Beginner’s Guide to Kanban Project Management
I was looking at various introductory guides about Kanban on the internet. Although informative, I struggled to find a guide that truly demystifies it. This is an attempt to create the easiest guide to Kanban Project Management. No fuss, no jargon.
I have focussed on non-IT teams because the developers are OD’ing on Kanban processes at the moment.
History of Kanban
After World War II, the Japanese automobile industry like the rest of the country was in shambles. Toyota was making heavy losses due to stiff competition from American automobile manufacturers. American companies like Ford were operating at 10X higher efficiency than Toyota. It was clear that machinery and people can’t be the only factors responsible for such a difference in productivity.
Toyota’s director Taiichi Ono visited the United States in 1956 and was impressed by how it’s retail stores like Piggly Wiggly which stocked just the right amount of products, reducing wastage. By stocking the right number of products on the shelf and storing the right amount in inventory, the stores could accurately match the demand. Customers, on the other hand, won’t need to hoard because the future supply is assured. They’ll purchase exactly what they need.
After returning to Japan he asked the Toyota employees to use cards to keep track of the demand for each finished product. The goal was to avoid both overproduction and a large stock of raw material by producing just the right amount. He named this system Kanban, Japanese for signboards.
We won’t get into details of how these Kanban boards were used in automobile manufacturing. We’ll discuss it using a simple example in a bit.
Adopted child of IT
For decades the Kanban process was only used in manufacturing. In 2004, Microsoft experimented with using Kanban for software development. The results were promising. David Anderson wrote a book on Microsoft’s experience with using Kanban in his 2010 book with a no-nonsense title – Kanban.
Kanban has now become one of the most popular software development methodologies. It’s so popular than Kanban is now instinctively linked to software development rather than manufacturing.
Managing projects using Kanban
Kanban is a flexible process and can be molded to fit with your workflow. It works as long as you remember its following 4 principles. They are taken from David’s book.
- Teams should have visibility – Your team should be able to see what are the priorities and who’s working on what. Kanban can’t work when people work in isolation.
- Minimize work in progress – Focus on limiting the no. of tasks you work on at a given time. This is critical for higher efficiency.
- Manage the flow of work – Update the status of your work in order and keep track of bottlenecks.
- Optimize continuously – Include a feedback loop in your process so that it can get better with incremental improvements.
There are many online Kanban tools available that your team can use to manage projects. Let’s take an example to learn more. We’ll use Taskworld’s Kanban for it.
Imagine you manage the marketing department in your organization. Your team consists of Lisa (writer), Darius (designer), Nathan (data analyst), and Hannah (web developer). You’ve been struggling to manage your team’s tasks and have decided to use kanban boards.
Let’s use the simplest Kanban template to start with.
You have three tasklists – Backlog (Or “To-Do”), Doing, and Done. Under backlog, there are different tasks, similar to boards in a Kanban. You have picked these tasks for your team and your team’s goal is to finish them all within the week.
On Monday, you have a quick catch up with your team to discuss the week’s tasks. You also assign tasks to your team. For example, Darius’s (designer) to-dos for the week are designing the company logo and t-shirt. You can also add due dates to each task and tags to indicate which ones have higher priority.
Everyone in your team has access to this board. This takes care of the first principle of Kanban project management – visibility. Everyone knows what the week’s tasks are, who’s working on what, and when should they complete them.
Now that the planning is done, the team can focus on execution. Each member drags a task from the backlog and moves it under doing. You should encourage your team to only focus on one task at a time.
Once this is done, you can access the board anytime during the week to see what the team is working on. If more tasks pop up during the week, add them under the backlog. If there is any need for reprioritization, you can inform the team in the Project chat.
If you want to communicate about a specific task, click on it and add your comment. This keeps conversation, context-based, and hard to miss. You can add mentions to trigger direct notifications to the recipient, both on the application and email.
When your team only focuses on a few tasks (preferable one) at a time, they take care of the second principle of Kanban – minimize work-in-progress. Backlog ensures that tasks don’t slip through the cracks and Doing ensures that your team is putting their focus and energy in the right place.
When a task is finished, your team drags and drops them to Done tasklist. This tells you that the task is ready for review. You can now go through it and if happy, mark it as complete. Once you complete a task it disappears from the Kanban project, keeping it clean. You can revisit completed tasks by clicking on See completed tasks option at the bottom of each tasklist.
The third principle of Kanban project management – manage the flow of work is accomplished when each teammate updates the status of their tasks and moves them to the right tasklist.
You can search for your kanban boards (tasks) using task name, assignee, or tasks. For example, if you’d like to have a look at only Lisa’s tasks in the board, simply type her name in Search tasks field.
Suppose your team continues to work on the tasks and on Friday gathers again for the week’s review. In your Friday review, you can go through the week’s objectives, analyze how the tea performed, and highlight areas of improvement. Optimize continuously – the fourth principle is critical. Without it, the entire Kanban process falls apart.
If you notice that there are still incomplete tasks, dig deeper to understand its root cause. Is it because there were too many to-dos on the backlog? Was prioritization done right? Did the communicate enough? Every problem is an opportunity to optimize the process. For example, you can more steps in the process by creating tasklist, have mid-week catchup with the team or add a separate tasklist for third party contributors.
This simple process will allow your team to be a lot more adaptable to changing business requirements. If priorities change, everyone is instantly informed. People can also see what their teammates are working on. More importantly, you can track if the team is working on the right tasks and intervene if they need help. This is especially useful if your team has remote employees.
Kanban project management is highly flexible. As long as you follow it’s four principles, you can adapt it to fit your team’s culture.
Congratulations you now know how to use Kanban for project management. It’s a stepping stone to the agile methodology.
Sign up on Taskworld to create your Kanban project.