Go with the flow… and start where you are

August 26th, 2020
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By Berto Coetsee

In Kanban, we have a Change Management principle of “Start with what you do now”. During the pandemic, the absence of physical boards has led us to the most common tools like Azure DevOps and Jira. They all have built-in Cumulative Flow Diagrams (CFD) which we could pay more attention to so that we make the most of the valuable information they supply.

If we fully understand the abovementioned principle and the story our CFD tells us, we can guide our teams towards enabling flow.

Three CFD attributes we need to understand are shown below:
1. Average Throughput – shown by the oblique (slanting) side of the triangle
2. Work in Progress (WIP) – shown by the vertical line
3. Approximate Lead Time/Cycle Time – shown by the horizontal line

We also need to understand the arrival and departure rate of pieces of work. In the graph below, the top line of each of the workflow states (To Do, Work in Progress, Done) shows the arrival rate of work items to that state. The bottom line shows the departure of work items from each state and the arrival to the next state. For now, we will focus on Arrival rate to the Work in Progress State and Departure rate to Done.

This information will be a good enough place to start and help guide teams to greatness.


When you take a look at your system’s CFD and notice that your Arrivals line (the work that you start) is diverging (moving further apart) from your Departures line (the work that you finish), you might be starting more work than you finish. You need to stop starting and start finishing.

When we have more work items entering our workflow, our work in progress increases and this can have an impact on our lead times. This can be seen in the example CFD shown below. This also has a knock-on effect on our predictability.

Any CFD is a mirror of its system’s behaviour. It might be that we are optimising for busyness in addition to not limiting our work in progress. If we optimise for busyness, we might get busy people… busy with what? “Busy building stuff right.”?

If we optimise for flow, we will get effective people, being efficient by building the right stuff.


Adding work in progress limits to our system has many advantages. It creates predictability and decreases our Lead times. On the CFD below it can be seen that the arrival rate and the departure rate lines run parallel to each other. This is a sign of constant WIP; if WIP remains constant, Approximate Average Lead times become more constant and more predictable. We won’t go into Little’s Law right now, but like how the laws of gravity work, keeping our feet stuck to Mother Earth; Little’s Law works when you contain WIP—Lead time will be substantially more predictable.


Why do we want to be predictable? When it comes to knowledge work, there is one question that will never go away, “When will you be done?”. There are many reasons we are asked the question; limiting your Work in progress will take you one step closer to answering this question.

When we limit WIP, we will not overburden our people; they’ll possess an overall better mental state. Healthier minds will do higher quality work.

Limiting Work in progress also acts as an enabling constraint. Many people might feel like we are constraining the system initially (only until they see the benefits) but it enables the right conversations. It puts boundaries on the system, allowing people to have the right conversations; focusing on “building the right stuff”. We don’t have infinite capacity in a system, people cannot be cloned or added as we like. We need to spend our time wisely, working on the things that will have the biggest impact on our business if we don’t finish them.

Study your current Cumulative Flow Diagram. What is it telling you? Are you starting more work than you can finish? Is it telling a story of an overburdened team? Are you continuously missing commitments or forecasts?

Listen to what your system is telling you. If you ignore the information staring you in the face, it will tell you the same story tomorrow and next week, even next year. Please don’t live in Einstein’s world of insanity! “DOING more Agile” will not change a thing. Waiting until next year to take action is a very long and expensive idea.

Start small… but start now! Stop starting and start finishing.
Start. With. What. You. Do. Now.

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