One drizzly morning in Seattle I was attending a stand-up with my team when I saw a team member put a new card up on the kanban board, move it to the “doing” lane and immediately mark it as blocked. This wasn’t the first time I had seen this happen and red flags starting popping up in my head. I spoke up and asked why a new card was immediately blocked. The answer was “I started this work and I need this piece from Ops before I can finish it so now its blocked because I’m waiting on Ops. I sent him an email.” It turned out that the Ops engineer didn’t even know he had something to deliver for this card and probably didn’t know that the card existed.
What do you think – are we destined for happily ever after with Ops and Dev in this situation? That’s a solid “nope.” But, we were fortunate because this problem is usually easy to avoid if we just adopt a simple policy about starting work and embrace the golden rule.
Blocked cards explained
When a piece of work can’t be continued due to something that you didn’t anticipate, you might mark it as blocked. A blocked card is a signal to the rest of the team that the card has stalled and is in distress. We want to send this distress signal so good samaritans will come help us get it moving again.
A common policy is for team members to go help with a blocked card before they pick up new work. If you’re using WIP limits to control quality and speed, blocked cards slow down the rate at which you can pull in new work and your cycle time increases. If you aren’t using WIP limits and you pull in new work on top of your blocked work, over time your inventory of in-progress work increases to a point in which your system is very stressful and unpredictable. The management of the work inventory creates new work called failure demand and the cycle continues. Either way, we want to clear those blockers out of the path of oncoming work as soon as we can.
4 steps to avoid unnecessary blockers
Often we’re so quick to grab new work that we don’t consider what coordination can and should happen before the card is pulled into the workflow. I encourage teams to adopt the policy “don’t pull in work that you know you can’t finish.” This helps us prevent creating blocked-card drama that can be avoided.
Answer this question: What work provides value… half-done work or finished work? (Hint: its the latter.) To help ensure you don’t create lots of half-done work, strive to do the following steps before you bring any new work past the line of commitment on your board:
- Ensure you understand and document all known dependencies for fully completing the card.
- If the card can be broken down into smaller, yet still individually valuable pieces, break the one card into multiple cards (which have the dependencies clearly stated).
- Communicate with teams you are dependent upon to coordinate timelines to understand when you will get what you need.
- Determine when it is appropriate to commit to start the work based on coordinated timelines.
Doing these four simple steps won’t always prevent blocked cards from occurring. But, it may save you being labeled the proverbial “drama queen” of the team when it comes to blockers. Most teams don’t like avoidable drama.
Walking in someone else’s shoes
I often say that we learned most of what we need to know about successfully working with others when we were in Kindergarten. Unfortunately I observe that we easily forget that learning too often. In the situation with my team member, I explained to him that if I was the Ops person that was suddenly blocking his work , I’d be very irritated to be called out as a problem when I’d never really been asked if I could do the work. If I were the Ops person, I’d likely be compelled embrace the old adage “A lack of planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine.” When we stop to put ourselves in the shoes of those we work with and depend on, we begin to understand how we participate in creating our emotional environment. We should take every opportunity to create and maintain a balanced environment that is conducive to our goals.
So, if we remember to follow the four steps, adopt the mantra “don’t start what you can’t finish” and remember the golden rule, we should be off to a good start!