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Building an Agile Process Flow: A Comprehensive Guide

An Agile workflow will help you drive transparency and adaptability to the way you work. Learn how to make your process more flexible and gradually improve it.

Whatever your business is, you have some processes set up to manage projects, complete work, and deliver products or services to your clients. However, because of the dynamic operating environment nowadays, you need to establish a structured work process that you can easily monitor, adapt to emerging changes, and improve continuously.  

That’s why we at Kanbanize take an Agile approach to our workflow. There, the focus is on managing flow, gathering fast internal/external feedback, and visualizing work to easily keep track of project progress.

Keep reading below to find out how you can lay the foundations of your Agile workflow too. 

Traditional vs Agile Project Workflow

To better understand what an Agile workflow is, let’s first see how it differs from the conventional way of managing work processes.

agile workflow

Traditionally, work is managed in a sequential, linear way that consists of several different phases. No stage begins unless the previous one has been completed. This is known as the “waterfall” approach to project management. 

The main issue here comes when there is a change of requirements or something new that needs to be developed emerges. This is known as “scope creep” in traditional project management and to fulfill the requests of the customers, teams have to go through lengthy change control processes that can take forever. Once the change is approved, the team often needs to go back, undo, and then redo some of their work. This usually contributes to enormous project delays and high costs.

The thing is that projects in a knowledge work environment require frequent changes because the end result is rarely known from the beginning. That’s why, to prevent the above from happening, the Agile approach to project management creates a workflow where the focus is on continuously delivering small pieces of work to the end customers and getting their feedback as fast as possible. This way, your team can better adapt to emerging changes that inevitably befall most knowledge work projects nowadays.

Furthermore, the Agile workflow process emphasizes increased visibility in the way work is managed. This allows you to spot problems early and fix them in a timely fashion. Combining this with the idea of reducing work batch sizes and delivering more frequently to the market, you will be able to create a value-based process that successfully meets customer’s demands. 

To bring all of that to practice, first and foremost, you need to have a way to map your existing processes so you can open up optimization potential and look for improvements. For that, Agile teams use a model known as “Value Stream Mapping”.

Laying the Foundations of an Agile Flow with Value Stream Mapping

Agile process mapping or most commonly known as value stream mapping is a Lean management process that allows you to visualize the development cycle of a product or service from beginning to end. It helps you put on display all stages of your work process as well as your team’s individual assignments. 

With the end goal being to continuously provide value to the customers, through value stream mapping you can see both the value-adding activities in your work process as well as those that generate waste.

Once that happens, you can look to remove the wasteful ones in your process and thus make your workflow more efficient. Here, it is important to note that not all activities that don’t provide value are considered as waste. That is because they might be of significance for ensuring the successful delivery of a product or service (ex. Quality Assurance).

Mapping the value stream of your team acts as a stepping stone to building an Agile process flow. It allows you to analyze your work process, visualize emerging priorities, spot issues, and much faster react to them. The idea is to lay the foundation and then gradually introduce feedback loops in your process, commitment points, Lean/Agile metrics, etc., which will eventually make your workflow more agile.

Creating a Value Stream and Building an Agile Workflow in Practice

A great way to map the value stream of your work process and create a more flexible workflow is through the use of an agile management method such as Kanban.

By applying it, you can bring more efficiency and agility to your workflow through:

  1. Transparency
  2. Adaptability
  3. Improved Team Collaboration

Let’s explore each one of them below in more detail.

Transparency

Visibility is in the core of Kanban so one of the main things that the method does for your work process is to make it more transparent. This can be done with the help of the Kanban board where you can apply the value stream mapping technique in practice.

There, you should start small and keep the mapping process simple without overcomplicating things unnecessarily. In the beginning, you can divide your workflow into the three basic stages: “To Do” (work that needs to be done), “In Progress” (work is in motion), and “Done” (work is completed).

With time and depending on your own work processes, you should start adding the appropriate phases (and sub-phases) that reflect the flow of your tasks.

basic Kanban boardA simple Kanban board with a single workflow

This allows you to track the work as it matures, see where it slows down and what might be blocking it from moving downstream. Having this in mind, you can take the necessary actions to make the entrance and departure of tasks in and out of your system as smooth as possible.

Visualizing your workflow is essential when managing knowledge work projects because, as the final output is often something intangible, it gives you a fast way to bring issues and defects on the surface. In turn, this increases the agility of your workflow as teams become capable of quickly rearranging and reorganizing their flow of tasks for higher efficiency whenever necessary.

Adaptability

Another one of the core principles of Kanban states “Start with what you do now”. In other words, instead of pursuing revolutionary changes to your current work process, you should respect it and then gradually evolve it.

If you think about it this brings more flexibility to your workflow because you are not disrupting your existing process right off the bat. Instead, you are applying small improvements to it one at a time. This way you will have more freedom to tailor your process based on Kanban’s best practices including your own specific way of executing projects.

