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A Complete Guide to Understanding Cumulative Flow Diagram

Workflow Management
cumulative flow diagram

Ever felt like you needed an ally to keep your project on track? Meet the cumulative flow diagram (CFD)—your project manager sidekick!

If you’ve ever wondered how to effortlessly visualize your project’s progress, spot bottlenecks, and streamline your workflow, you’re in for a treat.

Undoubtedly, CFD, based on reliable data, will help you transform the way you work and take it to the next level. To discover what a cumulative flow diagram is, its purpose, and how to use it, join us on a guided journey that will enable you to seize all the benefits that using CFD brings.

Let’s get started!

Key Takeaways

  • A cumulative flow diagram (CFD) is a project management tool used in Agile, Lean, Scrum, Kanban, and SAFe methodologies to visualize and analyze work item flow over time.
  • Reading a CFD involves understanding the vertical axis (representing tasks or work items), the horizontal axis (representing time intervals), different colored lines or bands (representing workflow stages), and color coding to distinguish stages.
  • CFDs offer insights into project progress, identify bottlenecks, and help in making informed decisions to optimize processes and estimate task completion times.
  • Ideal CFDs show a steady, balanced flow of work, smooth slopes, adherence to WIP limits, clear lead time and cycle time metrics, and predictability in task completion.
  • CFDs provide several benefits, including clear workflow visualization, streamlined project tracking, easier bottleneck identification, improved resource management, and enhanced project predictions.

What is a Cumulative Flow Diagram?

A cumulative flow diagram (CFD) is a visual tool used in project management, particularly in Agile and Lean methodologies, to track and analyze the flow of work in a process over time. It provides a simple and reliable way to understand how work items move through different phases of a project.

CFD contains vertical and horizontal axes and lines or areas. The vertical axis quantifies our work items, such as user stories, tasks, or features, while the horizontal axis represents time, divided into intervals like days, weeks, or sprints.

What is a Cumulative Flow Diagram?


With these axes and lines, CFD offers insights into the project’s progress and identifies bottlenecks or inefficiencies—that’s its main role. So, based on the data you’ll analyze, you can make smart choices, improve your processes, and estimate when you’ll complete tasks.

It’s a tool that keeps you on track, streamlines business processes, and assists you in accomplishing your goals. Now, let’s explore how a cumulative flow diagram operates and how to interpret it effectively.

How to Read a Cumulative Flow Diagram

A cumulative flow diagram may seem like a complex puzzle at first, but fear not—it’s all about making your project’s progress crystal clear. Let’s break it down step by step:

  • Vertical Axis: The vertical side of the CFD represents the number of tasks or work items in your project. Imagine it as a tall stack of cards—the higher it goes, the more tasks are in play.
  • Horizontal Axis: This axis represents time. It’s split into chunks, such as days, weeks, or sprints. Think of it as a timeline of your project’s progress.
  • Lines or Bands: Within the CFD, you’ll notice various lines or bands, each with a specific color. These lines represent different stages or statuses in your project’s workflow. Common stages include “To-Do”, “In Progress,” and “Done”. Think of them as different lanes on your project’s highway.
  • Color coding: Color coding is your visual guide to understanding which stage each line or band represents. It’s like using different colors to label each lane on the road, making it easy to distinguish them.

CFD helps us detect issues like work pileups or bottlenecks by analyzing the changing shape of those lines. If they continue to rise, it may indicate a growing backlog. If they disperse, that could indicate problems with the workflow.

Let’s explore CFD through the following methodologies:

Cumulative Flow Diagram Agile:

In Agile, the CFD provides a detailed view of how tasks move through the project phases. Watch how tasks flow from the initial “Backlog” stage into “In Progress” and eventually reach “Done”.

Pay close attention to the slopes and curves of the lines. Steady, smooth lines indicate a well-balanced workflow. Any sharp deviations or spikes might signal bottlenecks or workflow issues. Agile teams use CFDs to refine sprint planning and ensure a steady flow of work.

