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A funny thing happened on the way to the Kanban board: we found a way to make Definitions of Done easier to understand.

Last year, I was working with clients to set up their shiny new Kanban board, and as the team started documenting their Definitions of Done and sticking them up on the board, someone said, “wait, I’m confused; is that the Definition of Done going into that column, or coming out?”

I was mentally transported back to my own team’s Kanban board at Northwest Cadence: the awesome magnetic-chalk-wall one in Kirkland…

We were actually negotiating our Definitions of Done for the board in Kirkland at that moment.

We were actually negotiating our Definitions of Done for the board in Kirkland at that moment.

… and the new fancy console one in Bellevue.

Traditionally-placed Definitions of Done on NWC's Kanban board in Bellevue.

Traditionally-placed Definitions of Done on NWC’s Kanban board in Bellevue.

“The Definition of Done in that column – is that what has to happen before the item can enter that column or before it can leave?”

Some people find this question ridiculous. In most Western languages we read from left-to-right and top-to-bottom, so it seems intuitively obvious that the Definition of Done at the bottom of the column is the last thing to happen before starting the next column, and that’s normally what’s meant by it. At NWC I left it alone, but I was secretly often confused when working with the board! I figured it was just me.

But here I was with a client, and someone else (who seemed clever) found it confusing, too. It’s not just me, and, hey, this is my engagement, they think I’m some kind of expert, I can do what I want!

So, we did an experiment. I asked them to think of the Definitions of Done as belonging to the lines between columns, rather than the columns themselves. A step to the right. “This is what has to happen in order for an item to cross this line.” We moved the Definitions of Done to align that way, and on their own they added helpful arrowheads to make it even more clear.

Definitions of Done aligned with the lines instead of the columns.

Definitions of Done aligned with the lines instead of the columns.

The result was magical: I could see on their faces, just that easy, everyone now completely got it. I sat next to those boards for weeks after, so I was able to witness that they, and neighboring teams, and passers-by all got it, too.

Eight months later, I was working with a different team to set up a brand-new Kanban board, and when the first Definitions of Done went up in the traditional bottom-of-the-column way, a quite clever developer said, “wait, I’m confused…” I had them shift the Definitions of Done a step to the right, and think of them as belonging to the lines. It totally worked!

Again, we shifted the Definitions of Done to align with the lines.

Again, we shifted the Definitions of Done to align with the lines.

I don’t feel foolish anymore. I like this way a lot better and it’s become my default when training teams on Kanban boards. Yet another reason I prefer physical Kanban boards to virtual ones (especially given that TFS doesn’t display Definitions of Done at all).

How have you tricked out your Kanban board to radiate information more effectively?

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