Kanban is great. It can help a team to achieve formidable efficiency and improve collaboration significantly…if given the chance. Yet, I’ve noticed that although the method is rather simple, the number of teams struggling or failing to make it work is alarmingly high (judging by our data).
For example, a while ago, we were working with an IT Ops manager who was determined to implement Kanban within her team. The manager was quick to get the grasp of the method, but had a hard time convincing the team that Kanban will be of value.
She prepared a complex Kanban board and told the team to start moving cards according to the state of their assignments. Although she explained the principles of Kanban and gave them a demonstration of how each person should apply the method, most of the members had trouble understanding what’s the point of doing all of this.
Every attempt of the manager to convince them that Kanban will improve their performance was met with vigorous resistance. Eventually, all members went to the Director of IT Operations to demand a change.
A few days later Kanban was deemed a failed experiment for the team and the board was laid to rest for good.
A common culprit for failing to implement Kanban is rushing to practice advanced Kanban before the team has become adept enough to make the most of the method and mature enough to understand the reason behind some of the more advanced practices in Kanban.
When teams set on their Kanban journey, they are usually led by an evangelist who is either adept with the method or has read about its benefits and is enthusiastic to get them. Either way, that person is far more familiar with Kanban than the rest of the team.
If the evangelist leading the Kanban adoption is not a trainer experienced in working with beginner teams, it is very likely to rush implementing practices that the rest of the team don’t understand.
Logically, this can easily provoke resistance and result in failed implementation.
Keep your board layout basic for a while
Yes, the three-column Kanban board containing just Requested, In Progress and Done won’t do miracles for your efficiency, but it will help your team to get used to visualizing their work all the time.
Making the board complex from day one can easily confuse people who are inexperienced with Kanban. As they don’t have the habit of reflecting their actions timely on the board, there is a high risk for the information on the board to become outdated. If this happens, the pagans (believe me there will always be some) will have a valid argument why Kanban is useless and does no good for the team.
Let your team take their time to accept the Kanban board as part of their everyday life. Seeing how many tasks you’ve got in progress at any time is by far better than requesting status reports and waiting for your team to prepare them.
Once you’ve got your basic board in place and the requested section is stocked with assignments, let your team start pulling tasks. Don’t assign cards unless absolutely necessary (e.g. there is only 1 person suitable for the task).
This is a major first step in the process of onboarding your team that will allow them to take ownership of their workflow and boost collaboration in order to increase the efficiency of your workflow.
Don’t go overboard with heavy WIP limits
Establishing limit to the amount of work (work-in-progress or WIP limits) that can be in progress simultaneously is a safe way to ensure that you’ll deliver value to your customers frequently. This is among the trickiest parts of the onboarding process when implementing Kanban.
As there is a widely-adopted belief that multitasking is good for productivity, you’ll face serious resistance if you forbid your team to work on more than one task at a time.
For example, we had a particularly hard time convincing the lead of a software development team that if his developers were working on just a single Kanban card at a time, they would be able to deliver more features to market.
He was determined to keep everyone busy all the time and cards were started one after another without finishing what’s already in progress. The result – accumulated wait time and long development cycle.
Eventually, he agreed to try limiting the total amount of cards in progress per person to 3. This was enough to keep everyone busy all the time without accumulating too much wait time.
Keep the limit high at first, so that your team can adjust the way they work without making drastic changes. You can experiment to find what works for you but 3 cards in progress per person should be a limit that’s easy to comply with at the very beginning.
Eventually, you’ll be able to tighten it as your team becomes more adept with Kanban.
The initial adoption period is individual for every team. Don’t rush it but after several weeks every team member should be aware of how Kanban works and already see benefit from implementing the method (if properly coached).
When this is a fact, you may proceed to a more advanced implementation.
Evolve your Kanban board
After years of practicing Kanban together with my team, I came to the conclusion that the only way to keep everyone on board with the method is to make board changes collectively. Even if you see the need to add a column or two, the rest of the team may not feel that way.
Have this in mind when deciding to make your Kanban board more complex. Sit down with your team to discuss any changes that you’ve got in mind. A logical area to break down is the In Progress section of your board.
You’d want to split it into multiple columns reflecting the major steps of your process.
For example, if you’re running a software development team, you would typically have the following steps in your process:
- Tech Design
- Code Review
Breaking down your process will allow you to visualize the movement of tasks more precisely. This way you’ll be able to spot bottlenecks in your process and adjust team capacity.
Adjust WIP limits
Typically, at this point, you would want to ensure a smooth flow of cards across your board. Adjusting the WIP limits is vital for this.
Tighten them as much as possible to help your team remain focused and switch context as seldom as possible. It is better to have a team member idle once in a while than constantly starting new work without finishing what you already have in progress.
Encourage process ownership
As your team gets more adept running their process with Kanban, if you are in the position of a formal leader, you should allow your team to truly take ownership of their work. Allow regular team members to make minor decisions without having to consult with you. Give them liberty to voice imperfections in the process and encourage them to propose solutions and changes to your board and WIP limits.
By doing this you’ll demonstrate trust in their expertise, ignite enthusiasm in them and free yourself from the duty of dealing with minor issues all by yourself.
Achieving Kanban Mastery
It may take quite a while to reach Kanban mastery on the team level, but when you reach this stage, you will be able to truly unleash your workflow and take your efficiency to an all-star level.
Experiment with your board
After Kanban becomes the home base of your operations, you are at liberty to start pushing the limits of your workflow. Don’t be afraid to test complex board layouts mapping precisely every step of your process that seems necessary enough to mention.
For example, our current software development board consists of 15 columns (excluding the backlog). We’ve split Requested into two steps; In progress into 11; and Done into two more.
You can even break down each swimlane into specific columns if you’ve divided your board horizontally by the types of work your team processes.
Your goal is to increase the throughput of your team and reduce the cycle time of the assignments on your board. If you’ve reached this stage of maturity with Kanban, you can experiment with your board as much as you want as long as you’re improving on these two indicators.
WIP limits per stage
As your board becomes more complex, you need to stay vigilant about the effectiveness of its WIP limits. You may even try limiting work per stage according to its capacity. This may even prove to be necessary if you’ve got a large team working on a single board with complex workflow to ensure that you process keeps running smoothly.
For example, we have set separate limits to our coding and review columns in order to prevent the second one from getting clogged and becoming a serious bottleneck.
Although Kanban seems like a simple method, it gives you a flexibility that your team may not be ready to embrace at first. This is why it is important to start slowly when implementing it and eventually make adjustments to the way you practice Kanban. Reaching mastery takes time and there is plenty to be learned and experienced beforehand so take your time and be patient in advancing.
As Rome wasn’t built in a day, you shouldn’t expect to get the most Kanban can offer from day one. However, if you manage to keep your team on board long enough, you’ll be amazed how much it can improve your process.
Alexander Novkov is part of Kanbanize’s marketing team and is responsible for content creation and promotion, social media management, and the email marketing activities of the company. He has a bachelor degree in Public Relations from Sofia University.