When should I use Kanban?
In any situation where you want to manage a flow of work, whether for a team or as an individual and regardless of the nature of the work.
When might I avoid Kanban?
Kanban lets you do whatever you like, and sometimes this can allow you to ignore the more difficult problems that frameworks like Scrum might force you to tackle.
Start with what you’re doing now
There are no pre-defined roles or events in Kanban – it’s designed to be applied to whatever process or framework you are following at the start. So whether you are using Scrum, Prince II, DSDM or “Code and Fix”, start with that and use Kanban to evolve your process to something better. If it’s 9am on the first day of your new project and you have no existing process, you will need to write the words “To do”, “In progress”, and “Done” on a whiteboard before you can officially get started.
Make Work Visible
Kanban is about understanding, measuring and improving the flow of work and the first step in doing this is visualising your existing process. Think about the stages your work goes through. Where are new ideas or requests generated? What happens next? Map these out onto a Kanban board and populate it with the tasks you have in progress:
Limit and Minimise Work in Progress
The more you are doing at once, the longer everything will take. Humans are not like modern CPUs that can do 20 things at once without loss of efficiency, so when evolving a process with people involved it’s best to put an emphasis on finishing things and doing as little in parallel as is practical. Look at each stage on your Kanban board and set the maximum number of items that you will allow yourselves to have in progress for that stage. To do this, think about the number of people working on each stage, whether they are able to work in pairs, how often you get blocked and need to leave items unfinished, or any other relevant factors. Set these initial work in progress (WIP) limits, then try to reduce them further over time as other improvements allow it:
Help Work Flow
Think about how work flows through your system – what causes tasks to be blocked or put on hold? Review the causes of these impediments and introduce policies to mitigate them. For example, if development is frequently paused to clarify what is required, introduce a policy that work may not enter development until the acceptance criteria have met agreed standards. Define these “Exit criteria” for the transition between each stage in your process so that everybody understands how to help work flow through the system:
Use Metrics to Measure Work
Kanban is a set of tools and techniques to help you change your system into something more effective, but how do you know if the changes you made have helped? It’s important to measure how work is flowing through your system so that you can evaluate the effect of changes as they are made. Two common metrics used in Kanban are:
- Lead time – the average time each work item spends in the system
- Cycle time – the average time between work items leaving the system
Whatever you chose to measure will likely improve due to the pressure of visibility, so It’s important to chose metrics that are closest to your business objectives.
Kanban builds on ideas taken from lean manufacturing, and in particular the ideas of “Kaizen”: pursuing continuous improvement to incrementally evolve your process. There is no end point or perfect system, and teams that stop improving will likely stagnate and become less effective. It’s therefore important to establish a team ethos of continuous improvement of the process and practices through regular reviews and retrospectives.
Getting started is as simple as mapping out your process on a whiteboard or electronic tool, then getting together to apply the principles outlined above. In order to get the best out of this methodology, consider whether the team and those that work with them really understand these principles. It’s important not to skip this step: a team that does not understand why they are using a methodology designed to empower them will be unlikely to deliver anything more than superficial change. At Agility in Mind we have worked with many different teams, from those just starting out to experienced teams looking to revitalise their approach. Our Effective use of Kanban training course is a great way to quickly give teams the tools they need to get started or make sense of what they have been doing. This can be combined with follow-up coaching to help teams apply what they have learned and maximise their effectiveness.