Cumulative Flow Diagram Scrum:

In Scrum, CFDs track the progress of tasks during sprints. Watch as tasks move from the “Backlog” to sprint planning, enter development, and finally reach the “Done” stage.

The CFD helps Scrum masters ensure they are on track to meet the sprint goals. By observing the flow of tasks, they can make adjustments to optimize the sprint’s success.

Cumulative Flow Diagram SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework):

SAFe CFDs, also known as the scaled agile framework, are particularly useful for large-scale projects. They track work items across multiple teams and program increments.

Keep an eye on how tasks flow from the portfolio backlog to the team backlog, through development, and into the “Done” state. This provides a high-level view of the health of the entire SAFe program.

Cumulative Flow Diagram Kanban:

In Kanban, CFDs are a core part of visualizing work in progress. Observe how tasks move from the “To-Do” column to “In Progress” and eventually to “Done”.

Kanban teams closely monitor CFDs to optimize workflow, identify bottlenecks, and limit work in progress.

What to Look Out for in a Cumulative Flow Diagram?

CFD project management tool


Here is what you should look out for in a CFD and what an ideal one would show:

  • Steady flow: An ideal CFD demonstrates a steady, balanced flow of work items across all stages. This means that work is consistently moving from one stage to the next without bottlenecks or excessive buildup.
  • Smooth slopes: The lines representing each stage on the CFD should have smooth, consistent slopes, indicating a consistent pace of work. Sharp peaks or valleys can indicate irregularities or issues in the process.
  • WIP limits adherence: Work-in-progress (WIP) limits are the maximum number of items allowed in each stage. An ideal CFD shows that these limits are generally adhered to. When limits are consistently exceeded, it’s a sign of overloading and potential delays.
  • Lead time and Cycle time: These are critical metrics to track. Lead time measures the total time from the initiation of a work item to its completion, while cycle time measures the time it takes for a work item to move through active stages. An ideal CFD helps you easily calculate and visualize these times.
  • Predictability: A well-maintained CFD can help you make predictions about when work items will be completed. If you can’t predict when work will finish based on the diagram, it might indicate unpredictability in your process.

5 Benefits of Cumulative Flow Diagrams

Let’s dive into five key benefits that can supercharge your projects:

#1. Clearer Visualization of Workflow

Imagine your project laid out on a map, from start to finish, with all tasks in one place. CFDs give you this useful visual. It’s like looking at a traffic map for your project. This makes it super easy for everyone involved to see where projects are, which tasks are in progress, and which ones are completed.

#2. Streamlined Project Tracking

No more digging through emails, spreadsheets, or sticky notes to figure out what’s happening in your project. Cumulative flow diagrams provide an at-a-glance view of task progress in real-time. This means you always know where tasks stand, making it simple to track projects.

#3. Easier Identification of Bottlenecks

Bottlenecks represent areas in the project where tasks accumulate or take longer than anticipated, potentially slowing down the project’s general progress. Since CFDs provide a clear visual representation of task progression, it is much easier for project managers to pinpoint bottlenecks with progression and take measures to eliminate them.

#4. Better Resource Management

Cumulative flow diagrams also aid in resource management, helping you maximize your team’s skills and time. By understanding where tasks tend to pile up, you can allocate your resources more effectively. This ensures that your team is working on the right things at the right time.

#5. Improved Project Predictions

Predicting when your project will be done can be a game-changer. CFDs use data and current task flow to give you a sneak peek into the future. This means you can plan with confidence and keep your project on target.

Final Thoughts

Cumulative flow diagrams are powerful tools in project management because of their ability to reduce complexity.

These visual representations of data make it easy to understand where your project stands at any given time and where improvements may be made in terms of both time and money.

CFDs provide useful information regardless of whether you’re using the Agile, Scrum, SAFe, or Kanban methodology. They’re more than just pictures—they tell the story of your project while providing direction and efficiency.

So, take CFDs on as partners in the project management process and watch how they navigate your project to success.

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