definition of done in agile featured image

“What is the progress on…?” I am sure you will agree that’s one of the most asked questions by customers or other relevant stakeholders when you are working on a product or service.  

But how can you measure the progress of something if you don’t know where it ends? It’s simple… you can’t.  

The same thing applies to knowledge work projects. There, as you rarely know what the final status of a project will be, usually team members start working on things with ambiguous details.  

And while that’s due to the nature of knowledge work itself, it doesn’t invalidate the need for some form of a consensus that classifies where a work item really “ends”. Otherwise, chaos ensues, which brings waste, which kills value.  

So, to ensure that doesn’t happen, aim to define what “Done” means for your process and the work that flows through it. 

What Is the Meaning of the Definition of Done? 

To put it in a theoretical manner, “Definition of done” is agreed-upon evidence of completion of a process, activity, or some objective.  

For example, imagine that you start working on an engineering work item that requires you to prepare the drawings of a new machine part. Unless you have some criteria against which to measure when the item provides value to the next stage of the process, then you might have to do reworks over and over again.  

The same holds true for an entire process that delivers some form of product/service to customers (internal or external). For example, if the design engineers work without explicit policies on what it means for products to be fully specified before they’re manufactured, the likelihood of defects increases. In turn, this leads to reworks and slows down the entire delivery to the end customer. 

Do You Need to Have a Meaningful Definition of Done for Every Work Item? 

Our advice is that you do! Starting new work just for the sake of doing something can seriously harm your production of value.  

In fact, that’s a problem that many managers struggle with. At first look, everyone is very busy with their tasks, but the actual value delivery suffers, leading to unsatisfied customers. 

Here, we should mention that there will always be “necessary waste” in your process. However, the major part of the work you start needs to be connected to your strategic goals, projects, or something else that generates value. Otherwise, it’s just unnecessary motion which is a pure waste from a Lean perspective. 

motion is one of the 7 wastes of Lean

Other than that, make sure you clearly define your process policies so your team members can understand them. This means creating “definition of done” checklists or rules for both your work items and entire processes. As a result, you will be able to reduce the risk of reworks and create value every single time you deliver work.  

How Can We Help You Visualize Your Definition of Done with Kanban(ize)?

Continuing from the last point, a “definition of done” checklist can be in the form of acceptance criteria that need to be met before your work can move forward.  

But how can you make sure everybody on your team understands those criteria and then progressively meets them? A simple but effective way is to visualize them.  

In other words, make your process policies explicit, which is one of the main Kanban practices.  

In reality, this can be done with the help of the Kanban board. There, you can visualize the policies for your entire process as well as specify the definition of done checklists for individual work items (represented by Kanban cards).  

elements of the kanban board including cards, columns and lanes

This is where Kanbanize can help.  

Exit Criteria for Work Items 

While a simple way to portray your definition of done is through subtasks or to-do lists, this limits the work information you can visualize. That’s why at Kanbanize, we use special “exit criteria” for our work items.  

You can apply them to the Kanban columns (representing work stages) in your process. After that, once a given Kanban card enters a stage with defined exit criteria, they will be visualized as checklists on the work item. What’s really handy here is that the system will not allow you to move a card to the next work stage unless the acceptance criteria for the current one have been met (checked).  

creating exit criteria for different work items to illustrate the definition of done in kanban

This allows us to understand when a given piece of work is truly ready to move forward in the process so we can reduce eventual reworks and ultimately delays.  

Note: “Exit criteria” is an exclusive feature in Kanbanize. You can read more about it in our dedicated knowledgebase article.

Policies for Workflows & Teams 

When it comes down to entire workflows, teams should visualize the policies or rules that define them too. They contribute to releasing a quality product/service to a customer and are an integral part of defining what done means for the whole process.  

In Kanban, to visualize those rules, it’s a good practice to input details about your columns, lanes, or even the entire board. Every single team at Kanbanize, for example, has a dedicated place to do that directly from their boards.  

how to make process policies explicit to visualize your definition of done in kanban

Using custom board policies puts everybody on the same page and builds consensus between team members of what a “done” product/service really means. On the one hand, this allows us to determine whether we produce value, but on the other, it drives internal discussions of what we could do better.

Note: “Board Policies” is an exclusive feature in Kanbanize. You can read more about it in our dedicated knowledgebase article.

In Conclusion 

When developing a definition of done, you should have in mind the type of work it relates to. In addition, you must have a checklist of conditions that must be present for an assignment to be considered finished. 

If there isn’t a meaningful definition of done, think twice when starting a work item. But, of course, there is nothing wrong with necessary waste, and we all deal with it.  

The point is to keep it as the minority in your work process. Otherwise, you risk generating waste by investing time and resources into something that might not be helpful to anyone.  

This blog post has been updated by our editors. It was originally published on the Kanbanize blog in 2019!

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