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The Problem with Using a "Blocked" Column in Kanban
This post explores the negative impacts of using a "Blocked" column in Kanban, and explains why teams should take ownership of blocked work items to improve flow and address organizational dysfunction
When it comes to managing their workflow, many teams combine the use of Scrum and Kanban. While this can be a powerful combination, there is a common mistake that many teams make when they encounter blocked work items.
Imagine a team using a Kanban board to visualize their workflow and has implemented WIP limits of three to ensure that they are not taking on too much work at once. Let me paint a picture:
During the sprint, the team get blocked on two items for reasons such as a lack of information, dependency issues, or a technical problem. The team decides to move the two blocked work items to a "Blocked" column on the Kanban board. They feel this frees up two slots in doing and thus allows the team to pull in two new items; shown below:
This is what is wrong with blocked
Inflated WIP: The use of a "Blocked" column in a workflow allows the team to exceed their WIP limits, leading to an artificially inflated WIP. As seen in the scenario described earlier, the team's WIP limit was three items, but after encountering two blocked items, they moved them to the "Blocked" column and started working on two new items, bringing their WIP to five. This defeats the purpose of WIP limits, which is to prevent overload, reduce multitasking, and improve flow.
Lack of ownership: Using a "Blocked" column can also lead to a lack of ownership and accountability for resolving blocked work items. When a team encounters a blocked item, they may move it to the "Blocked" column and hope someone else will address it. This can lead to a lack of collaboration, transparency and a failure to deliver value to the customer.
Insufficient commitment: Using a "Blocked" column can also indicate a lack of commitment to continuous flow improvement. When teams encounter blocked work items, they should view them as impediments to flow and work collaboratively to resolve them. Doing so allows them to identify process improvements and continuously improve their workflow. Using a "Blocked" column can lead to complacency and a lack of motivation to improve.
Feature Factory: Using a "Blocked" column can also indicate a "feature factory" mindset of churning orders without focusing on flow and value delivery. When teams encounter blocked items, they should stop and address the issues rather than simply moving them to the "Blocked" column and working on something else. Doing so can improve flow and increase the team's capacity to deliver value to the customer.
Disrespecting Value: Using a "Blocked" column can disrespect the Product Owner's need for maximising value delivery. When the team moves a high-priority item to the "Blocked" column and starts working on a lower-priority item, they are not prioritizing the value needs. Effectively they are choosing to work on lower-value items and not address and deliver the higher-valued items. This can lead to a lack of trust and a failure to deliver value to the customer.
Using a "Blocked" column is an anti-pattern in Kanban as it undermines the purpose of managing the flow and removing impediments that disrupt the workflow. It fosters a traditional management approach focused on maximizing utilization and capacity rather than prioritizing the flow of value to customers.
What should be done
When a team reaches their WIP limit and work items are blocked, it is important that the blocked items remain blocked. WIP Limits are there to address issues like this. At this point, the team should figuratively pull the Andon cord and stop working. They should swarm around the blocked item, take ownership of it, and actively work to remove the impediment. This process will likely reveal many organizational dysfunctions that caused the blockage in the first place.
It is essential to recognize that revealing these dysfunctions and addressing them is the point of this process. By making these dysfunctions transparent, inspecting them, and making appropriate changes, teams can change how the organization works so that these flow issues no longer become issues.
Using Kanban to achieve these goals requires significant discipline, as it requires teams to stop and fix systematic flow issues within the organization. However, by doing so, the organization will ultimately improve in the long run, achieving the reasons why Agile were introduced in the first place. By continuously improving their workflow and optimizing their flow of value to customers, teams can deliver more value and achieve their objectives.
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