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Kanban basics

Last Updated: 8/23/2016

Team Services | TFS 2015 | Previous versions

To maximize a team’s ability to consistently deliver high quality software, Kanban emphasize two main practices. The first, visualize the flow of work, requires you to map your team’s workflow stages and configure your Kanban board to match. The second, constrain the amount of work in progress, requires you to set work-in-progress (WIP) limits. You’re then ready to track progress on your Kanban board and monitor key metrics to reduce lead or cycle time.

Your Kanban board turns your backlog into an interactive signboard, providing a visual flow of work. As work progresses from idea to completion, you update the items on the board. Each column represents a work stage, and each card represents a user story (blue cards) or a bug (red cards) at that stage of work.

Kanban board, Agile template

User stories and bugs correspond to types of work items. You use work items to share information, assign work to team members, update status, track dependencies, and more.

You open your Kanban board using one of these URLs that connects you to your team project:

Team Services: http://AccountName/DefaultCollection/TeamProjectName/_backlogs/board/

On-premises Team Foundation Server (TFS): http://ServerName:8080/tfs/DefaultCollection/TeamProjectName/_backlogs/board/

If you don't have a team project yet, create one in Visual Studio Team Services or set one up in an on-premises TFS. If you don’t have access to the team project, get invited to the team.

1. Map the flow of how your team works

Kanban literally means signboard or billboard. As a first step, you customize your board to map to how your team works.

When you first open your Kanban board, you’ll see one column for each workflow state. Your actual columns vary based on the process used to create your team project.

For user stories, the New, Active, Resolved, and Closed states track progress from idea to completion.

User story workflow statesDefault kanboard boward, Agile template

However, your team’s workflow stages most likely don’t map to these default states. For your team to have a functional board they must identify the stages of their workflow process and then configure the board to match.

For example, you can change your Kanban columns to map to the following five workflow stages.

Kanban board, Columns customized

Once you’ve identified your stages, simply add and rename columns to map to them. Keep the number of columns to a minimum while still representing the key handoffs that occur for your team.

2. Set WIP limits to constrain work in progress

In this next step, your team sets WIP limits for each workflow stage. While setting WIP limits is easy, adhering to them takes a team commitment. Teams new to Kanban may find WIP limits counterintuitive and uncomfortable. However, this single practice has helped teams identify bottlenecks, improve their process, and increase the quality of software they ship.

What limits should you set? Start with numbers that don’t exceed 2 or 3 items per team member working within a stage. Respecting WIP limits means teams don’t pull items into a column if doing so causes the number of items in the column to exceed the WIP limit.

When they do exceed the limit, the column count displays red. Teams can use this as a signal to focus immediately on activities to bring the number of items in the column down.

Exceeded WIP Limits

Set WIP limits based on team discussions and revisit as your team identifies ways to improve their processes. Use WIP limits to identify bottlenecks and eliminate waste from your work flow processes.

3. Track work in progress

Once you’ve configured your Kanban board to match how your team works, you’re ready to use it.

Here are a few things you can do. See at a glance the estimated size of work for each item which displays at the bottom right of each card. Add items to your backlog in the first column. When priorities change, move items up and down within a column. And, as work completes in one stage, update the status of an item by moving it to a downstream stage.

Kanban board, move an item

Feature availability: Reordering items within a column is currently supported only from Team Services or the web portal for TFS 2015 Update 1 or later version.

Also, you can quickly update a field or reassign ownership directly from the board.

Kanban, assign items

Updating your Kanban board as work progresses helps keep you and your team in sync. Also, you’ll be able to see and share the value stream your team is delivering to customers.

4. Monitor metrics and fine tune

As with most Agile practices, Kanban encourages monitoring key metrics to fine tune your processes. After your team has used the Kanban board for several weeks, check out your Cumulative Flow Diagram (CFD).

Open the cumulative flow diagram

The CFD shows the count of items in each Kanban column for the past 30 weeks or less. From this chart you can gain an idea of the amount of work in progress and lead time. Work in progress counts unfinished requirements. Lead time indicates the amount of time it takes to complete a requirement once work has started.

Kanban board, cumulative flow diagram

By monitoring these metrics, you can gain insight into how to optimize your processes and minimize lead time. For additional guidance, see Cumulative Flow

Feature availability: From Team Services, you can add and configure the Cumulative Flow Diagram (CFD) widget to a team dashboard.

Kanban core practices

Having worked through the above four steps, you’re well on your way to implementing most of Kanban’s six core practices.

