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Kanban is Japanese for (literally) “billboard” or “sign”. But, today the term “Kanban” is most commonly used in the west to reference a visual board, action-packed with tasks, used as a scheduling tool for lean / just-in-time production processes. Kanban was originally developed as a logistic control system by Taiichi Ohno (pictured right) and implemented in 1953 for Toyota.

Philosophically, Kanban is analogous to the concept that you cannot get to where you need to go without first realising where you are.

In its simplest form, a common Kanban board is a collection of tasks categorised into lists under the headings of “To Do”, “Doing” and “Done”. Typically, the Kanban board will be highly visible within the room.

Kanban is an effective tool because the brain processes visual information sixty thousand times faster than it can process text. (Forty percent of all nerve fibres connected to the brain are linked to the retina!)

Kanban has four key values:

  1. Visualise Your Workflow
    Observe work as it flows through the system. The visible nature of the tool clearly shows bottlenecks, blockers and queues – a strong foundation for building shared understanding, communication and teamwork.
  2. Limit your Work In Progress (WIP)
    Ever bite off more than you can chew? Placing a limit on the number of the cards that can be currently “in progress” will reduce the time it takes to move a card from start to finish. It also helps avoid the inefficiencies associated with regular context/task switching.
  3. Focus on Flow
    Using WIP limits and pairing this with relevant policies for the team to execute against, enables you to improve the flow of work. Collecting analytics and analysing those analytics can not only result in the early identification of future problems, but will also lead to dependable task estimation.
  4. Continuous Improvement
    Focusing on flow, tracking metrics (such as throughput and lead time) can help identify ways and means to improve within the team and it is important to embed a culture of continuous improvement within your team.

The time it takes to complete a task is known as its “cycle time”. You can easily identify the cycle time for a card by marking the start date on the card when you commence work and, when the task is complete, marking the finish date. Track this for all cards and, over time, you will easily determine an average cycle time for a task type.

Knowing your cycle time allows you to estimate. For example, if you need to estimate the time it will take to complete a card buried in the “To Do” queue – you can count the number of cards both above it in the queue and currently in progress. This count paired with your average cycle time per task type, will enable a fairly reliable estimation of when that card will be complete.  This obviously gets slightly more complex when there are dependencies and blockers involved, but with practice you will become accomplished at estimating.

While I’ve introduced you to the very basic Kanban board layout of “To Do”, “Doing” and “Done”, my preferred structure for a personal Kanban is:

  • Parking Lot (for the things that need to be done at some point, but that require more thought first)
  • Backlog (all the things you have to do)
  • Blocked (all of the things that are at some level of “doing” but are reliant upon someone else or some other event or input before they can progress)
  • Doing
  • Done

Sometimes it is not viable to have a physical Kanban board – for example, if you’re working with a remote team or across multiple offices. Who knows, the slightest of breezes might have just blown that sticky-note off the board for the eleventy-trillionth, and last, time.

If any of the above applies, I would strongly recommend that you play with Trello – a free web application that is perfect for Kanban. Also, Trello has native apps for your quiver of mobile devices, is highly reliable and is jam-pack full of features (including due dates, labels, visual card ageing, comments, voting and supports integrations). Check out Trello here.

All of the above is very basic and running Kanban for your team can get as advanced as you need it to be. There are limitless other resources available online to help you go next level. Here are a two worth a squizz:


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