definition of done on the kanban board


So you have your Kanban board ready. You have separate columns for each process step. Broke down all tasks into smaller ones. Then placed tasks and ideas that are waiting their turn in the backlog. And distributed the ones that are active across corresponding columns. You even set reasonable WIP limits. All set.

Well, technically, according to Kanban core practices, there are few more things you need to set up. Like your process policies. This means you need to create a definition of done for all work moving through the board and ensure to display it clearly. But what does that mean? How do you do it? Let’s dig in.

What is a Definition of Done

Kanban is a Lean thinking methodology. And as such, it has an instructive relationship with the Definition of Done. Additionally, one of the main goals of Kanban (and Lean) is optimization of the value stream. But in order to optimize it, first, you must understand how the work flows through it.

So first, you need to take a Kanban board where process stages are represented as columns. Meaning, you need to break the process down into multiple stages that can be analyzed for bottlenecks and the occurrence of waste. The work items are represented as Kanban cards. Distributed across corresponding columns. As the actual work items move through the flow, so do the cards. Flowing from one column to the next. But they have to fulfill specific criteria before they can be moved.

These conditional criteria are known as ‘Definition of Done’. And they are the standard against which all tasks are put against to determine whether a task is complete or ‘done’. The definition of done can be defined as agreed-upon evidence of what means to complete a task, process, or milestone.

Let’s look at an example. If I have a card called “Blog topics”, I can notice that it doesn’t have a clear definition of done. So if I start generating topics, when will I finish? How many topics do I need to generate? 5? 10? 30? There’s no clear goal, no finish line if you will. But if the card is called “15 Blog topic ideas”, and even an additional description specifying what the blog posts should address, it’s a whole different story. I have a clear task ahead of me. It’s clear and precise. The value of adding new topics is clear (creating relevant content and strengthening the website).  And it’s short enough to do it quickly and doesn’t need to be broken down into smaller tasks.

Purpose of Definition of Done

If we take a step back, and look at the fact that Kanban is a Lean methodology, the definition of done may seem like a waste. Adding a definition of done between steps it prolonging the production. So it’s no wonder you might think it’s choking the process. But in reality, the inspection of completed work is validating its quality and ensuring you deliver value.

But the definition of done should be applied even when you are creating new tasks. First, think about the purpose of a task and how it fits in the big picture. Then, make sure it has a meaningful definition of done. And lastly and most importantly, check if the task brings value. If it doesn’t, don’t add it to the board cos it will only waste your time and resources.

This is very important because Kanban’s goal is to improve flow and ensure better use of resources. Therefore, all work must be meaningful and contribute to the value of the process. If there are tasks that are not bringing value either to the customer or to the organization, you should eliminate them from the process.

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Writing Your Definition of Done

Now that we have established that all of your Kanban cards should relay a task that brings value, let’s go over how to create a meaningful definition of done. Even if you have an idea about the definition of done for a task, you need to make sure it addresses every aspect of the task. The best way to write good definitions of done is to get together with the whole team and go over all work that flows through the board. Discuss what each task entails, and what it means for same or very similar tasks to be done. Then, define the definition of done for different types of work in written form. Make sure you create a separate definition of done for each column. And lane if necessary.

One way to do this is to write a concise description of what it means to complete the work. Another is to create a checklist you can go through before moving a card in the next column or the ‘done’ column. Depending on the nature of your work, you can use shorter or longer descriptions. Simple or lengthy requirements’ checklists. It’s up to you what form you’ll use, as long as every team member understands it. There isn’t a prescribed format for a definition of done though. You can write it in the format that best suits your team. And makes using it fast and simple.

How to Visualize the Definition of Done on the Kanban Board

Once you have written down the required definitions of “done”, you need to respect another Kanban core principle – making process policies explicit. This means that the definitions of done need to be clearly and publicly visible and available.

The most common practice is to write the definition of done in an additional row. Either right under the column’s name or underneath the column, at the bottom of the board. But when the definition of done is displayed on top/bottom, team members that are just beginning to use Kanban can easily get confused. They are not sure whether that’s the entering or exiting criteria. Whether that’s what needs to happen to a task before it enters a column or before it leaves.

So, if your team has difficulty with this too, perhaps you can use another approach. You can shift the definition of done to the right, more to the lines separating the columns. And think of the definition as the prerequisite for a task to move to the next step. If your digital board doesn’t support this, you can add the conditions as subtasks to the Kanban cards. Or, to make it more explicit, create process steps on the board for each condition.

You can even add a short explanation under each column to describe the actions expected at each step. After a while, when team members get used to the process, you can delete the extra columns and place the definition of done more traditionally (or where your digital board allows it).

Put it In Practice!

Whether this is your first time creating a definition of “done”, or the hundred and first, you should have in mind the type of work you are addressing. You must have a clear picture of the whole process. Understand the role of each step and the value of each task. Only then you can formulate a meaningful definition of done.

It there isn’t a meaningful definition of done, or a task does not add value, you might want to avoid starting it. Consult your team whether they waste time doing meaningless work. If they do, remedy that immediately. Work, track your progress, analyze results, improve. Then do it all over again!

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Once you start visualizing your work in Kanban Zone, you will be surprised how much faster it gets done!

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About the Author: Ivana Sarandeska

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Ivana Sarandeska is a digital marketer, creative writer and master procrastinator. An Agile enthusiast and a firm believer that thorough planning is key to good execution and even better improvisation. She has a soft spot for technology, so most of her full-time jobs were in IT companies where she was introduced to Agile and Scrum. After she got her Scrum Basics certification she started actively using these methodologies and their main principles. Learning how to organize her time and tasks better has motivated her to dive deeper into these methodologies. Now, she is an avid advocate of Agile and Scrum and happily shares her knowledge and experience to fellow procrastinators.