Kanban: Size Matters!

S, M or L?

Sketch909555_kanban_what size


One of the most common questions, when a team is starting out with Kanban, is about the size/duration of the items on the board. There are several approaches to this:

  • Some teams don’t bother with any measurement of duration/effort and put anything and everything on the board. This normally doesn’t survive the first improvement meeting 😉
  • Others document the number of estimated days (particularly if that was their commitment for the customer). This can lead to some quite large items on the board.
  • T-Shirt sizes are also popular – normally we use S: 1-2 days, M: 3-5 days, L: 6-10 days. Anything bigger than L should be broken down into smaller items.
  • If you’re moving from Scrum to Kanban you may still be using story points.

Of course the question always comes up: is the size the time I’m going to spend on the work, or how long it will take until the customer actually receives the work? In my view, it should be the total time you plan to spend actually working on that topic. The Kanban board will tell us how long it really takes for the work to be delivered to the customer.

However, there is another answer that is actually relatively easy. It is based on the idea that you should see movement on the board. How fast that movement should be will depend on how often you meet to discuss the state of the board.

So let’s say you have a stand-up every day with the development team. Then you’ll want items (probably tasks) that move from one column to the next every couple of days. You don’t want items that are stuck in development for weeks (or even months) at a time, because then the dailies become quite boring (“Oh yeah, I’ve nearly finished that”).

However, if you have a project board with features on it and you meet every week to discuss the state of the project, then you may be happy with features or items that move every week or so. Again you’ll want to avoid items that stay in the same column for months on end.

At a portfolio level with meetings once or twice a month, the items can be even bigger.


Getting started

So what do you do at the start? Whatever you do, don’t spend days trying to define in every detail, what defines a work item – just start! Start with something. You’ll soon see if it’s too big or too small. If there’s not enough movement, then make the items smaller! If the board is so full of tasks that it no longer works as in information radiator, then use bigger items. It’s that simple 😉

In an ideal world, you would have items that are roughly all the same size. However, if you have several different stakeholders demanding work, the odds are that the work items will have different sizes. You’ll probably end up breaking down the requirements yourself – or if you’re lucky you can work with your customers to create smaller work items and get feedback earlier. Agile requirements are great – whether you’re using Scrum or Kanban!


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