Understanding the Kanban Cumulative Flow Diagram

Instructor: Olga Bugajenko

Olga is a registered PRINCE2 Practitioner and has a master's degree in project management.

In addition to the delivery methodology, the project manager needs a simple and reliable tool for monitoring project progress. In this lesson, you will learn to analyze Kanban cumulative flow diagrams.

Cumulative Flow Diagram

Kanban is a popular methodology for process improvement, often used for software development. One of the core practices of Kanban is to visualize every component of the project, including the workflows. Cumulative flow diagram is a visual tool for tracking and forecasting the project progress. It is used in several lean product development methodologies, including Kanban, for visualizing team effort.

On the simplest cumulative flow diagram, three types of work are displayed: completed, in progress and outstanding. The x-axis of the diagram displays time, while the y-axis shows total work - this could be measured in requests to be completed, software features to be developed, or physical goods to be produced. On the diagram below, the green area represents completed tasks, the yellow area - work-in-progress, and the red area - outstanding work. Sometimes, the outstanding work is omitted from the diagram.

Cumulative flow diagram, showing completed tasks, work-in-progress and outstanding tasks
Cumulative Flow Diagram

Analyzing Cumulative Flow Diagrams

Cumulative flow diagrams can be useful for analyzing the cycle time - the time between starting and finishing a task. You can calculate the cycle time by comparing the width of the work-in-progress slice of the diagram (marked as X on the diagram below) and the height of the work-in-progress slice (marked as Y). Y shows as the number of tasks currently in progress, while X shows us how long it will take us to complete them. Y is known as queue length, while X is called queue time. Kanban advocates for minimizing work-in-progress, so you should monitor for increases in queue length.

Cumulative flow diagram, showing queue length and queue time
Cumulative Flow Diagram

The gradually growing area of completed work is a sign of a well-performing team. If the completed work area remains unchanged over time, it is a signal of the team not completing the tasks. Possible solutions to this are increasing the team size or introducing a work-in-progress limit to help the team focus their efforts.

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