Kanban: streamlining workflows for better results

When a team is working on a new project, it is important to have an efficient way of organising tasks so that everyone knows who is working on which task and when. Kanban is a method that offers an optimal solution here, as it provides a clear overview of all tasks at a glance. This article explains what Kanban is, what benefits it offers and how it can be successfully introduced in a company.
Many different colored Post-Its are lying on a table.


What is Kanban?

Kanban is primarily about controlling the flow of production. Work is visualised by writing the tasks to be done on Kanban cards. These are then arranged and visualised on a Kanban board. By visualising the process, the aim is to optimise the distribution of work across several teams and to control complex projects. The goal is to avoid bottlenecks, as it is immediately apparent if there is one in the processing of individual tasks. If this is the case, the processes are limited by a so-called work in progress limit.
The method considers two levels. One is the team level and the other is the portfolio level. At the team level, the aim is to create a better understanding of the work process, to facilitate the organisation and control of the work and thus to maintain an overview. At the portfolio level, the strategic goals are recorded on a separate board so that it is clear what has been started and what has already been completed, and that the overview of the individual projects is not lost. 
In general, Kanban aims to avoid work that does not add value to the product. It is about not overburdening people and identifying irregularities in the process. The aim is to make the workflow as smooth as possible. This also includes avoiding overproduction, which ties up storage space and capital that could be used elsewhere.
Kanban is based on four principles and six practices. The practices will be discussed in more detail later.

Principle 1: Start with what you are currently doing.

Kanban can serve as a supplement and support to existing processes and thus highlight problems that were not visible before and can be improved. However, to do this it is necessary to understand the existing processes in order to be able to complement them in a meaningful way.

Principle 2: Commit to incremental and evolutionary change.

As soon as a new process is introduced into the workflow, resistance can arise, as innovations are not always received positively. Therefore, it is advisable to introduce changes in the smallest possible steps, which is particularly possible with Kanban. This is because only a few columns on the board can be used here at first, which can be gradually expanded.

Principle 3: Respect existing processes, roles and responsibilities.

During the introduction, not all structures should be turned upside down, but there should be an adaptation to the existing structures.

Principle 4: Encourage leadership at all levels of the organisation.

Change cannot be brought about by management alone, but requires the cooperation of the whole organisation or team. Therefore, everyone should cooperate in improving the way of working and also address when something is not going as it should.

How Kanban differs from traditional project management approaches

One of the main differences is that Kanban is just a board on which the individual work steps are displayed, whereas traditional project management approaches have a fixed structure. Here, a project is planned from start to finish, with no adjustments made along the way. Adjustments are only made when the project is ready for delivery. With Kanban, new tasks can be added at any time, especially when new information becomes available or priorities change. Kanban can also be used as a complement because it organises tasks well. This is not the case with the traditional method.

Implementing Kanban

Kanban should be introduced in small steps. This is possible for a wide variety of project types, as Kanban can be very well adapted to the project. The system is open and has no fixed rules. 
To start with, you need a board, which can consist of a few columns and can be expanded gradually. Smaller teams can increase their efficiency in this way, because they can find the tasks clearly. But Kanban is also useful for individuals and larger teams. Especially with larger teams, you can start small so that everyone gets used to the process and the board is gradually adapted to the needs.

Setting up the workflow

Start with a blank board. Each column on the board represents a different phase of work and can be different for each team or project. The Kanban card in each column is the visual representation of the task. It contains information about each task, e.g. description, duration, priority or person responsible. Information that seems important for the process flow can be noted on the back.
The tasks on the Kanban cards can be called user stories, features or use cases. User stories focus on who does what to achieve the goal. The Feature represents a performance characteristic, e.g., a function, and the use cases explain themselves. 
You can start with the backlog, which contains all the tasks. As soon as the tasks are prepared, they can be moved to the next column, which can be called "Ready". From there, they can be picked up by individual team members and moved to the "In progress" column. If the team has been working together for a while and is familiar with Kanban, this column can be further subdivided, e.g., into development, test phase or deployment. A column can also be created for paused tasks. This can be the case if you are waiting for feedback or need to consult. Tasks that have been completed are moved to the last column.
It is important that each task goes through all the columns so that no step is forgotten. In Scrum, it makes sense to create a new board for each sprint, where the backlog can be adopted.

