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6 Agile Metrics That Matter

Looking to learn what metrics are used in Agile? Get to know the main Agile project metrics so you can optimize and boost your delivery performance.

The metrics in Agile project management are one of the main aspects which transformed the way knowledge work teams measure their projects. They represent performance indicators related to outcomes that allow teams to reflect back on what’s happened in their process and make data-driven decisions for future actions. 

To begin our discussion of Agile project metrics, let’s first see how they differ from the traditional ones. 

Traditional vs Agile KPIs

The main difference between traditional and Agile performance metrics is that the former focus on output while the latter on outcomes. In fact, many traditional project management KPI’s can provoke teams to take wrong actions in project management on all levels. 

For example:

Quality is measured by the number of documented requirements followed, instead of collaborating with the customers more often, aiming to find out from them if that quality was actually achieved. Productivity and progress are measured only by tracking planned hours vs the baseline without taking into account the team’s actual capabilities.

Furthermore, performance is measured by how fast you can deliver, even if these are the wrong things to deliver.

When talking about the highly volatile world of knowledge work, measuring metrics in a traditional way won’t help teams finish projects faster, but only amplify the pressure.

That’s why with the vast adoption of Agile project management, new, agile project metrics have emerged. They are meant to help you better analyze and understand your workflow, discover flaws, and improve so your team could focus on satisfying customers (clients) through the continuous delivery of the valuable product (project).

6 Agile Metrics to Boost Project Management

Lead and Cycle Time

Two of the most important Agile project metrics which have their beginnings from the Lean management world are lead and cycle time. Both show you how long work items spend in a given process, however, there is also a clear differentiation between them.

Lead time shows you the total time (including wait time) a work item spends in the entire process from the moment it is requested to the time it is delivered. To give a short example of this Agile metric, let’s say that a customer of yours has requested a service or a feature for development. From the moment you make a commitment that you will deliver the given service/feature, lead time starts accumulating, even if you haven’t started working on it yet. An easy way to think of lead time is as the “customer timeline”.

In Agile, cycle time starts accumulating once you begin working on the requested item. In other words, with cycle time you can measure how long it takes for a task to exit the process where active work is being performed. This allows you to track the duration of all the work items in a project and eventually use that as an input to make better forecasts for project completion. As opposed to lead time, you can think of cycle time as the “team timeline”.

Tracking these Agile project metrics is easy with the help of a Kanban board. There you can visualize when a work item is committed for execution as well as when the actual work begins. This usually happens with a “Ready to Start”/”Requested” and “In Progress”/”Working” columns as seen from the image below.

Throughput

In Agile, throughput measures the average number of work items processed per unit of time. In a Kanban system, for example, as work is visualized in cards, throughput is measured based on how many Kanban cards were finished in a given time period (weekly, monthly, etc.)

Here we should briefly mention that many teams believe that in Agile, throughput is pretty much another word for productivity. While they are very close, throughput measures how many work items teams are able to complete in a certain time frame while productivity is more about how efficient they were when doing the work. 

In general, throughput is one of the most important Agile performance metrics. It gives you great details into the real capabilities of your team so you can better plan how much work you can deliver in a given time period. Combining average throughput and cycle time can become the secret weapon for any team looking to improve the predictability of their project delivery. 

To measure the throughput of your team week-by-week, you can use the Throughput Run Chart. There, you can see how many work items teams are able to complete, analyze their average throughput, and use that as an input for future planning activities.

Work In Progress (WIP) 

Work In Progress is another one of the most important Agile metrics. It’s pretty straightforward as it simply shows how many work items you currently have “in progress” in your working process.

WIP is an important Agile KPI to keep track of because too much work that has been started but not finished yet, represents sunk costs. This also results in multitasking which hinders the team’s throughput.

That’s why teams in Agile look to limit their work in progress which ensures that any started work will be finished as soon as possible and thus the team’s throughput will rise. In fact, limiting work in progress has a positive effect on cycle time by decreasing it. 

The best tool for visualizing WIP is the Kanban board. There, you can also set corresponding limits on your work stages in order to ensure that only a certain amount of tasks can reside in every Kanban column.

Doing this will allow you to focus your attention on the most important tasks and make sure that you release value to the market more frequently.

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Work Item Age

Work item age (aging work in progress) is the amount of time passed between a work task has started, and the current time of the task. This Agile project metric is a relevant leading indicator only for non-finished work items. It compliments the cycle time, which is a metric,  appropriate for finished work items.

The work item age metric has mainly two uses – first, it indicates how your current tasks are moving forward and second, gives you a clear idea of how you were performing in similar contexts in the past.

Measuring aging work in progress is crucial in a knowledge work environment because you can see at a glance how your tasks are progressing through your workflow. This shows you in which stages of the process tasks reside the most as well as how long on average any emerging work items are expected to age. Combining this information with cycle time data will allow you to take valuable data-driven decisions on how to optimize your workflow in order to better meet customer’s delivery expectations. 

In order to visualize all of that information, you can use a powerful measurement tool called the aging work in progress chart.

Flow Efficiency

Another one of the highly important Agile project metrics is flow efficiency. It simply shows you how efficiently you are able to process work from start to finish. To calculate it, you need to divide the value-added time by your overall lead time which also includes stages where no active work is done. 

This Agile metric works perfectly in a Kanban system where you can visualize both active and non-active stages in your process. In Kanbanize, for example, we mark the non-active stages as “queues” on our Kanban boards which means that work just sits there and waits for somebody to pull it. 

With the help of the flow efficiency chart our teams input active and queuing stages in order to monitor how efficiently they are able to process work on a regular basis. This helps us spot issues in a timely manner and resolve them as soon as possible.

Blocked time

In an Agile environment, as everything is visible, work that cannot be moved forward for some reason, should be visible too. In a Kanban system, for example, such items are marked with a “blocker” sticker. 

A blocked card is different from work in the queue, which waits to be pulled and moved to the right on the board. A blocked card usually means that it waits on external dependency or there is another major reason which blocks the assignee to proceed with the work on that piece of work.

A blocked card on the Kanban board signals to all team members that the given work item needs immediate attention so the blocker can be resolved. Therefore, tracking blocked time is a valuable Agile metric.

To measure blocked time, in Kanbanize, we use the Block Resolution chart. There, we can see for how long given work items stayed blocked, in what stages, as well as what was the reason for the blockers. Monitoring this chart on a regular basis allows us to analyze dependencies, see if any cards stay blocked for too long and thus progressively optimize our processes.

Cumulative Flow Diagram (Bonus)

Cumulative flow diagram (CFD) is not a metric, however, it is one of the best agile tools to measure:

  • Lead time and cycle time
  • Throughput
  • Work in progress

These are all agile metrics, which we have already discussed above.

The CFD is a graphical representation of your WIP flow in a Kanban system. With the help of this chart, you can understand the state of your work in progress and analyze the stability of your workflow - the entry and exit rate of your work items.

What you will see on a CFD are color blocks that represent the work stages on your board, and the width of those blocks represents the number of cards in it. For a more detailed explanation of the CFD, check the video below:

The cumulative flow diagram can be used to provide clear visual signals of where process bottlenecks may be forming and then ask why they have formed and how we can improve the workflow.

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In Summary

Agile metrics will help you analyze and understand your workflow, discover flaws, and improve, so your team could focus:

  • on satisfying customers
  • on continuous delivery of the valuable products (projects)
  • on eliminating wasteful activities

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