Agile Kanban Journal Day 8: Do We Need a “Done” Column?


I continue to benefit from the use of my Agile kanban board, if nothing else to keep my supposedly most important tasks in front of me (or behind me as it were, per layout of the office). I have faith and confidence that using this method persistently and diligently, I can build better working habits. Many questions still remain as to how to visualize the work, progress of work and problems with the work more effectively. One very simple question arose from a suggestion one of the readers had to add a “Done” column: do we really need a “done” column?
The Agile kanban board I use has no “done” column. When a task is complete, the tile is erased and recycled (attached to a blank area under the kanban board work area). This tile is then available to be assigned another task value. It could be a major task or something small. In a sense the tiles are like currency or a token, in the same way that the printing of traditional kanban cards in manufacturing are tightly controlled, much like money.

When something is done, presumably some value is created or realized downstream. From the point of view of the task board, the important thing is that capacity has been freed to add another task. The question of capacity is only loosely understood at this point, since there may be a lot of lost or hidden capacity inherent in my way of working. Hopefully the use of the Agile kanban board will ferret all of this out.

I consulted an old friend about the “done” column as it turns out that though our careers diverge, we share a timely interests in the Agile kanban board. David Moles is currently the Agile project lead at his software development company in Switzerland. The photo above is the Agile kanban he uses at his company. Here is David’s take on the “done” column:

The “done” column is an interesting question. I hadn’t really considered it till now, but I think you’re right to turn the question around. Why (five times?) do we have a “done” column?

In a Scrum process (and that’s still basically what we’re doing here, though borrowing ideas from the Agile Kanban guys as I assimilate them) you work in “sprints” of say three weeks. For each sprint you set a sprint goal (deliver features x, y, and z) and break it down into tasks. At the end of the sprint you deliver the completed work to the (possibly internal) customer, the “done” tasks come off the board, and you start again. So I suspect “done” really means something like “ready for delivery.”

David Anderson’s team doesn’t use sprints — they prioritize the “to do” tasks every Monday and, if I understand / remember correctly, they just deliver each feature as it’s completed. There’s an “In Production” column on the taskboards pictured in his slide deck but it seems as though it’s mostly empty, and I’m not sure what it’s for.

There’s a psychological benefit to having a pile of cards on the right-hand side of the board — “look at all the work we’re getting done!” But after reading your blog for a couple of years, I’m suspicious of this. Isn’t a pile-up of cards in the final stage still a pile-up of cards, and an indication of some kind of bottleneck? “Ready for delivery” is a lot like “in inventory”, isn’t it? And we all know that a full warehouse shouldn’t make you feel comfortable, rather the reverse.

I suspect that an ideal system a “done” column shouldn’t be necessary — done = delivered to the customer = off the board.

Oh, and the skull is “dead”, meaning “for some reason we decided not to do this after all.” Like the “done” column, it may or may not be necessary and is probably of mostly psychological value.

Having a “done” column makes sense if there is a downstream team that is actively pulling tasks off of that column to begin their work. In that sense it would be much like a supermarket area in manufacturing terms. Having a stockpile of finished work to feel good about… it’s human nature but not too lean.

David Moles is also a published science fiction author and a witty blogger. Check him out at Chrononaut.

5 Comments

  1. sharma

    June 30, 2009 - 4:23 am

    Dear Jon and David,
    Forgive me for my ignorance! And correct me if I am wrong.
    I have the following observations regarding Davids Agile Kanban Board :
    1)The font size and the board size should be increased drastically so that it can be visible from a longer distance.(In my experience everybody(seeing the board it seems 5 people are using it) going near the board everytime is not a good idea and is very difficult to implement.)
    2)Colours or textures should be given to the repetitive jobs(I do not know if some of David’s jobs are repetitive or not.)
    3)How shall we know if the persons involved are overburdened or can be alloted some new tasks? Again different colours and textures or different sizes of papers can be used to identify big jobs, medium jobs and small jobs. Do we have a standard of how many big tasks and small tasks will each person be alloted(according to his position) or is expected to handle at any given time? If the standard does exist I suggest that the size of boxes of each person should be according to the number of tasks he can, or is supposed to handle at a time. And as soon as the box is partially or fully empty, it will trigger a pull for new tasks.
    4)Start time should be written on the cards as well as the finish time should be noted on the same card.
    5)And finally according to me, the “DONE” column is not necessary, but the “DONE” chits are the most important things if the task and the time taken is clearly indicated on them. This will generate the necessary data for future and help in designing the corrective and preventive actions. Also, this “DONE” data is utmost important if you want to remove the wastes and muda from your way of working.
    Thanks!

