Managing Blocked Work in Kanban: A Comprehensive Guide

The blocked is like a rock in the water flow, which seriously affects the speed of the water flow. Many teams react and wait for the blockage to occur before taking urgent action, but you can follow these four steps to manage the blocked more proactively.

Step 1: How to Avoid Clogging Up Your Kanban

Many blockages are due to poor requirements analysis or planning, resulting in the finding that development cannot proceed after the requirements have been initiated. Blocking can be prevented to the greatest extent by starting with the following.

  • Before work items are pulled into the Kanban ready queue, the product owner does Backlog grooming with the team. The team analyzes the risk of requirement implementation, external dependencies, and resources required, including hardware and software resources.
  • If some requirements require external components or resources, the team confirms the plan with each other before pulling it into the Kanban ready queue.
  • At the daily station meeting, please focus on the work items where dependencies and risks have been identified, track the readiness of the dependent resources or components, and urge the other party to provide them within the agreed time.

Step 2: Visualizing Blocked Work in Kanban

If the team can’t see the blockage, they have to close their eyes and assume everything is fine, so be sure to visualize it.

There are two ways to imagine blocking the Kanban board.

Blocked Work Item

One way is to mark the blockage on the work item, as shown in the figure, using a small card of a unique color as a blockage card to note down why the work item is stalled.

visualizing blocked

Are blocking cards and blocked work items subject to work-in-process restrictions?

Since block cards cause work item blockage, they do not carry value per se and therefore are not a work in progress. Blocked work items, conversely, are in-process and therefore need to be subject to work-in-process constraints, thus urging the team to prioritize blocking.

Blocked Column

Another way to visualize blocking is to open a separate “Blocking column” on the Kanban board.

The blocked work items are put into this column for management, such as the “Block” column on the team’s Kanban board in the figure.

Kanban with blocked column

This visualization method brings out the blocked work items more. However, the disadvantage is that it does not limit the work-in-progress of the blocking column, resulting in an infinite accumulation of blocking work items. The visualization visualizes the blocking column separately and limits the number of work-in-progress in the blocking column.

limit the number of work-in-progress in the blocking column

Step 3: Analyzing and Solving Blocked Work

During the daily station meeting, the team focuses on how to resolve the blocked work item. All available resources must be mobilized if the blocked work item is a high-value task. If necessary, management should be called upon to resolve the block.

Step 4: Blocked Work Retrospective

The cycle time of the blocked work item is usually longer. During the team’s delivery review meeting, everyone reviews the root cause of the blockage and discusses how to avoid it next time.

In a consulting case, during a delivery review meeting, the team put together and categorized blocking cards over time. The blocking cards were divided into two categories: blocking due to external and internal conditions. Each major category was split into several blocking patterns based on the cause of the blocking.

After the classification, the team discussed the most frequent patterns of blocking cards: Why are so many blocking problems clustered into one pattern? What are their root causes? What can be done to prevent the blocking of such patterns at the root?