How to Decrease Wait States to Increase Speed of Delivery

Everyone wants to get more done in less time - but working faster and working longer hours are not sustainable ways to achieve that goal. Working faster usually has a negative impact on work quality, and working longer hours can have devastating effects on morale. Luckily, there is a way to increase speed of delivery without working more - it just requires us to take a more proactive approach to managing our work.  If you’re already using Kanban, you’re taken the first step towards reducing wait states in your process. Read to learn how to tackle blockers, bottlenecks, and queues as a team to increase your overall speed of delivery.

Where Does Work Wait?

In order to move faster, we have to understand the factors that slow our work down, otherwise - where we have wait states.  For most teams, there are three major culprits:

  • Blockers: Internal or external factors that prevent work from moving forward. -- such as needing a stakeholder to review a plan before moving forward.
  • Bottlenecks: Places in your process where work builds up due to a mismatch of capacity and demand.
  • Queues: In most processes, there are predictable places where work waits before moving on to the next step. These wait states, called queues, usually occur at handoffs.

Each of these factors create wait states which can have a significant impact on overall speed. If we can learn to predict these patterns and prevent these culprits from affecting our flow, we can learn to move work through our systems faster and more efficiently.

#1 Visualize Blockers

A blocker is typically waiting on an external dependency, such as approval by someone outside of the team. Kanban systems commonly use a “blocker” symbol to visually indicate work that cannot move forward. This is different from work in a queue, which is often simply waiting its turn to be pulled into process.

Blockers slow work down because they make it harder for us to practice the Kanban concept of “stop starting, start finishing”. Blocked cards clog up our system, making it harder to get anything done. They also double as a useful signal that a piece of work needs immediate attention - helping managers quickly see problems so they can step in and help. Limiting the effect blockers have on your system can help improve your efficiency.

Blockers are one of the easiest metrics to measure, especially for new teams that lack the work history necessary for other metrics. To get started, count how many items are blocked  on your board and record how long those work items stay blocked. The insight you gain from measuring blockers allows you to look at ways to improve flow by reducing both numbers.

It’s important to use blockers in a consistent way across your team. Be sure to establish a process policy for what constitutes as a blocked card. In LeanKit, you can provide an explanation for blockers, that appears when a user hovers over the blocker icon, allowing the entire team to quickly see why a card is blocked.

#2 Find Your Bottlenecks

Inevitably, every process has a bottleneck: There is some step that has a lower capacity than the steps before or after it. This may be because there are fewer resources dedicated to performing this step, or because it requires more time to complete than the other steps in the process. Regardless, this bottleneck is the limiting factor for the capacity of your entire system.

Bottlenecks pose a serious threat to flow. They promote wasteful habits like context switching, which slow down our speed of delivery. If your team is trying to increase its speed of delivery, tackling bottlenecks is a great place to start. Note: It’s important that we use data - and not our feelings - to determine where our bottlenecks are. They often aren’t where we think they are.

Introducing queue lanes (described below and in this article) can help you pinpoint the specific cause of your bottlenecks, so you can move closer towards continuous delivery.

#3 Visualize Queues

As mentioned above, a queue is a place where work is waiting its turn to be pulled into process. When teams first build their boards, they usually only include active steps, such as Design, Develop, Test, and Deploy. But the reality is, our work often spends just as much time in wait states as it does in active work time. Visualizing wait states can help us see where work gets stuck and can help us identify ways to move forward.

Queues also serve another function: What happens when you’re done with the Design part of a project, but your team member, a developer, doesn’t have capacity to pull it into the Develop Lane? Having a place to put work items between active steps can help facilitate smoother handoffs and promote a true pull system.

Move Fast!

If your team is looking for ways to accelerate its speed of delivery, try visualizing blockers,  identifying bottlenecks, and visualizing queues. We also recommend the following resources:

6 Lean Metrics to Increase Speed of Delivery

4 Reasons Business Flow is Critical for Speed

How to Design a LeanKit Board That Encourages Speed

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