Furthermore, Kanban makes your team more responsive to a changing environment. As the work is visualized, customer communication becomes more transparent too. Through the use of shared boards and backlogs, as well as Kanban cards, for example, customers can clearly see what you plan on doing next. This allows you to easily communicate the definition of done with them and as a result, quickly adapt to any necessary changes of requirements that may emerge alongside the development cycle.

With the introduction of commitment points, you can also better respond to customer expectations. For example, on the Kanban board, you can have work stages such as “Ready to Start” and “Ready for Delivery” (“Ready To Deploy” in the image below) that reflect the readiness of your team to both start working on a single task and deliver it for customer examination.

Kanban board with two commitment points

Once a work item is committed for execution, this is the point in the process where we might not have clear details as to when it will be delivered. However, as the work item gets closer to the delivery commitment point, your team will be more likely to communicate a specific due date with your customers as opposed to doing that from the beginning. As a result, you will have a way to lower the risk of delay, set more realistic customer expectations, and then be able to satisfy them. 

Organize Work, Keep Track of Projects

And Optimize Your Workflow.

 

Better Team Collaboration

An important Kanban benefit that contributes to a more agile process flow is the improvement in team collaboration.

For example, as all tasks and their current status can be visualized on a Kanban board, team members will be able to see what each one of their colleagues is working on. This contributes to the reduction of chaos, it keeps everyone on the same page and eventually quickens the flow of tasks through your work system.

Furthermore, with the help of the Kanban board, you can clearly define your work process (ie. make it explicit). All you have to do in practice is to input short descriptions of what is supposed to happen in each work phase. Doing this will provide your team members with a shared understanding of what is expected of them at every step of the process. 

explicit policiesExplicit Policies

The Kanban system, in general, allows more freedom and the possibility of team members to map and control their own workflow. Unlike the typical push approach in traditional project management, where the “boss” assigns work, in Kanban, team members pull their own tasks.

This instills a sense of ownership and encourages discussions between them on how to get work done. Through those conversations, they will be more likely to collaboratively discover problems within the workflow, figure out a way how to deal with them, and eventually improve the entire work process.

Embracing Continuous Improvement for a Smooth Agile Process Flow

Making your work processes better and better with time will allow you to achieve true agility, adapt to emerging changes quicker, and thus deliver superior value to your customers.

The best practice for embracing continuous improvement in an Agile environment is to run regular experiments and implement frequent feedback loops/learning cycles.

Continuous Experimentation

When talking about continuous experimentation, we should mention Demming and his PDCA cycle which involves four steps:

  • Plan
  • Do
  • Check
  • Act

explicit policies

Basically, in case there is an issue inside your workflow that might be leading to delays in projects, unsatisfied customers, etc., you should: identify the problem (Plan), test a potential solution (Do), measure the results (Check) and then implement that solution if it’s successful (Act).

We should mention here that this model is not reserved only for problems and issues. A best practice in the Agile world is to regularly reflect on your process and look to identify opportunities for improvement. Once that’s done, you can run small experiments to determine whether making any changes is worthwhile. 

To implement continuous experimentation and the PDCA cycle in reality, you can use the Kanban board again. Let’s take a short example with the development of this article and how we approach it at Kanbanize.

To complete it, we have a dedicated workflow called “Content Production”. There, the development of this content piece goes through a number of different steps (columns) on the Kanban board before it reaches its final state. However, what if we found that lately, we have been systematically getting inefficient with the production of content?

In that case, we would first identify the problem and then start testing a potential solution in the form of an experiment. To do that, we have a dedicated column (work stage) on our Kanban board, called “Experiment In Progress”. Here it is important to note that this is not a separate work stage in our process because we are not actively delivering value in it. Instead, we define it as a “queue” stage and use it to track any experiments for the improvement of our workflow.

Tracking experiments on a Kanban board

Our next steps would be to measure the results, determine if the experiment was successful and if so, implement it. This continuously improves our workflow, makes it more respondent to emerging issues and thereby, keeps it agile.

Implement Feedback Loops and Analyze your Workflow Efficiency

Frequent feedback loops are an integral part of Agile project management. They represent meetings as some of them act as reflection points where team members analyze the process and discuss potential improvements. 

In Kanban, such a reflection point in our process is the Service Delivery Review. There, we discuss everything that has transpired on our Kanban board since the last meeting and measure the efficiency of our work processes with a variety of agile flow charts and diagrams.  In Kanbanize, for example, we are frequent users specifically of the Cumulative flow diagram which helps us track how our work items flow from concept to fruition.

Example of a Cumulative Flow Diagram

As a result, we become equipped with the tools to measure the stability of our service delivery process and quickly take preventive instead of corrective actions whenever necessary. This approach continuously refines our workflow and enables us to frequently deliver the best possible solutions to our customers.

Organize Work, Keep Track of Projects

And Optimize Your Workflow.

 

In Summary

Building an Agile workflow enables you to adapt to emerging changes and ensure successful project delivery to the market. To create a smooth Agile flow, you need to first map your existing processes and then look to continuously improve them. 

This can be done with the help of an Agile management method such as Kanban. Implementing it will allow you to bring more agility and efficiency to your workflow through:

  • Transparency
  • Adaptability
  • Better Team Collaboration

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