Have you been wondering how to optimize your service delivery? How to improve your workflow? You can do that with flow metrics. It takes practice, so we're happy to share some of our experience. In this article, you will find a compiled overview of:
- What "flow" means within the context of Agile project management?
- What are the flow metrics you need to care about?
- What can you measure using Kanban metrics?
We'll also reveal some of the ground benefits of measuring your flow and why you should aim at optimizing it continuously.
What Is Flow in Agile Project Management?
Continuous improvement is one of the foundational pillars of applying the Agile approach to project management. The goal is enabling greater value delivery, and some of the means to do that is via proper use of flow metrics and optimization of the work process.
Unlike the traditional approach to project management, where the focus is on individual performance, managing projects in an Agile environment preaches systems thinking. In other words, all processes are intertwined and flow optimization means improving both single and multiple teams' performance.
Before going hands-on on how you can measure the way work flows through your system, let's get the basics.
What Are Flow Metrics in Kanban?
A leading reason for the adoption of the Kanban method lies in its potential to boost continuous improvement. Through its metrics, Kanban offers a variety of insights and the ability to analyze the big picture. On the one hand, they provide an understanding of how work gets done, and on the other, they support establishing a stable workflow. The accumulated historical data represents a valuable asset to any team.
By understanding the Kanban metrics, you'll answer key questions about your flow, such as: how predictable your process is, which stages most work gets accumulated in, how efficient you are, how much work you can deliver for a given period of time, and more.
The flow metrics in Kanban provide multiple grounds on how to improve over time.
- Cycle Time & Lead Time
In order to measure work processes, cycle time, and lead time answer questions such as "how long does it take to complete a certain amount of work?" Using these metrics, you can map your optimization efforts to ultimately deliver value faster.
The metric represents the consistency of your delivery rate or how much work you can deliver per a given time period (day, week, month, quarter). Understanding your team's delivery pace will enable better predictability and more accurate forecasts. A good practice is using a system that enables you to accumulate historical throughput data so you can better support your decision-making.
- Work In Progress
Work in progress provides insights into how much active work lives in your system. The greater the number of unfinished tasks - the greater your cycle time. Measuring work in progress shows how work moves through the various stages of your flow. You can use it to quickly analyze work items that have a high risk of being delayed, monitor the changes of your pace, and spot if there are stages where too much work gets accumulated (bottlenecks).
Flow metrics tools in Businessmap (formerly Kanbanize)
Why Do Flow Metrics Matter?
To better understand why you need flow metrics and their crucial importance to a healthy work process, here are a few of the benefits they bring along:
- Improved predictability and, thus, faster delivery
- Help to identify bottlenecks
- Improve risk management
- Provide more accurate forecasts
- Support work process optimization
- What Can You Measure?
Let's take the theory into practice and discuss how the above-mentioned metrics can be applied to a work process, the potential solved challenges and gained insights.
Whether the context is single or multiple teams, proper measuring of your workflow depends on the number of accumulated work items within your flow.
"The size of a team does not matter, the number of work items delivered is what matters."
Dimitar Karaivanov, CEO Businessmap
Cycle Time Metrics
Cycle time begins at the moment when the new work enters the "in progress," and somebody is actually working on it.
This is one of the most valuable metrics when it comes to analyzing your work process. When monitored, cycle times enable insights into your team's production rate - are you getting slower or faster over time. Based on those observations, you can provide more accurate forecasts about future work delivery.
Another great benefit of measuring the cycle time of your workflow is that you get a view of the stages where work spends the most time. Understanding where work gets stuck for the longest time will give you the base for investigating root causes, so you can aim at overall process improvement.
To do that, we use the Cycle Time Heatmap, for example. It allows us to identify in which stages work spends the most time, allowing us to uncover bottlenecks and continuously aim at alleviating them.
Number of days that work spends in each work stage shown using the Cycle Time Heatmap
Throughput measures the number of work items passing through a system over a specific period of time.
Striving to increase the delivery rate will always be on the table for Agile project managers. Looking into the number of work items you can complete over a given period of time will allow you to draw conclusions about how the work is distributed over time. Using historical data for measurement can ultimately help you analyze your delivery capabilities and where to improve to achieve better predictability.
The analysis of the throughput metric in Businessmap, for example, provides enhanced visualization of the throughput data distribution. It offers insights into the trends and patterns of a process which can be used as a basis for its improvement. The Throughput Histogram as well as the Throughput Run Chart offer a variety of customization options and are ideal for presenting data during service delivery team meetings.
Average weekly throughput trend shown using Throughput Run Chart
Work In Progress (WIP)
WIP indicates the number of work items in a given system that are in progress and shows the capacity of a team.
Understanding the impact of the work in progress is key to unraveling the full potential of the Kanban method. The number of work items in progress corresponds directly with your completion time (cycle time) and rate (throughput). That's why limiting the amount of work in progress helps you become more effective in completing tasks (increasing throughput) and reducing your cycle time. Furthermore, continuously measuring your WIP will introduce visibility over your team's work capacity.
The Aging WIP chart in Businessmap for instance, shows the items that are currently in our process and how we are driving those items to completion compared to the past.
According to Agile best practices, monitoring the Aging WIP daily enables analysis of where tasks might spend more time compared to similar occasions in the past. That's a trigger for a team's discussion and course-correcting actions, if necessary.
In-progress work items' state shown using the Aging WIP chart
Flow efficiency is the ratio between value-adding time and the lead time required to complete work.
In Lean/Agile management, measuring the efficiency of your workflow is crucial. The metric represents the ratio between value-adding and the entire request-to-delivery time (which includes non-value-adding time as well). In other words, how much time your team spends actively working on tasks, and how much time the work is waiting on something.
Rather than creating reports manually, Kanban tools offer quicker, smarter, and visually appealing ways to get all this data. For instance, with the Flow Efficiency Chart, we can visualize queueing (waiting) stages, and track how efficiently work items flow through the process. It enables us to take action if we find that more work accumulates non-value-adding rather than value-adding time.
Flow Efficiency chart including "queueing stages" of a workflow
We hope that you are now intrigued to learn more and experiment with the Kanban flow metrics. It will help you better understand how work flows and set a predictable work process with an emphasis on continuous improvement.
Equipped with the needed knowledge of where to start - with your flow metrics, look at the big picture, figure out your optimal flow, and improve.
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