Some context first: I am a project manager in a software development company with a Kanban environment. In the team I am managing there is no such thing as people reporting their work to me, or people telling one after the other what they did yesterday, etc. During stand-up meetings we focus on the flow, almost never on a particular piece of work.

The other day I was having a (tiny) argument with my boss around a sentence from Jurgen Appelo's Management 3.0 book:

Whether employees need managers is irrelevant. It is the shareholders who need managers of their business. Self-organization is devoid of value. It takes someone with an interest in its outcomes to decide whether the results of self-organization are "good" or "bad."

Then the boss asked this question:

Considering a self-organized team where no individual work is ever reported, how do you spot the lazy team member?

  • One of the key principles of Scrum revolves around the concept of a self managing team. Have you seen the the movie full metal jacket? In that movie the team discovers that Pvt. Pyle is a lazy (doughnut eating) member of the team. The team finds this is increasing the work load of the rest of the team. So as good self organizing team they independently collaborate to find a solution which works for the whole team. This works out, & Pvt. Pyle picks up the pace. This unfortunately backfires on management later on. I wont give any spoilers, but I suggest you watch the film to get the whole story. Oct 20, 2020 at 7:07

3 Answers 3


Value Judgements vs. Flow Analysis

Considering a self-organized team where no individual work is ever reported, how do you spot the lazy team member?

This is the wrong way to ask the question, but it's understandable since people are social animals. The question is being asked through a social filter that imputes motives rather than analyzing the process flow and identifying bottlenecks, process gaps, or impediments.

A better way to look at this issue is to look at the overall process flow. If the value chain is intact, and the cycle time of the process is acceptable, the question of whether a team member is a super-star or a super-dud is actually irrelevant. The only question that matters is whether that person adds value to the chain or whether the process routes around that person (e.g. the person is a bottleneck/impediment that could be considered "waste" from a Kanban perspective).

Let's assume for the moment that the person is lazy, but nevertheless adds value to the process. Perhaps this person is the only one who knows how to embiggen the whatsit before it ships off to the customer. While it may be tempting to replace this person with someone who's excited to show up every day and embiggen everything faster, the Law of Unintended Consequences suggests that this may not actually improve your process or cycle times. Perhaps the process can't move any faster than it does, or perhaps this person provides untracked value to the process chain that isn't captured by any particular swim lane or story card.

If you want to go around firing people for "moral turpitude" or some other social equivalent, fine. But please don't make the mistake of thinking that this is a process issue, because that's not supported by the data that you've presented.

Don't Optimize Sub-Tasks

In Kanban (as in other agile methodologies), tracking individual performance is always the wrong metric. Bob Lewis has repeatedly said:

You can’t optimize the whole by optimizing the parts, whether you’re designing a car, a software system, or an IT organization.

It's a pervasive theme for Mr. Lewis, and while the context of the referenced blog entry is slightly different than your issue, the core message is still on target. If you feel that some part of the process is not optimal, you must carefully consider whether optimizing some sub-task or role would actually improve or degrade your overall process.

If you feel someone is "lazy," you're implicitly addressing a potential optimization. You need to carefully consider your metric (Why do you think this person is lazy?) and determine whether or not it really matters to the overall process. If you are measuring the wrong thing, or optimizing for something other than value chaining, waste reduction, or process throughput, then you're just engaging in social engineering.


One cannot really spot a lazy team member in a cross functional team. The good thing about about cross functional teams is the cohesion, which will "hide" the performance (good or bad) of the individual, so one cannot really say that X or Y is lazy. It can happen that the team members are talking about another member, but that discussion doesn't and shouldn't be visible on your boss' level, unless it is escalated by the team members. Jurgen's book is about agile management, and I don't know your boss, but after he gets the book, he will realise that there is no answer to his question in an Agile or Management 3.0 context.

Let's say you are a team member and you think that your colleague is lazy. I consider laziness as a symptom. In most of the cases there is something else behind, so figuring out what is going on is the key. I remember that an old colleague of mine was convinced that another colleague was lazy and he continuously tried to prove it and get rid of that other colleague. Actually, he wasn't lazy at all, but much slower than the others. So, if you think that somebody in your team is lazy, dig deeper and figure out his/her motive. There are two solutions: help him/her, or find him/her another team.


1) straightforward way: since you have a Kanban board, it should be relatively easy to track the average number of tasks/points done by each team member

2) ask (individually) every team member to pick 1-2 partners for a difficult and important assignment (task, story) and see who will NOT be picked - this method might give you more info about the team but it could backfire, so be careful.

one more thing: you don't have to optimize for "story points per person" but it could be a good idea to know that you have a weak link in the team (perhaps, someone producing negative results (I have seen it ))

  • 2
    Kanban is not designed to track individual performance. If you optimize for "story points per person," you are not optimizing for process flow or throughput.
    – Todd A. Jacobs
    Dec 1, 2012 at 19:56
  • @CodeGnome: I agree, but (afaik) 1) every active item (task) on the Kanban board must have a name of the person(s) working on this item 2) every story and task should be estimated in advance -> if manager really wants to estimate performance of the team member, it is possible to do.
    – Steve V
    Dec 1, 2012 at 22:01
  • one more thing: you don't have to optimize for "story points per person" but it could be a good idea to know that you have a weak link in the team (perhaps, the one producing negative results)
    – Steve V
    Dec 1, 2012 at 22:56
  • 1
    In Kanban, stories do not have owners. Swimlanes or process columns might, but the stories themselves should be community-owned "hot potatoes" that are pulled through the process queues. Idle upstream queues are generally a sign of throughput or WIP issues, and not necessarily "laziness." People can be lazy, but you can't measure it solely based on inter-process cycle time.
    – Todd A. Jacobs
    Dec 1, 2012 at 23:31
  • @CodeGnome I did not say "stories", I said tasks. And I was not talking about the owners, but, imho, that sticky note should have the name of the person who is working on this task at this moment; the reason is simple: if something goes wrong with this task (or if you have a question) - who will you ask for details?
    – Steve V
    Dec 1, 2012 at 23:39

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