Getting Started With Kanban

Picture the scene. It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m sat at my desk with a permanent frown. My week of planned work has been derailed due to one big urgent priority. A huge proportion of my time has been absorbed by it.

I’m trying (but largely failing) to time slice between all the other things I should’ve done this week. I’m flitting between 3 or 4 different systems to pick out key tasks that need sorting or updating before I head out the door. I’m also wondering about the status of other tasks that I’ve had to delegate, many of which have an interdependence on things I need to do.

I left work with a throbbing head and a deep feeling of frustration.

Course correction.

Deciding that I didn’t want a repeat performance, I started thinking about what I could do.

Saying no to unplanned work isn’t always feasible (or helpful). Often urgent or important tasks arrive from other parts of the organisation and they have to be done. In the short term at least, this was more about how to make my workflow more resilient to the occasional spanner being lobbed in it.

I’ve used Trello for a couple of years.. I bloody love it. I briefly thought about using Trello to better manage my weekly priorities, but then realised that I am usually the sole Trello user in the team. A good portion of making my workflow more manageable is understanding existing and emerging priorities of the team as a whole.

Of course, as a team that largely deals with technology we have all kinds of different digital tools for managing different kinds of work (Helpdesk issues, Personal/Team Objectives, Procurement etc. etc.). The major problem being that none of that is visible in one place.

Making the virtual physical.

Instead, I started thinking about setting up a sort of physical Trello board in the office. This has the advantage of always being on display and easy to glance at to see what’s going on at any point in time. (Obviously, your mileage may vary if your team isn’t located in the same office)

A quick history lesson. Before Trello, there was the Kanban method. Here’s a definition courtesy of wikipedia.

Kanban is a method for managing knowledge work which balances demands for work with the available capacity for new work. Work items are visualized to give participants a view of progress and process, from task definition to customer delivery. Team members “pull” work as capacity permits, rather than work being “pushed” into the process when requested.

Sounds pretty applicable to this situation, huh?

Not all sticky notes are sticky enough.

Monday morning I headed straight to the local stationary shop and purchased a stack of sticky notes and a sharpie.

First lesson learned : Not all sticky-notes are equal. The ones I got refused to stick to our whiteboard. I later opted for Post-It ‘Super Sticky’ Notes which have not lost their stick despite being stuck/unstuck as they move around the board.

First attempt.

Here’s my initial stab at a basic Kanban board.

Week 1 : First Attempt at Kanban

This is about as simple as it gets. Three columns..

  • To-Do
  • Doing
  • Done

How to Kanban.

Helpfully, I was able to apply some learning from my years of Trello use in terms of how we used the Kanban board.

Here are some broad principles I came up with.

  • Start the week by discussing what goes into the To-Do column.
  • Try to have 1 owner for every task. Stick an initial on the Post-It note so everyone know who’s dealing with it.
  • Make whatever is on the Post-It note descriptive enough so that everyone understands what it is at a glance.
  • Don’t create a task that’ll take longer than a week to complete. Try to break things down to make them more granular and achievable. This prevents the board from becoming static and thoroughly demotivational.
  • Aim to move everything into ‘Done’ by Friday.
  • If a task didn’t make it to the ‘Done’ column, reflect on what happened. Remember — this isn’t about blame! It’s about learning and spotting opportunities adjust/improve.

Reflecting on week 1.

We got through the majority of tasks but had a couple stuck in ‘Doing’. Upon reflection we were perhaps being overly optimistic about how much we’d get through with one member of the team on leave.

In terms of my own workflow, I felt that I was carrying less stuff around in my head and just looking at the board whenever I needed to see what to work on next.

It also gave me a general awareness of what the rest of the team were doing, which proved useful when deciding whether to say yes/no/delegate to new tasks. Was everyone swamped? Did someone have capacity? Can this wait till next week?

It also helped to visualise when people might be struggling. Has someone got a lot of stuff assigned to them? Did they need help with moving something forward? Can I take something off them?

Unexpected side bonus : A few people wandering into our office took note of the board. Working in the digital realm often means that there’s not much physical evidence of the activities going on. Here was a handy real world representation of progress being made by the team on different fronts.

Making some tweaks.

For week 2 I made a slight change to the board layout. We needed somewhere to park tasks that weren’t ready to be done for the coming week or just couldn’t fit due to lack of time. I didn’t want to take them off as I was worried about forgetting them.

I added a ‘new’ column to the board to act as a sort of holding area. I feel like I need a better word for this column because not everything is always ‘new’.

This is what the board currently looks like.

Week 2 : More or less the same with the addition of a ‘new’ column.

I’ll be reviewing (and hopefully improving) the use of the board over the next couple of weeks and having a chat with colleagues to see what they think.

If you use Kanban (or something like it) give me a shout. I’d be interesting in hearing any lessons learned.


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