Do you often have to deal with bottlenecks?
Do you often lose track of who does what and when?
Do you often have to rush out projects at the last minute so they can meet the deadline?
If the answer is yes, you might need to look for ways to optimize workflow and improve the productivity of your team.
But, in most cases, that’s easier said than done. This process involves a lot of trial and error, taking up quite a bit of your time and potentially losing money until you manage to get it right.
Luckily, an easy-to-learn and easy-to-use system won’t give you that many headaches when implementing it within your organization.
And that is Kanban. So, what is it, and how can you put this system in place?
Let’s take a look.
What is Kanban?
Kanban is a Japanese word that translates to “signboard” or “billboard.” As the name suggests, this project management method involves a visual organization system made out of labels or cards.
Each card corresponds to an individual task that needs to be addressed. The Kanban board is divided into multiple columns that indicate the state of each card, like “To do,” “In progress,” and “Done.” Thus, task cards will move from left to right on the board until completion.
Consequently, the Kanban board helps employees visualize their workflow, improve efficiency, avoid bottlenecks, while managers can quickly identify and address any potential obstacles without micromanaging the team.
Kanban was initially introduced in the 1940s in the car manufacturing industry. Toyota wanted to improve efficiency by keeping a set number of parts and restocking only when needed.
Employees took a Kanban card whenever stocks were low and specified they needed to resupply, but the number of new parts wouldn’t exceed that set maximum value.
Thus, they avoided having an unnecessary surplus and wasting valuable space.
Due to its efficiency and simplicity, the Kanban method was adopted in the software development industry in the early 2000s, being used in multiple industries ever since.
How to Build a Kanban Board
There are five main principles you’ve got to follow when implementing a Kanban system:
- Visualize current workflow
- Apply Work in Progress limits
- Make explicit policies
- Manage and gauge the workflow
Let’s discuss this in further detail.
1. Visualize Current Workflow
First off, you’ve got to know the ins and outs of how your tasks are currently carried out, from creating the initial concept down to delivering the final product.
Figure out the exact steps each task has to follow until completion, how long it usually takes to complete these tasks, who assigns them, and so on.
This will not only help you understand what these tasks could look like in a Kanban board, but it may also give you an insight into what parts of your workflow might need to be optimized.
After that, it’s time to place the tasks onto the board. Start with a standard, three-column board, displaying the tasks that need to be worked on, the ones in progress, and the ones that are completed, see how that works out.
But, note that you may need more than three columns depending on your needs. For example, during the website development process, your Kanban board can look like this: “To do,” “In progress,” “Testing,” “Debugging,” and “Done.”
You may also need additional columns in-between steps to represent buffers.
In other words, add as many columns as necessary, as long as both you and your employees can get a good general idea of how each task is going.
2. Apply Work in Progress Limits
As mentioned earlier, Toyota set a limit to the number of parts they could order at once to optimize costs and avoid cluttering space.
You’ll want to do the same thing with your Kanban board. That said, assign a maximum number of tasks each Work in Progress (WIP) column can contain.
Note that WIP limits apply to all columns that refer to a task’s development process. Sticking with the website development example, you could apply WIP limits to the “In progress,” “Testing,” and “Debugging” columns.
Once tasks move from one column to another, the previous column will have room for more assignments.
This will help you prevent bottlenecks, keep your team members focused on one task at a time, and ultimately improve productivity.
There’s no one-size-fits-all WIP limit, so you’ll have to experiment. But, as a general rule of thumb, most software developers recommend starting with a maximum of two tasks per person. So if you’re in the same industry, it might be good to follow suit and go on from there.
3. Make Explicit Policies
Your Kanban board won’t work unless every team member knows how it works.
That said, make sure that everyone understands how tasks are handed over, how many assignments one member can handle at a time, and set expectations for solving any potential bottlenecks.
Also, define each task depending on its priority, like “First In First Out,” “Expedite,” and “Fixed Due Date,” for example.
If every task follows the FIFO method, the chances are that a high-priority assignment will get stuck behind a low-priority one, causing a missed deadline.
That said, let your team know that some tasks may need to jump the queue depending on their urgency.
4. Manage and Gauge Workflow
After you’ve got the wheel spinning, it’s time to monitor how the workflow is going.
A Kanban board might not turn out perfect on the first try, so you’ll need to determine how long it takes for a task to reach completion, whether the initial WIP is too high or too low, if your board may need extra columns, etc.
Also, ask for your team’s feedback. Sure, everything might look good on paper, but your team might experience issues that may not be visible at first glance. That said, their feedback can be a goldmine.
After you’ve got all the necessary information, it’s time to improve your Kanban board. Remember that optimization is a continuous process, so you’ll need to create reports and ask for your team’s feedback periodically.
Also, think thoroughly before implementing any modifications to the board. Start by figuring out how changes could bring specific, measurable results.
After that, implement these changes and give your team some time to experiment with the new board configuration.
Meanwhile, you’ll need to monitor performance and compare it to your last benchmark. If these changes yield better results, then it’s here to stay. Otherwise, you’ll need to revert to the previous board configuration.
Given that the Kanban board was first implemented in the car manufacturing niche seven ago and is now widely used in many other industries, it’s pretty safe to say that this workflow management method works.
After all, it’s simple, flexible, effective, and helps prevent bottlenecks. So there’s no reason not to try it yourself.
But, keep in mind that creating an effective Kanban board isn’t just a matter of defining a few columns and adding a few notes on them.
That said, start by understanding how your current workflow may be visualized within a board.
After that, determine the right Work in Progress limits and establish explicit policies to not overwhelm your team or create confusion.
And lastly, continuously measure and optimize until you get everything right.