Managing sub-tasks on a Jira Kanban board

The Kanban board is used to visualise the team’s work. This is usually a mix of Bugs, Tasks and Stories. Good stories should follow the INVEST criteria. If the team are using Jira, then it also allows them to create sub-tasks for Tasks and Stories. Sub-tasks are a useful way for the developers to create a “Todo” list for the implementation, e.g. “setup database”, “create service”, etc. without exposing the gory details to the rest of team.

Whenever the team is looking at the flow of value across the board, these implementation details are usually not interesting, and that is why sub-tasks are usually not shown on the board. However, when a developer is discussing their current progress (e.g. during standups), this information can be a useful recall aid. This is especially true if the team are creating vertical stories which usually requires multiple developers (front-end and back-end) to work on the, and therefore the story cannot (should not) be assigned to any one person. Instead, it is the sub-tasks that provide context.

A Jira Kanban board can also be filtered per user; so if sub-tasks are shown on the board, then the team can apply the user filter to quickly see the sum of what any one developer is working on: sub-tasks, tasks, stories, etc.

Displaying sub-tasks on the board is easy to configure, but there are some other changes that the team might need to make as well. For instance, how to hide “Done” sub-tasks without hiding stories that are due for release. I will cover each of these in the following sections.

Displaying sub-tasks

Every Kanban has a Filter Query that controls which issues are displayed. If only certain issue types are displayed, then the filter must be updated to also include sub-tasks. In that case, go to the Board settings, General and edit the Filter Query to include “All Sub-Task Issue Types”. For example:

project = "ACME" AND issuetype in (subTaskIssueTypes(), Story) ORDER BY Rank ASC

If the sub-tasks are using a different workflow, then it is presumably a simpler workflow than the Stories they are a part of. Just make sure that any unique sub-task workflow states are added to the board columns. This can be configured under Board settings, Columns.

Immediately, the team will be able to see all sub-tasks on the board and can filter them per user by clicking on the avatars at the top of the board. The next step is to create a toggle to hide/unhide sub-tasks.

Toggling sub-task display

Displaying sub-tasks inevitably leads to a lot of clutter on the board. It is also important that the team can maintain focus on the flow of Stories and not just sub-tasks. To facilitate this the team want to be able to hide sub-tasks at will.

Under Board Settings, Quick Filters create a new filter called “No Sub-Tasks” and set the query to be

issuetype not in subTaskIssueTypes()

This Quick Filter will appear at the top of the Kanban Board and when pressed will hide temporarily hide all sub-tasks, making the board appear as it was before sub-tasks were added.

Definition of Done

Sub-tasks should have a simple lifecycle. The developer who performs the sub-task is responsible for its testing and integration into the feature branch. Only when all sub-tasks in the Story are completed can the acceptance criteria for the Story be tested. However, the sub-tasks will linger on in the the Done column forever unless they are explicitly removed.

Jira Kanban boards provide a “Kanban board sub-filter” for hiding issues that are part of a release (by setting the “Fix version”). However, it is not desirable to make sub-tasks part of a release; other options exist. Here is a summary of all of the alternatives:

  1. Include the sub-tasks in the Release. This unfortunately pollutes the list of Stories included in the Release, and makes the Release notes unusable.
  2. Build an Automation to create a dummy release just for sub-tasks, that is scheduled to run, say, every week. This is a reasonable workaround, but pollutes the release history and (perhaps not so important) puts the stories and sub-tasks in different releases.
  3. Use the “Hide completed issues older than” option under Board Settings, General. This is a blunt instrument; the problem is that it makes no distinction between Stories and sub-tasks and could end up hiding Stories that are Done but delayed for release.
  4. Adjust the board Filter Query to exclude sub-tasks after time elapsed (e.g. 1 week). This is the least invasive way to effect what is essentially a visual change needed to control what issues are displayed on the board.

I recommend the fourth option; it is easy to set up and modify and does not impact any other aspects of the issue lifecycle, such as Fix versions. To do this, the Filter Query can be modified to not show older sub-tasks; in this example 1 week:

project = "Acme" AND (issuetype in (subTaskIssueTypes(), Story) OR (issuetype in subTaskIssueTypes() AND (status != Done OR resolved >= -1w))) ORDER BY Rank ASC

Summary

Displaying sub-tasks on the team Kanban board allows the team to see in one place exactly all the issues the developers are working on. The new “No Sub-Tasks” Quick Filter allows the team to retain their existing overview of Stories, Tasks and Bugs while allowing them to toggle the display of sub-tasks to support different conversations.

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