Thursday, 4 April 2019

Digital agile kanban boards. Is LeanKit the final answer?

The biggest gripe I've always had about Trello is that it very often forces teams/organisations to change their process just so they can use the tool. We end up using it (and tools like it) in strange/confusing/inconsistent ways, just because the tool has no better way to visualise a certain state/activity. We start labelling in strange ways, we think a card movement should send someone an alert, we even name things differently, and create "separator cards" to visually split the board.

Tools like Trello were never ever meant to dictate or change your processes. They were only meant to help to visualise and share the current state of work. The most common recommendation from any seasoned Agile/scrum/kanban consultant is to map your value stream on a physical board. Each column is a step in your process. It should make complete sense there. It should then be directly translatable to a digital board. If not, then the tool is not right. But here's the problem... there have never been any good tools that perfectly fit your processes in the way a physical board does. 

When I first created the kanban process for Cogworks several years ago (around 2015?) I researched many tools. Over the years I have tried Trello, Jira, Wrike, Asana, Kanbanize, Pivitol Tracker, and many more. We ultimately stuck with Trello only because all the other options were still bad in their own way. Why swap 1 bad solution for another bad solution?

Now after several years of searching, I have finally found the real killer online tool for workflow management. Real visualisation of processes, and actually flexible in the way that you would use a physical board. 

Introducing Lean Kit :

What does Lean Kit have?

Swim lanes
Absolutely necessary for varying classes of service!

If you're running multiple projects with the same team, then you can use lanes to visualise these in parallel just like a real board. Ever tried to do this in Trello? It's stupid. Trust me. We tried!

Overview rows
Great to track higher level progress of Epics, Releases etc. You cant do this in Trello, and one common hack is to create another board to act as an "overview".

Absolutely necessary for a kanban board. Many steps in your value stream have sub-steps. These steps might even involve a different department, so having sub-columns is super helpful, and quite common in physical kanban boards.

Parent/child card linking with back links
Card relationships are very useful. Perhaps one feature needs to be the super-feature of another. Or perhaps one "relies" on another.

I created a hacky linking feature in Trello which I never really liked.

Dedicated blocked/unblocked status
It just makes sense!

WIP Limits & Automatic Visual Alert
This just make sense! You always want to enforce a WIP limit so you can concentrate on delivery, rather than starting more work. Unfinished work is of no value.

These are cards which are never seen the actual board. They live inside a sub-kanban board which lives inside the original card! This is a killer feature. I've wanted this for so long.

In Trello we previously used a hacky workaround which involved labelling cards as a "task". However these would clutter the board, and people tend to get confused about the definition between a task, and a work item. Then everything is called a task :(

Also, tasks generally don't have any value to anyone other than the developers. eg. How does a QA person manually check a database schema or API endpoint in the context of the original features acceptance criteria?

Comments & history hidden by default
These items are kept AWAY from the card details, reducing clutter, and hopefully encouraging conversations. When you use a physical board, comments and history are never even a consideration. If you need to know something, then you ask a person.

When using Trello, people will tell me "read the comment". People think that when they write a comment on a card then they have done their job. Frankly that's just laziness.


These are just some of the "real physical board" features I found super useful. I bet there are many more intuitive common sense features which I am yet to even discover.

This is the tool! Everything about LeanKit is clean and obvious. As far as I can tell, it is just like how a company would use a physical board. No more strange / hacky work arounds.

Is LeanKit the final answer? Yes. I believe it is.

If you are on Trello, I strongly recommend investing time to migrate to Leankit. You won't regret it! 

ps. I have no affiliation with LeanKit at all. This is my totally opinionated review.

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