Yes, You Kanban!

A version of this post appears on Purple, Rock, Scissors.

Some wisdom about project management workflow

STOCKING SHELVES IN JAPAN

It all started in Japan, when Toyota started thinking outside-the-box to figure out how to make their auto manufacturing more efficient while improving overall quality of their cars. They looked no further than the operation of supermarkets, where supply and demand determined how store owners stocked their shelves with goods. Rather than trying to predict or project production needs, the actual needs of the production floor drove the manufacturing process.

To make a very long story short, this lead to “just in time” production process, where physical cards representing inventory realities replaced complex forecasts in what I imagine were some extremely never-ending spreadsheets. By viewing these cards on a “Kanban,” which translated from Japanese as “bulletin” or “sign board,” the visual realities of Toyota’s production process could be evaluated and constantly modified more quickly than ever possible before.


IT’S ALL IN THE CARDS…

If you’ve ever used a yellow sticky note to remind yourself of chores or organize steps to complete a project, you have seen some of the simple benefits of using cards as a visual way to represent tasks. Most projects require a process where a set of tasks have to happen in order. In many cases, new unforeseen tasks surface because it’s nearly impossible to predict the end result before actually doing the work. This is actually why a card-based process allows teams to be flexible, yet provide a very visual representation of the whole process.

Kanban Structure

GENERAL LAYOUT

If getting work done is the goal, most (if not all) boards are organized so that the process happens from left to right. New items are placed in lists to the left. Done items on the right. What happens in the middle is where it gets juicy, so let’s start by defining what happens in these list or status columns: Backlog, To Do, In Progress, Review, and Done.

BACKLOG AND TO DO

Agile software developers and project managers appreciate the differences between tasks in the Backlog versus To Do. Simply put, To Do is the prioritized list of things that need to be done in a specific time frame, whether it’s a sprint development cycle or some other project phase. Everything else should be placed in the backlog column, ready for the next development cycle. It’s not recommended to pull backlog items into the To Do queue without first consulting your entire team. In Agile methodology, these meetings are mediated by scrum masters so that product owners do not run the shows, or vice versa. From a project manager’s perspective, the To Do column contains everything that needs to get done next.

IN PROGRESS

This column represents the tasks that are currently being worked on — usually one card per person. That way, this column behaves as a dashboard for what is actually being done in real time, and if people are actually working in order of priority.

REVIEW

Once a task has been finished, the card for that task is placed in the Review column for the product owner, project manager, or quality assurance specialist to review for completion. If everything is approved, the next step is to place the card in the Done column. Congratulations you are making progress! If the item still needs work, the card is then moved back in the To Do column with a sufficient description on what needs to be addressed.

DONE AND DONE… AND SOMETIMES NOT.

As tasks are completed and approved they are placed in the Done column. In many electronic Kanban boards, there is a facility that allows you to move all of the Done items to an Archive to keep the column from becoming overwhelming. In software development all the Done items are usually wrapped up in “a release,” the point where the improvements make it out for everyone to see.

If a previously Done task or issue needs to be worked on again, there are a few options. If the task is not quite exactly the same, it’s best to start a new card and refer to the old done card for reference in description. If the commenting trail and history are vital to getting the tasks complete, its perfectly fine to send the task back to To Do with a special note on why the card has been re-opened.

DOCUMENT EACH STATUS CHANGE

The quality of board of communication in Kanban should always be emphasized. Being able to track a card through the various stages of production is very helpful; however, before a team member moves a card, they should be required to provide a comment detailing specifically what was accomplished or revised. It may not seem necessary at the time, but this notetaking creates an knowledge trail that can provide a future narrative if the project team experiences any additions or changes in personnel. Everyone on the team is responsible for building the narrative, as well as reinforcing the documentation process.

Getting everyone on board in the board

You can expect that everyone will come to the table with different expectations and methods of using a Kanban board. Team members can range from expert Certified Agile Scrum Masters (yes, it’s a thing) to fresh-faced interns that have never worked in the digital space. For teams that have a variety of skillsets, it’s best to set the stage by establishing that Kanban for this project is flexible and will evolve as the project evolves.

WHERE TO START

Below is a list of Kanban-based platforms to get you going. To train your team, it’s a good idea to set up a workshop and introduce everyone to the principals using sticky notes on dry erase board. Draw the basic status columns and allow your teammates to participate in mock task completion by moving sticky notes from one column to the next. Encourage them to creatively conjure up typical scenarios, such how to handle client revisions, incomplete tasks, or anything that tends to complicate projects. This roleplay will help define the unique way your project team uses Kanban, and can actually be a great way to build rapport right from the start.

BOARD MANAGEMENT BEST PRACTICES

Never underestimate the importance of aligning with your team members on ways to organize your board. Here are some tips for keeping the information flowing:

  1. When creating a card, the title should accurately represent the topic that is being covered. Being too vague is bad, being too verbose is just as bad. If one team member gets confused, consider refining the title.
  2. In some cases, it is best to create several cards to complete tasks. Rely on the input of your team members to help decide if a card should actually be broken into several additional cards. One task per card.
  3. Help remind your teammates and clients what cards are more important by deciding on a way to prioritize the cards. This can be achieved by a simple labeling strategy such as High, Medium, and Low. If the Kanban board is used for bug trouble ticketing, common labels include Blocker, Critical, High, Medium, Low.
  4. Applying color labels to help categorize the tickets can be helpful in some projects. These colors can reinforce priority or describe the type of tasks at hand.
  5. Attaching screenshots and documentation to the ticket can help communicate what needs to be done and where. This is a skill that deserves its own blog article. Quality assurance specialist and developers are usually great resources to go to initially for first-time Kanban users.
  6. When working on large project teams, adding or flagging the team member in the card you are speaking to can help direct the right people to the right conversation. Kanban aids in information trafficking, removing the need to deal with hard-to-follow email threads.
  7. Allow for continuous improvement by discussing how the board is working for everyone on a regular basis. Anyone can suggest a workflow change and the process can be iterated over the project lifecycle.

The most important function of the Kanban is to promote communication and collaboration across your team and your clients. The act of using the board will naturally suggest ways to evolve the working process and how to communicate. In some cases, additional columns can be added to help route tickets to the correct teams. For example, adding a “Client To Do” status column can help keep track of tasks that you client needs to perform. If you are not sure this is needed, always err on the side of a more simple board, then add later. Remember: start simple.

List of Kanban-based platforms

KANBAN QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS

Just getting going or long-time Kanbanner? Comment below with your struggles or pro-tips!


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