Regardless of what type of work your team does, work boards can be a helpful tool. But just because they can be helpful doesn’t mean they are always implemented well.
The most common mistake is when teams don’t keep their work boards up to date with the actual status of work that is being done. Increasing transparency is a great way for stakeholders to understand what is going on and to increase their level of trust in teams. But if the information being presented is out of date or inaccurate, it reduces the team’s credibility and increases the likelihood of these stakeholders asking for separate, redundant status updates. When a work item changes status the work board should be updated immediately. For example, if the team has capacity to pull a new work item from their work queue, the item should be moved on the board just before work actually commences on that item.
Another challenge relates to whose responsibility it is to keep the board up to date. The moment it becomes the job of a coordinator or lead to do so, we reintroduce the overhead of having someone chase team members for status updates. I have seen Scrum Masters who will take time out during a daily Scrum/standup event to update the team’s work board after a team member has mentioned that it doesn’t accurately show the status of their work items. Everyone on the team is responsible for updating the work board based on the work they are doing.
If the work board columns are aligned with the roles of team members, that is not ideal. A work board’s columns should reflect the progressive value being added to a work item till it is complete and very rarely would this evolution map cleanly to the team member’s individual roles. The Goldilocks’ principle also applies to the columns. Have too few, and stakeholders may not get sufficient visibility into work item status and work items might stall for longer than desired without impediments being addressed. Set up too many and it encourages silo-thinking on the part of team members and can result in increased work in progress.
Having a dedicated blocked column is also not a good idea. Blocked is not a normal step in the evolution of a work item and by moving partially completed work items over to a separate column it can affect flow as a natural tendency of a team might be to pull more work items from the queue rather than unblocking the stalled work item. A better approach would be to highlight blocked items within their active work columns.
The next sin relates to work item aging. Ideally, once the team has completed a reasonable number of work items, they will be able to determine what is a reasonable amount of time for a work item of a certain size to remain active. If there isn’t some way for the team and stakeholders to see how long a work item has remained in an active column (i.e. something other than Not Started or Done), then it is hard to proactively determine whether it has been aging longer than it should.
Finally, cluttering a work item card with too much information increases the potential for stakeholder confusion and for inaccurate data. At the bare minimum, a work item card should contain the description of the work to be done, key dates (e.g. requested, started), whether it is blocked or not, and which team members are working on it. Anything beyond this can be helpful, but also increases the effort required for team members to keep information current and accurate.
Work boards can be a powerful tool to help a team visualize their work flow, but as always, with great power comes great responsibility.
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