Home Kanban If you don’t stop moving cards backward on your Kanban board, your performance will drop.

If you don’t stop moving cards backward on your Kanban board, your performance will drop.

by Srinivas Saripalli

One of the most popular anti-patterns used by agile teams is moving cards backward on your Kanban board while using the JIRA tools. And the detrimental impact on your productivity isn’t always clear.

Many teams’ immediate reaction when a card fails to match the criteria from the previous phase is to shift it backward in the process. Moving work back and forth in your process may seem natural, but it not only generates strange behaviour in your flow metrics and analytics, but it also affects your performance by contributing to the main reasons of delivery delays.

stop moving cards backward on your Kanban board
stop moving cards backward on your Kanban board

Let’s take a look at the effects of this type of behaviour on your workflow, as well as the most efficient ways to avoid it.

Moving Cards Backward on Your Kanban Board Has Negative Effects


Let’s look at the aforementioned Cumulative Flow Diagram (CFD). On day7th, the band that represents the status of ‘Code Review’ (Done) will be performing. What exactly does this imply?

You could claim that the diagram isn’t properly drawn because the lines are decreasing, which goes against CFD characteristics. However, keep in mind that, like any other analytical tool, the Cumulative Flow Diagram represents your process inside your particular environment. If the bands are shrinking, it signifies the cards on your Kanban board are moving backwards or have been thrown entirely.

If this pattern appears on your CFD, it simply implies that your process promotes that anti-pattern, and it’s time to start asking the proper questions.

If that’s the case, you’ll almost certainly notice a few more adverse effects. The arrival rate of tasks in this process stage is represented by the top line of each band on the CFD, while their departures are represented by the bottom line.


Exposing the Root Cause of Performance Obstacles

Let’s say you don’t have enough information to continue working on something. You’ve already put in the time and effort, but you’re stuck. By returning the card to the backlog, you are discarding all previous time and effort spent on it. Essentially, you’re stating that this item was never started.

You’re actually hiding a problem that, if properly identified, could have been solved. It would have led to a better solution, like DoD, DoR, or AC, to ensure everyone is aligned with the work’s goal. The main point is that you are wasting a chance to grow.

What if the item you’re working on no longer makes sense from the customer’s perspective? You won’t be able to figure out what caused that behaviour and how to prevent it from happening again if you move it to the backlog or worse, throw it out. Instead, mark the card as “Abandoned” and fill it out.

If this is the case, you should consider an alternative prioritisation system that keeps you focused on work that benefits your company and your customers. In our Sustainable Predictability digital course, we address this issue by laying the groundwork for a risk management framework that will help you prioritise your work items based on their value.

Moving abandoned work to ‘Done’ rather than deleting it preserves the knowledge gained, which will later be useful during Retrospectives.

Handling defects during the ‘Testing’ phase also triggers this antipattern. Any issues with the implementation should be blocked in the ‘Testing’ state and a new defect card created in the ‘Development (Queue)’ state.

So the new card counts towards your WIP limit, and you can focus on fixing any quality issues before starting new work. This method allows you to track the number of defects over time and see how failure demand affects overall customer demand.

Visualise Your Workflow as a Knowledge Discovery Method

Moving cards backward on your Kanban board may only be intuitive if you treat the columns as specialties. Your workflow steps should represent your knowledge discovery process, not specialties.

To represent your knowledge discovery process, start with the activities you know little about and work your way through the process to learn more about the problem you’re solving.

Each column represents a new phase of learning, without excluding the others.

Even if your work item is no longer in ‘Analysis’, nothing prevents analysts from conducting additional research on it. Similarly, even though the task is in the ‘Testing’ state, nothing prevents developers from automating tests.

Look at your process steps from the perspective of work flow, not specialisation.

Moving work backwards doesn’t make sense if you view your workflow as a process of knowledge discovery. Spending more time on something yields more information. So it only makes sense for the card to progress.

Incorrect data-driven decisions and missed opportunities for improvement can result from moving cards backward on your Kanban board. Instead, face the issues, accept them, and work to quickly resolve them. That’s the best way to improve your performance and speed up delivery.

Recommended Reading: How to set WIP limits in KANBAN to boost comprehensive “flow”

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