What are Commitment Points in Kanban

One of the main concepts in Kanban is that small batches of work should be released early and often in the process by focusing on optimizing flow. This results in continuous delivery of value to the end customer.

However, we have one big challenge. How can we design а well-oiled system, so that teams can release their committed work quickly?

To overcome this challenge, in Kanban, we use a flow-based system along with commitment points to bring more predictability to our process and ensure that all the committed work will be successfully delivered on time.

In this article, we will define what commitment points in a Kanban-system are and why we need to visualize them on our Kanban board.

What are Commitment Points in Kanban?

Most probably on each Kanban board, you will find a backlog. This is the place where teammates and customers put ideas/requests for initiatives and tasks that the team can pick up and work on when they have the capacity to do so. The moment you pull a task, you commit to working on it until it gets done.

Since Kanban is based on flow, the commitment is a point in the workflow where a work item is ready to be pulled into the system and flow through it. There are process policies and WIP limits (work in progress) which govern the flow. WIP limits define the maximum amount of work that can exist in each status of the workflow. They improve throughput and reduce the amount of work, which is “nearly done” by focusing on a smaller set of tasks. At a fundamental level, making WIP limits explicit encourages a culture of “getting things done.” 

It is crucial to understand that in Kanban, commitment is not just a promise to a point in the future. It is the fact that a work item is right now in the workflow, it will be worked on by following the policies governing the work process and eventually be delivered to the end customer. 

Two phase commitment point in a Kanban System

Why We Use Commitment Points?

We are often emotionally attached to the idea of saying yes, especially to our customers. Therefore, we tend to start more work than we can finish. The downside of making too many commitments is that it has the potential to result in overburdening, lesser attention to detail, the need for more rework and eventually the accumulation of delay.

Another problem which occurs is committing too early to ideas on which we have insufficient information. In this case, the likelihood of discarding work once we gather more details is huge. To avoid wasting time on work items that we won’t be able to finish once started successfully, we can implement a “pre-commit” process, for example, where we refine our ideas. 

Using commitment points gives us clarity over our workflow – when a particular task will be started, is it ready to be started in the first place, when it will be delivered, etc. In other words, commitment points give us better predictability of our work and make our process more explicit – the team knows precisely which work items they are supposed to be working on next and which one are those that are ready for customer delivery. 

How to Visualize and Implement Commitment Points?

So far, we have agreed that making commitment points explicit will bring clarity and transparency to the decision-making process and potentially, encourage incremental workflow improvement.

In a workflow, we have Discovery Kanban (upstream) and Delivery Kanban (downstream). The purpose of the Upstream Kanban is to manage the stream of incoming requests before committing the work for execution downstream. The upstream Kanban takes care to help us realize what we want to build. It is the pre-commit moment where we evaluate ideas and apply the economic framework to ensure you will get maximum return on investment. 

Downstream and Upstream Kanban

Consider the Upstream Kanban as a refinement phase where we have ideas or customer requests, which the team will have to validate and order in a list by priority. Thus, it is clear for the team what needs to be achieved through the implementation of the specific idea or customer request.

After we pass through the Upstream Kanban, we can move to the replenishment or commitment meeting. It is one of the seven cadences in Kanban, and it doesn’t need to be held as a separate meeting. For example, in the marketing team in Kanbanize, it is part of the weekly KPI’s meeting.

Now here is just the right time to explain that in a well-optimized Kanban workflow, you should implement two commitment points –  a commitment to start (Ready to start) and a commitment to deliver (Ready for delivery). Ready to start is work commitment point, Ready for Delivery is date commitment point.

After we have already refined our ideas, customer requests, etc. and had a replenishment meeting about them – the actual work on the items can be started. Now here is just the right time to explain that for a well-optimized Kanban workflow, you should implement two commitment points – first, a commitment to start and second, a commitment to deliver the work. On the Kanban board, you can visualize that with a “Ready to Start” column. When a member of your team has the capacity to start working on one of them, they can pull them into the “In Progress” work stage. As the work items are getting closer to being ready for delivery to the end customer (second commitment point), the likelihood of committing to a specific delivery date increases.  

This way, we can better manage customer’s expectations – there is a commitment to do the work and deliver the item, but there is no commitment as to when. When the work item is closer to the delivery phase, and there is greater certainty about what the remaining lead time is, then we can commit to the specific delivery date.

Think about the “Ready to start” and the “Ready for delivery” commitment points as an order from an e-commerce store. When you purchase something, usually you will receive an email which lets you know that the store has received your order and is already working on packing and sending it to you. This is the first commitment point: “Ready to start.” The e-commerce store has committed to the work but still hasn’t committed to the exact date. 

Then, you will receive another email which says that your order is to be expected within ten days. Then, as the delivery gets closer and more certain, you will receive another email which informs you that your order will be delivered on a particular date and time. This is the second commitment point – Ready for Delivery. The e-commerce store has finished working on your order and has committed to specific delivery date.

It can be said that the delivery (downstream) Kanban is the manufacturing line where we mainly care about reducing our cycle time, bringing more efficiency to our process and continuously building quality in the product or service. It must be clarified that an item may get dropped if it has not crossed the line between “Requested” and “In Progress,” but that should not frequently happen, as this would be a signal for ineffective upstream.

In summary, here are some of the main principles and practices within the Kanban Method that help to leverage commitment:

  • We have to implement Upstream Kanban – a way to validate work items before the commitment is made;
  • We have to clearly identify the commitment points;
  • We need to have two-phase commitments – a commitment to start and a commitment to deliver.
  • We have to enable an approach to the discarding of work items so that we can avoid aborting work after we’ve already committed;
  • We have to limit the amount of work in our Kanban system in order not to make commitments that could exceed the team’s capacity and make delivery unpredictable;
  • We need to visualize the flow of our work and the policies around that work, so that later when we commit, we can meet the promise to deliver the work;
  • In a WIP limited system, it is easy to visually detect the interruptions to the flow of work, which encourages collaboration between teammates and the evolvement of our policies.

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