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In knowledge-based work such as software development, the act of committing to work can be daunting. Teams will likely encounter changing requirements or priorities when working on complex and fast-changing projects such as software development. How can you become more confident when committing to delivering work in uncertain situations? Using Kanban commitment points allow teams to manage uncertainty and improve predictability in their workflow. Let’s discover more about what these Kanban commitment points are and how to use them.

What are Commitment Points in Kanban?

Any Kanban system is governed by process policies and WIP limits and this varies from team to team. All work that flows through the Kanban system must be executed following the process policies and limits set by the team. This allows teams to manage the workflow and improves focus. 

Each Kanban system consists of several states or stages. The most common Kanban states are To Do, In Progress, and Done. Commitment points are states within a Kanban system that signal readiness of a work item to be committed to. When an item is placed on a commitment point, it means that the team has decided to work on it and it is ready to enter the workstream.

Kanban is a pull-based system. Pulling an item into the Kanban system is an act of committing to working on that item successfully. The problem that most teams face when pulling in work is that they are committing to it with as little knowledge of what it entails to deliver. This approach is often problematic because it results in waste. Waste in this context can come in the form of the following:

  • Overburdening
  • Rework
  • Wasted resources due to the item being discarded after the team realize that the item shouldn’t be pursued 

The key to delivering on work commitments is to lessen the level of uncertainty around the scope of your work. Instead of saying “yes” to every feature request from your customers or stakeholders, invest time in reviewing what it takes to deliver these requests and whether they are worth pursuing or not.

But adding commitment points to your Kanban system is not enough. The act of reviewing work items before committing to them is more important. This is where Upstream Kanban plays a role.

Using Upstream Kanban to Strengthen Commitment

Upstream Kanban is the part of the value stream where teams review work items before committing to work on them. In Upstream Kanban, the team takes in a work request and analyzes its options and assesses its implementation. Another term for Upstream Kanban is Discovery Kanban.

Upstream Kanban Board

In the above image, the Backlog column is where all work requests and new ideas come in. It will then undergo an upstream review process. The upstream process will vary from team to team. But to illustrate, our Upstream Kanban process above has two stages: Analyze and Concept. This is where the product team reviews each work request, analyzes the requirements and assesses if it’s worth committing to. If it is, then a simple proof of concept or a high-level specifications document is created and it is then added to the Ready for Development column. The Ready for Development column is a commitment point. Only those work items that are found here will be pulled towards the Downstream Kanban. We can think of this as the Backlog for the downstream processes. 

The benefit of doing Upstream Kanban is that you have higher confidence in the work items committed to development. The probability of waste is lessened and you’ll gain better predictability of the work that flows into your system. 

Portfolio Kanban - Reduce Overburden - Improve Flow

Visualize Commitment Points in Kanban

Commitment points in a Kanban system help teams visualize just how much work will be coming through their stream. Clearly identifying commitment points also improves focus and helps teams manage the flow of work. 

Commitment points signal the start of a different set of activities within the Kanban system. In our prior example, we have two commitment points: Ready for Development and Ready to Deploy

Kanban Stages and Commitment Points

Both commitment points signal a change in the state of activities that will happen after the items are committed to. When items are added to the Ready for Development commitment point, they are being committed to the development phase of the stream. When items are added to the Ready to Deploy commitment point, they are being committed to the release phase of the stream.

Both commitment points signal when an item is ready to be committed to the next phase. When a team member is available to take the work, then it is pulled to the next phase. Kanban teams have regular Replenishment and Commitment meetings where they review what’s on Ready for Development and plan the next items that will be worked on. 

Delivering Work Commitments Better

Commitment points enable teams to better visualize the work that’s coming into their system. It’s also a reminder for teams to be more intentional on what items they are pulling into their workstream. Commitment points help teams to gain more confidence at what they are committing to. 

But commitment points should be accompanied by doing your pre-commit activities which is what Upstream Kanban is about. By addressing the unknowns and assessing your options before committing the work, you will minimize the possibility of waste. You should also abide by your WIP limits and process policies. Ensuring that your policies are adhered to and visualizing your work per commitment point will help you plan your commitments better and deliver on them successfully.

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About the Author: Lena Boiser

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Lena Boiser is an Agile enthusiast. Starting off her career as a Software Business Analyst in 2010, she eventually performed other roles including Project Manager and IT Business Manager. When she was immersed in Agile methodologies in 2014, Lena found her way through honing her craft and eventually became a Certified Scrum Product Owner. In 2017, after 7 years of working in the corporate world, Lena started her own remote consulting practice. Today, she provides project management and Scrum Product Ownership services to various businesses including software development companies, e-Commerce business owners, and small to medium sized companies. She believes that even teams working remotely can harness the benefits of Agile in order to deliver results for their companies. In her free time she likes to write. One day she could be writing about Agile, the next she could be writing anything about fashion or travel.