end up with a board like this:

Kanban Board Ready for Step then Step In Progress aligned

Kanban Board Ready for Step then Step In Progress aligned

I like it because each step has a queue and activity. I don’t care whether the queue comes before the activity (as here) or after (as in the “Step In Progress then Done” pattern)

Kanban Board Ready for Step then Step In Progress aligned activity queue

Kanban Board Ready for Step then Step In Progress aligned activity queue

But I still don’t like it because the names no longer roll off the tongue. “Development Done”, from my board at the top, makes sense. The “Test Ready for Test” of this board does not. Easy enough to fix you say. Just change the titles of the sub-columns so they sound right and don’t read the top title. This is what that looks like:

Kanban Board Ready for Step then Step In Progress Full Name

Kanban Board Ready for Step then Step In Progress Full Name

Now I’m wondering why I’ve got those titles at the top. Bit redundant.

Ready for Step then Step

So how about removing the higher level titles entirely. The process would go from “Development” to “Ready for Test” to “Test”. The board would look like this:

Kanban Board Ready for Step then Step

Kanban Board Ready for Step then Step

Nice and clean.

But I don’t like it because this Kanban board doesn’t make a clear distinction between activities and queues. The queues are visually identical to real steps in the process, real activity. But they aren’t activities where value is being added. They are queues where cards waste time.

Conclusion

There is no universal truth here, just a bunch of competing ways to show the same thing. I have my preference – the “Step In Progress then Done” pattern – and explained why I like it. But all other patterns are perfectly good alternatives.

References

Anderson, D. (2010). Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for your Technology Business. Blue Hole Press.

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