Don't have a blocked column

Nader Talai
Kanban Board Blocked Column (1)

Write your answer to this question before reading further, 

How do you show that a work item (story, customer request) is blocked?

Have a look around your organisation and the electronic tools. If you use them, how many visualisations do you see with a Blocked column? The chances are the majority have a Blocked column.

Read on to see why the Blocked column has many drawbacks and what is the alternative. 

I am not suggesting that we hide the fact that the work is Blocked, but what I am suggesting is that there is a better way to visualise the fact that a work item is blocked and measure the impact and use the visualisation and the data to tackle the root causes of the Block.

Don't mix waiting with Blocked.

Some visualisations mix these two as one, and it is misleading if your workflow requires approval, legal, risk, governance input. Then this is not Blocked but waiting for the feedback, and you need to capture the wait times and then tackle the sources of delay and removing them.  Knowing what they are and how long they delay work item completion is the first step towards resolving the underlying causes. Here's an example.

Kanban Board Workflow

What are the drawbacks of having a Blocked column?

Here is the list of reasons why you want to reconsider Blocked as a state. 

  1. The board is a visualisation of the significant knowledge discovery steps. Blocked isn't one
  2. When work goes to the Blocked column, the team members wash their hands off it and expect the Block to be resolved by someone else. Other side effects are
    1.  the work items start to age, they stay in Blocked column for a long time
    2. Visualisations that use Work In Progress (WIP) limits and honour them start increasing the WIP limits on the Blocked column as work is waiting more, another indicator that the team sees this as someone else's issue
  3. Loss of information, when we annotate a work item as Blocked in situ, we know at which discovery step we are blocked, and we can take action; the step we are in tells us what action is required to unblock the work. Work in a blocked column has lost this information
  4. Loss of information, selection criteria. We select work items to be worked on in value order. When work moves to a blocked column, this information is lost
  5. Backflow,  when we move the work item to a blocked column, we have to move it back to the state it was in

 

What is the alternative?

Annotate the work item in situ with a blocked flag, and this immediately visualises where the work got to before it got blocked and points to what in your current ways of working is leading to work getting blocked and taking longer to resolve. When the work item is blocked on the annotation, capture enough details about what is the Block for further analysis. Most teams use a red/pink blocked sticker to annotate the work item. See the example below.

Blocked work item

Do you fix the root cause of the blockades?

Like most teams, you get a tactical fix to the Blocked item and do not tackle the root cause. 

Add this step

Instead of removing the Blocked flag and discarding them, keep them all and, on a regular interval, say once every month, carry out blocker clustering. Group the causes to those internal to your team and those outside then as a team, cluster the Blockers and tackle the root causes perhaps tackle one or two easy to fix ones to build up confidence and then look at the impact/frequency of the blockers on your work and attack them.

It is tempting to see every Blocker as outside the team and flag them as it is them. Resist this temptation. Klaus and Troy have an excellent article that describes blocker clustering in more detail; I recommend reading this article from Klaus Leopold and Troy Magennis. Read more here

Summary

  • Instead of creating visualisation with a Blocked column, annotated work items with a blocked flag.
  • Capture enough details on the blocked flag for later analysis
  • Keep ownership of the Blocked work items and work to resolve the Block
  • Remove the Blocked flag and keep them for the last root cause analysis
  • Blocking work items add delay to your work and extend the time to complete, tackle the sources of the uncertainty that are caused by Blocked item and improve your ways of working and reduce the time to complete the work items

 

Related links

Resist jumping into the delivery

Visualise your Value flow

What is really slowing your organisation

Systems Thinking Approach to Implementing Kanban

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