In this guide we'll explain the benefits of using a kanban system when working with a team. Then we'll show you how to set up a simple board you can modify based on your particular needs.
It's very likely you've used a kanban board before but maybe weren't aware of the whole kanban methodology. By following just a few simple rules, the kanban system can help you increase your teams workflow efficiency and productivity.
The Kanban methodology was originally developed by Toyota in Japan in the 1950s by the engineer Taiichi Ohno after observing how American supermarkets stocked their shelves. Customers would take items from the shelf when purchasing and then the supermarket would fill in the missing product.
The rate of demand is used to determine the rate of production, as items are removed from the shelf, that signal is passed along to the store and then to the supplier. The idea being that the supplier knows what to produce and how much based on demand - that way no excess inventory is built up and production stays efficient.
That same idea has since been adapted to the world of software engineering but the core principles can be applied to pretty much any team endeavor.
There are several benefits to adopting the kanban methodology within your team.
Now let's get started setting up your first kanban board.
The first thing we need to do is create our board and figure out what columns we'll use. In the Kanban system, the columns represent different stages of work.
Setting the columns
In a very simply kanban setup, you can use "Todo", "Doing", and "Done" for your columns. The idea is that cards will start on the left side of the board and be pulled to the right once there is enough bandwidth to work on them.
In this simple example, our columns only indicate what stage each task is currently at. However, if the work you're doing is highly connected where one team member is handing off a task or client to another person on your team, then you could also label your columns based on the type of work being done at each stage.
If for example, you're designing websites for clients, you could instead use labels like "Backlog", "Design", "Code", "Test", and "Done". In this example cards are pulled towards the right as the designer, engineer, and tester have open slots for new tasks.
Once you've decided on the labels for the board, the next step is to add some cards.
All new cards should start in a queue on the far left column. That's why in our examples we labeled the first column "Todo", and "Backlog". This is where all new tasks begin. What information you put on the cards is up to you and will depend on your use case but we recommend you add short descriptive title, any additional details that might be required for the first person to start working on it, and a due date if there is one.
How much work each card represents is not an exact science. On the one hand you don't want to make cards for every single step in a task, but you also don't want a card to represent a project that will take weeks.
As a starting point, try to make sure each card takes roughly a day to complete, that is, to move on to the next column. As time goes on you'll get a feel for roughly how much work each card should represent.
The reason you don't want the cards too granular is because then creating cards will become a job of its own. And you also don't want cards that represent weeks of work because the card will move across the board at a snail's pace, making it hard to get a sense of the day-to-day cadence.
Pulling vs pushing
By now you should have your board and your first cards all set. The way items move across the kanban board is via a pull-based approach. This means that unlike other systems where one person like a manager simply assigns tasks to team members, in a pull-based system the person that will perform the task is the one that assigns it to themselves.
What makes this approach useful is that tasks are only started when there is enough capacity to handle them. There's no point in assigning more work to a person or a team than they can realistically get done. A pull-based approach ensures quality is maintained and deadlines are more likely to be met.
Limiting work progress
Another of the key ideas to using a kanban board is to make sure that each column, other than the starting queue and the finished column, has a "work in process" limit. A work in process limit is the maximum number of tasks that can go into a column. One that limit is reached, no new items can go into the column until a new spot opens up.
This number will depend on the type of workflow you have, the number of team members, and the complexity of the work. In general, a good WIP limit is one that is low enough to prevent the team from becoming overwhelmed with too much work, but high enough to ensure that work is not stuck and is flowing through the board efficiently.
The goal is to find a balance between too much work-in-progress and too little work-in-progress, so that work is completed in a timely and efficient manner.
Establishing a cadence
As you and your team start to use your board, you'll want to introduce some sort of regular meeting to review the workflow. It's good to do this daily in the beginning to see if you need to make any adjustments to the columns, the information on the cards, the work in process limit, or anything else.
It's important to keep in mind that the kanban methodology is about continuous improvement so changes are to be expected. Experimentation is also encouraged to find the optimal setup for your team - one where tasks are progressing with regularity and the team is being well utilized without being overloaded.
Moving cards backwards
One situation you're almost guaranteed to encounter is where a previous step is incomplete or a new requirement makes you think you should move a card backwards.
If a card needs to to move back a column, that usually signals there is some issue in your process. Maybe an additional column should be added to your process or perhaps some piece of information was missing from the beginning that would have prevented this from happening. This should be treated as a learning opportunity and analyzed so it's less likely to happen in the future.
If it really seems like there's no alternative than to move the card back, then we recommend you leave that card where it is and instead create a new task with the actions necessary to unblock the problematic task. Otherwise the team might be tempted to simply move the card back and forth as new issues arise and are solved.
This forces the problematic card to take a space on the board and get the team to focus on unblocking it. One thing you can do is tag the pesky card with #blocked and the new card with #unblocker so the relationship between the two is clear to everyone on the team.
And there you have it. Far from being a mysterious and arcane system, the kanban methodology is logical and simple to implement.
As with any new system you introduce with your team, there will be an initial tweaking and adjustment period but the benefits are well worth it. With its focus on a highly visual and transparent workflowy, the kanban system fosters collaboration and discussion among your team to continuously improve it.
In addition, introducing a pull-based system gives team members more ownership over their work and allows them to focus on just a few tasks at any given time - which tends to lead to higher quality work overall.
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