  2. John Santomer

    July 4, 2009 - 12:39 am

    Dear Jon/David,
    Sharma’s post is “Right on the nose” especially about the “DONE” column. Although, we should first consider the user of the board (target user in this case I beleive is for your personal(?) use thus MY AGILE KANBAN BOARD), the complexities of color coding, varied paper textures, or sizes may be kept to a minimal. Wherever did I read that the BEST procedure is “Dumb” proof?! At a glance, it should be understandable, simple and can be readily grasped. Color coding, paper sizing and textures require additional (legend) discriptions to understand what they stand for and again adds to complexities. Even an Andon messaging board in a production line would only have two visual color indicators for the status of a process.(Plus an additional one or two lines indicating the problem of terminal if one does occur.)And it would largely depend on how many other people will be viewing your Agile Kanban Board.
    To add to Sharma’s point #5, I beleive the deciding factor in keeping tasks in the “DONE” column would depend on the “MAJOR” process where the task has been “broken down” from. Once the “Major” process acheives full circle and is already sustainable – the use of the tasks in the “DONE” column is as Sharma said it would serve. Daily routines and tasks will not be covered in this unless they are part of a “Major” ongoing process for sustainability. Perhaps a log of “DONE” tasks with start and completion dates would best be kept in a virtual repository for record and reference upon completion of the “Major” process and delivery of the sustained process to the customer/stake holder.

  3. David Moles

    July 7, 2009 - 12:43 am

    Dear Sharma & John —
    Thanks for the feedback!
    This sprint we have cards printed from our planning spreadsheet and the font size is large enough to be read from anywhere in my 9×12 office — we’re in a 100-year-old five-floor walk-up, so reading it from more than 5′-10′ away isn’t practical in any case. I like the idea that it should be readable from anywhere you can see it, though.
    None of these tasks are repetitive — repetitive tasks around here mostly take the form of meetings, and have a basically fixed time and duration. That said, it’d be a more accurate depiction of my Mondays if I created a “weekly meetings” card, rather than leaving whatever I was working on in place and just telling my team in the daily stand-up that it probably won’t get finished till Tuesday. I’ll think about that.
    Ideally I would like all tasks to be the same size, for that size to be “about one day’s work”, and for each person’s WIP to be limited to one task. (My assumption is that if a task is much longer than a day, you don’t actually have any idea how long it’s going to take and you should break it down.) Right now, tasks range in (estimated) size from 1/2 day to 2 days, and flow is still a bit ragged.
    I’m of two minds about actually tracking start/finish time. On the one hand, I don’t doubt that “evidence-based scheduling” (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2007/10/26.html) leads to better estimates. On the other hand, having now spent a few years each in a shop where we did track actual time taken, and one where we didn’t bother, I’m not convinced that it actually adds value.
    –D.

  4. Ann

    February 2, 2010 - 8:11 am

    I can’t see the reason why to use whiteboard when you can “upgrade” to online tool like http://kanbantool.com It’s impossible to analyze the workflow and difficult to set wip limits without online boards.
    From my point of view there is a need of leaving “done” column because you can check what and how fast something have been done.

  5. Jim Benson

    March 5, 2010 - 3:36 pm

    Excellent comments everyone.
    Here’s my 2 cents. You don’t need to keep the Done column, but keep the cards visible for your retrospective. As Sharma and John eluded to, the value of completed work is that it tells a story. Whether or not your process is repeatable – there are stories there.
    Over time your work, regardless of its variability will highlight areas where you are doing well and where things might need a second glance.
    Jim