Flipping the card wall

5 Feb, 2011

Most agile software development projects have a "card wall", with each card representing a story, or a task, or some other unit of work.

Typically, the wall is arranged in columns with labels such as: In Analysis, Ready for Dev, Developing, Ready for Test, Testing, and eventually, Done. And typically, cards progress across the wall from left to right. The labels vary, a lot, but the left-to-right thing is fairly standard.

The thing is, I've noticed a tendency for people to concentrate on the leftmost stuff first. That is, your focus drifts towards work that is in-progress, or not yet begun, partly because its the first thing to catch your eye. I argue that this increases the risk of work over in the right-most "almost done" columns languishing, incomplete and undelivered, while the team moves on to other things.

So, on my current project, I convinced the team to try something different. Observe ...

flipped card wall

The key difference here is that cards progress from right-to-left, rather than the other way around. Work that is almost finished is on the left, while stuff we haven't started yet is way over on the right. As I suspected, this orientation encourages people (including me) to think about the things that are almost-but-not-quite done, first. My hope is that this will help us pull (as opposed to push) work through our process, and reduce "inventory" at each step.

At the same time, the labels on our columns are all verbs, making it very clear what needs to happen with that card next. These, then, are our columns:

We keep our current "milestone" (medium-term goal) in plain sight, on a card just above our column headings. This helps us maintain focus, by highlighting when we are tempted to work on things that are "off-mission".

I think this has been a positive change, and has helped us reduce work-in-progress. It's no silver bullet, though. For instance, we still tend to spend too much time (IMHO) thinking about potential upcoming work, as evidenced by the cluster of cards in "Discuss", in the photo above. Still, early days.