Some Learning From 157 Days of Kanban.

Earlier this year, following a particularly unproductive week of work, I vowed to do something different. Armed with a pack of Post-it notes and a Sharpie, I decided to give kanban a whirl to (hopefully) better understand & manage my workflow.

This is condensed version of things I’ve gleaned from kanban so far. If you’re looking to get started with kanban yourself, you’re probably better served by reading this earlier post first where I talk how I set the board up.

Setting The Week Up

My kanban board operates on a weekly basis. My thinking is that I break work down to be granular enough that tasks can be completed in a 5 day time frame. This prevents the board from becoming too static and deeply demoralising. The goal is to find a way to keep those Post-it notes flowing into the ‘Done’ column to get that lovely warm endorphin rush.

Initially I found that my rampant optimism would have me stick too much work on the board for the week. The result of which would be lots of outstanding tasks sat in To-Do and Doing.

I’ve found that it’s more productive to set off with a smaller workload to begin with. To be deliberately selective about what I really want to achieve in the coming week.

In the exceptionally rare circumstances that I’m scrabbling around for work, there’s nothing stopping me from adding new things to the board… BUT more likely new urgent tasks will emerge as I head through the week anyway. So it’s good to have a little bit of slack to work with rather than trying to fill 100% of available time.

Lesson learned: Resist the urge to fill all your available time. Plus things normally take longer than you think. It’s good to have a little bit of slack in your week to account for unforeseen new urgent stuff.

Staying On Target

I’m paid to work a 35 hour week. I feel relatively confident I can fill those 35 hours without really thinking too hard about it… and that’s part of the problem! Making sure I’m working on the right things in the right order is really important. The question often is.. “What can I do right now that will make the most impact or add the most value?”… Kanban to the rescue!

Having all the work visually laid out makes it easier to separate the signal from the noise. I use hot pink post-it’s for anything that is high priority. After that I colour code based on categories like ‘tasks’ and ‘problems’. That helps visually differentiate between different types of work. (Use whatever colour coding system makes visual sense for you)

Lesson learned: Visualising work can make it easier to separate the signal from the noise and pick the most important things to work on right now.

Emptying Your Head

I have a terrible habit of carrying work around in my head — particularly things I need to do in the coming days/weeks. Maintaining that mental task list can make it more difficult to switch off and wind down.

The kanban board provided a handy mechanism for dumping the contents of my brain. If I knew something important was coming up or some unforseen need had been identified, I can scribble it down on a Post-It note and stick it on the board. Done! I no longer need to retain this information in my brain. Pressure alleviated.

Lesson learned: This might be specific to me — but the kanban board helped to alleviate the need for me carry things around in my head. This felt like it improved my mental bandwidth.

Beware ‘Work In Progress’

One of the most valuable things I’ve gained from kanban is understanding just how many tasks I attempt to kick off simultaneously. I don’t know what your workflow is like, but I’m often passing things back to other people before they can either be moved on or completed. This pause in activity creates a strong urge to pick something new up.

That seemed sensible on the surface until I realised I’d started 15 different things. Aside from the fact that having all that work return at the same time is really bad news, I think the context switching between tasks slowed my progress down to a crawl and made for a frustratingly win-free week of work.

So what does working on too many things at the same time look like?

When your work in progress gets out of hand. Hashtag.. #Bottleneck

Lesson learned: Resist the temptation to start too many things! Instead, focus on getting things done.

A Physical Board For a Digital Team?

It might seem weird for people who largely work with technology to resort to a physical whiteboard and bits of paper. There’s some logic behind this decision though.

I use a lot of digital tools for lots of different tasks. They’re great, but it causes a fragmentation problem where it’s hard to get a singular picture of everything going on.

I probably could’ve used Trello to achieve the same result, but I found there were some advantages to sticking with the physical.

  • It’s more approachable for people who don’t think they have the time/inclination to wrap their heads around yet another digital tool.
  • The kanban board is smack bang in the middle of our office. It’s always in view, quick & easy to reference or update.
  • There is something oddly pleasing about physically moving tasks to ‘Done’ that I simply don’t get in the digial equivalent when clicking or dragging.

Lesson learned: Whilst a physical kanban board might seem like a backwards step, there’s a lot going for something this is tangible, visbile and easy to interact with.

Bringing Visibility & Transparency To The Team

If most of your work is digital, it can sometimes be hard for others to know exactly what you’re doing all day. I found that an unintentional benefit of the kanban board is that it proved a useful visual indicator for people who came to visit our office.

It also provides visibility between members of our team too. If anyone wants to know what I’m working on this week, a quick glance at the board will give them a snapshot of what I’m up to.

Lesson learned: Putting all your work on a wall is pretty good for visibility & transparency! (which seems blindingly obvious in retrospect)

The Adoption Curve

When I first started the Kanban board, I was the only person using it for a good month or so. Once people had observed that it wasn’t just a passing obsession with Post-it notes, they began to become more curious about how it worked.

Over time colleagues (and entire teams) have popped into our office to look at the kanban board and ask questions about its use. Some have even gone away and committed to using some version of it for their own purposes.

Lesson learned: If you want to use kanban with others, be prepared to go it alone for a bit. Perhaps use it personally to start with so people can observe how it works in practice and understand how it might benefit them.

A Useful Reflective Tool

I am really terrible at remembering what I’ve just done. Once I’ve dealt with a piece of work, my brain almost immediately consigns it to the recycle bin. That can make reflection really bloody tricky when you can’t remember the specifics of the work you’ve done even a few days ago.

The kanban board proved surprisingly useful at reflecting on my work. It helped me ask (and answer) questions like…

  • Why didn’t this block of work get completed this week?
  • Why does <this type of task> take 3 times longer than expected?
  • Does <staff member> need help sorting this task out?
  • Why have we completed so many things this week?
  • Why haven’t we completed many things this week?

Lesson learned: Kanban isn’t just good for understanding what you’re doing, it’s pretty great for unraveling what you did. It brings more clarity to what you’ve been working on so that you can reflect on what’s working well (or not).

Returning From Holidays

Trawling through my inbox after returning from holiday is one of my least favourite things. Of the 300+ emails, I know there will be approximately 20% that actually require any action.

I devised a method where I quickly went through each email, writing a Post-It note for anything that actually needed me to do something. Anything else got deleted. The Post-It notes then went up on the board in the appropriate place depending on whether it needed to be dealt with this week or could be parked for now.

Lesson learned: For some reason, this felt infinitely more productive than the old method of wading through my holiday inbox, replying to things as I went. Not only did I quickly clear my inbox down, but I had my week ahead planned out too in one fell swoop.

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