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Graphic reflecting a work item in progress

What is Work Item Age?

Work Item Age is the elapsed time since the work item started. Work Item Age is one of four key flow metrics along with Cycle Time, Throughput, and WIP (aka work in progress).

You can group these metrics into two pairs. Every completed item counts towards Throughput and has a Cycle Time where as every item still in progress counts towards WIP and has a Work Item Age.

Work Item Age is, arguably, the most important flow metric because controlling age can result in significantly higher levels of predictability. In short, if you can only measure and manage one thing, make it Work Item Age.

Calculating Work Item Age

To begin calculating Work Item Age, you need to have a defined process with two specific points identified:

  • Your Start Line – or the point in your process in which items are considered started
  • Your Finish Line – or the point in your process in which items are considered complete

When you have those points defined, you can identify your WIP as they will be the work items between those two points.

Identifying WIP in your process

When you have those points defined, you can identify your WIP. They are the work items between those two points. You measure the age of each work item using the following calculation:

(Today’s date – Start Date) + 1

As with Cycle Time, the plus one ensures that we include both today’s date and the start date in the calculation.

Work Item Age is the total elapsed time since the work item started

Work Item Age is the total elapsed time from start to today. This means it includes active working time as well any time that a work item is sitting there idle no matter the cause.

The Aging Work In Progress Chart

Reading the Chart

The Aging Work in Progress chart is a lot like a visual board as the columns reflect your workflow stages and the items show as dots in the appropriate column. The vertical placement of the dot reflects the items Work Item Age. A dot may reflect more than one work item if they are in the same workflow stage and have the same Work Item Age.

The Aging Work In Progress chart in ActionableAgile shows Work Item Age
Aging Work In Progress Chart in ActionableAgile Analytics

Managing Work Item Age with the Chart

Only while an item appears on this chart can you exert any control over where it will end up in your Cycle Time data. If you look at the last column of this chart you will notice that there are no work items represented. When an item reaches this workflow stage, it is complete and appears as historical data on your Cycle Time Scatterplot instead. Nothing you do now can change how long it took to complete that item.

Because you use Cycle Time data to answer “How long will it take?” for a single work item, Work Item Age should be a key consideration when making your plan for the day. But, knowing the age of a work item isn’t enough information on its own. How do we know if the age of a work item is bad, good, or indifferent? To put age in context, ActionableAgile overlays percentile lines from the Cycle Time data.

Percentile lines bring context to work item age.
Percentile lines in ActionableAgile’s Aging Work In Progress Chart

In the chart above below you can see that 85% of past items have finished in 16 days or less. You can keep that in mind as you track work items and make daily plans. If you want to maintain that level of predictability, you’ll need to continue to finish 85% of work items in 16 days or less.

ActionableAgile’s pace percentiles help provide early signals that work is aging more than usual. Read more about how they work.

Pace Percentiles on the Aging Work In Progress Chart in ActionableAgile

Getting Started

Work Item Age is important to track for any team who wants to become more predictable. At its core, Work Item Age is a process improvement metric. When you see items aging more than expected, you can experiment with tactics to see if they help. There is no single fix but common tactics include limiting WIP, controlling work item size, reducing dependencies, and more.

Once you manage Work Item Age, your Cycle Time data should stabilize and make forecasting easier! If you’re looking for a tool to help you track your flow metrics and improve your process, try out ActionableAgile for free. Don’t forget to reach out if you’re interested in joining our customer success program!