  1. Visualize your workflow. Teams track their work using a Kanban board that maps to how they work. Teams discuss how to best focus their resources to deliver the most important work.
  2. Limit work in progress. Teams set and adhere to WIP limits they set for each stage of work. They use WIP limits to maintain focus on completing what they started and to identify bottlenecks occurring in their processes.
  3. Manage flow. Teams monitor the overall work in progress and lead time, which gives them an idea of the speed of their delivery.
  4. Make policies explicit. Teams spell out the standards and processes they agree to follow and make them readily accessible. For example, by making the team’s Definition of Done for each work stage explicit, they can avoid wasted time and effort.
  5. Create opportunities for feedback. Teams meet periodically to reflect on what’s working and what needs improvement.
  6. Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally. Teams determine how to improve the continuous flow of delivery over time based of key metrics. They involve the entire team to gather insights and ideas. And, when persistent bottlenecks arise, they determine the changes that will alleviate them.

Over time, Kanban can provide your team insight as to how well their current processes work end-to-end and how to improve them. Incremental adoption of Kanban practices tends to yield greater success and builds on the sixth practice, to evolve experimentally. These practices arose from principles of Lean Manufacturing and Systems Thinking.

Kanban industry resources

Each team can manage their backlog and customize their Kanban board. Add teams when you assign specific feature areas to different teams for development. Each team can then manage their backlog and focus on how they will develop their deliverables.

For more opportunities to adopt Kanban practices and customize your team’s Kanban board, check out the following topics:

Kanban board controls

Feature availability: Platform-dependent features are noted as follows:
- Team Services - Available from Visual Studio Team Services (cloud service)
- TFS - Available from Team Foundation Server (on-premises)
BacklogSwitch to backlog view
BoardSwitch to Kanban board view
Search filterFilter by keyword or tag
Kanban filter iconFilter by field (Team Services)
Live updates iconEnable live updates (Team Services)
Settings iconCustomize the board and configure team settings:
Cards | Card reordering | Columns | Swimlanes | CFD chart | Backlogs | Working days | Working with bugs
full screen icon / exit full screen iconEnter or exit full screen mode

Enter ? to open the Kanban board keyboard shortcuts.

Feature availability: The global keyboard shortcuts feature is only available if you connect to Team Services and from the web portal for team projects that connect to an application-tier server installed with TFS 2015 Update 2 or later version.

Kanban keyboard shortcuts

See also Keyboard shortcuts.

Assign work items to a sprint from any backlog or board

You can drag any work item from any backlog or board to a sprint. Even when working from the Kanban or task board, you can drag a work item onto a sprint to change it's iteration path.

Feature availability: This feature is currently supported from Team Services or the web portal for TFS 2015 Update 1 or later version.

Team context and new work items

The system automatically assigns new work items the default area and iteration paths based on the team context. Work items you add from the team dashboard (new work item widget) and queries page are assigned the team default iteration. Work items you add from a team backlog or board, are assigned the team default backlog iteration.

To learn more or to change team defaults, see Set team defaults.

You navigate to your team context from the top navigation bar.

Choose another team from the team project menu

Choose Browse All if the name you want doesn't appear in the list.

Enable live updates (Team Services)

Feature availability: This feature is currently supported only from Team Services.

Enable live updates to automatically refresh your Kanban board when changes occur. With live updates enabled, you no longer have to press F5 to see the latest changes.

Kanban board, live updates icon

As one team member updates the status of a work item, other team members will see those updates in real time as they occur.

Live update

Reorder cards

Feature availability: This feature is currently supported from Team Services or an on-premises TFS 2015.1 or later version.

You can drag any work item to any column or swimlane on the Kanban board. You can even change the order of items as you move a card to a new column.

Reorder cards while changing columns

Set card reordering team preference

Feature availability: This feature is currently supported only from Team Services or to an on-premises application server that's been upgraded to TFS 2015 Update 2 or later version.

If you want to preserve the backlog priority when you move a card to a new column, you can change the Kanban board card reordering setting for your team.

  1. To open, click the gear icon gear icon from your team's Kanban board.

    Kanban board, open common configuration settings

    If you’re not a team admin, get added as one. Only team and project admins can set team settings.

  2. From the Card reordering page you can choose between the two supported behaviors.
    Kanban board, Card reording configuration dialog

    The setting you choose applies to all active Kanban boards for your team.

Note: The last column, typically the Closed or Done column, is always ordered by Closed Date with recently Closed showing at the top. In all other columns, cards are ordered by the backlog order or they are reorder based on the Card reordering setting selected.

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