Flight Level

The so-called flight levels serve as an orientation where Kanban can be used first, i.e. they are meant to support and help to organise what can be done where in order to achieve the goal. It starts at the lowest level, where individual teams want to organise their daily work. This can be a cross-functional team in Scrum, for example. The next level is about coordination and interaction between the teams. The goal is to distribute the work so that there are no unnecessary waiting times or bottlenecks. 
The final level is about adapting the system to add value and optimise team collaboration. The focus is on the overall result, not just the individual project, in order to create the largest possible units of work that enable good positioning in the market.

Best practices for the effective use of Kanban

Kanban follows six practices which should help to support the process. 

Practice 1: Visualise workflows

The board with its columns and cards is used for this purpose, where each column represents a work step and each card represents a work element. The board itself represents the current state of the project. 

Practice 2: Limit ongoing work

The maximum number of tasks that can be worked on at the same time should be determined. This is also called the work in progress limit. At the same time, Kanban works with the pull system. You only pull a new card into the column for processing when another card has been processed before. This way of working avoids multitasking, which would otherwise disrupt the flow of work, as too many things at the same time could lead to bottlenecks.

Practice 3: Manage task load

Each card should always go through all columns to ensure that the process runs smoothly and adds value.

Practice 4: Make process guidelines explicit

This means that the process must be well defined and known to all team members.  

Practice 5: Implement feedback loops

In order to receive feedback, two groups need to be distinguished: the customers and the team. The customer feedback should be about the quality of the product, how effective were the solutions to problems that arose, was the product good and were there problems during the process that were not addressed? 
The team should also give feedback on the process, whether they would have liked something different and how they feel about the output. Kanban meetings can be used for this.

Practice 6: Improve collaboratively and develop empirically

This point goes hand in hand with the previous one. This is because through feedback there should be a collaborative implementation of change based on an empirical method. Furthermore, before moving a card from "WiP" to "Done", it should be defined when a task is considered done.

Common challenges and how to overcome them

One challenge is prioritisation. The most important tasks are at the top, the lowest priority tasks at the bottom. To do this, you can use a swim lane to visually separate the tasks. Colours can also be used to increase visibility.
Or you can use Classes of Service, which also classify tasks so that you know which ones to work on first. The classification takes into account the cost of not completing the tasks. In the 'Accelerated' column are those tasks that would incur high costs and are very important. This would be the case if a website were not available. In this case, the work in progress limits may also be exceeded. It should be clear in advance how the company will react if any of the events listed in this column occur. Should all employees be withdrawn or just some?
As problems are discovered more quickly during the process, the team needs to be organised in such a way that they can solve problems and not be left behind. Problems are usually discovered when bottlenecks occur. They can be avoided by setting limits to the work in progress. This way there are not too many tasks in one column and the team can work through them one by one. 
Recurring tasks need to be entered into the board over and over again, which is time consuming. Instead, software can be used to automatically create a card when a certain event occurs, saving time.

Measuring the success of the Kanban implementation

There are two ways to measure success: lead time and cycle time. 
Lead time measures the time from when the task is known to when it is completed. Cycle time measures the time from the start of a task to its completion. 
To visualise this, the cumulative flow chart is used, which shows how many tasks were at what stage of completion on a given day. By looking at lead time and cycle time, it is possible to determine how many tasks have been completed and how effectively work has been done. 
Customer satisfaction is also important. This is another indicator of how successful Kanban is in implementation. This is because the needs and expectations should be implemented and must always be represented on the board. The customer feedback then helps in the evaluation.

The advantages of Kanban

The Kanban board makes the work visible to everyone, so everyone can see what the goal is. It also means that tracking and production data is available, which can be used to assess the efficiency of a project. Shared access to the board means that as soon as one task is completed, the next can be started immediately, avoiding duplication of effort. This is particularly helpful if the team is working remotely. This way there is no need to agree who does what first.
In addition, the workflow is very flexible because it is easier to adapt to changes.
If bottlenecks occur due to a backlog of tasks, countermeasures can be taken quickly to ensure continuous service. This also ensures high customer satisfaction, as the process is optimised and only products that are actually needed are produced. 
As new information about a project becomes available, it can be quickly integrated into the board by quickly adjusting priorities.

Conclusion: Streamlining workflow for better results with the Kanban method

Kanban is a useful method to organise individual workflows according to processing status and priority. This allows different large teams to work together and see who is doing what and where. This also helps with coordination among each other so that the work processes run more smoothly. The advantage is that Kanban can be combined with other project management methods and frameworks to get the best out of each method.

Kanban - The IAPM logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Kanban

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