Increase Productivity Using Kanban

Increase Productivity Using Kanban

By Jess Morgan, Sr. Manager, Information Technology Applications

Some people follow all the latest nutrition and diet trends like cleanses, South Beach diet, cabbage soup diet, paleo, raw foods and clean eating. What do I follow? Productivity trends. Go ahead and laugh, I’ve come to terms with it. One of the tools I have discovered that seems to hold the most promise for increasing productivity is Kanban. Kanban literally translates to “board”, but often you’ll hear or read “Kanban Board”, which is redundant. We’ll forgive the repetitiveness and just focus on what Kanban entails and how it might increase your productivity. Curious yet? Let’s jump right in.

Getting started. Kanban is a visualization and planning tool that organizes work or tasks from left to right in columns by the steps it will take to complete the work. You can be more granular with your steps based on the type of work you do, but for now, let’s assume your work is either Not Started, In Progress, or Done. The principles of Kanban suggest that you first prioritize the work that is ready and organize that column with the most important tasks at the top. Warning – don’t try to prioritize every task.  Prioritize as many as you think can be done in a week, because we all know that priorities change (more on that later). Go ahead and keep track of all the non-prioritized work in a column called Backlog – keep that as the left most column. Put your prioritized tasks in the next column and call it Ready. Your next column, In Progress, represents the work you are doing. 

Know your limits. Another principle of Kanban is to set a Work In Progress (WIP) limit. A WIP limit represents the number of tasks you can realistically work on at any given point in time. If you are using Kanban for a team, then you should set a limit based on your team’s capacity. The idea here is to not overcommit. We tend to take on more than we should and the limit should reflect the ideal. The last column is Done. When tasks are finished, they are moved out of In Progress to Done

Staying on track. Having a visual representation of what is prioritized and Ready to be worked as well as work In Progress is a powerful thing. Even more powerful is the Kanban rule of enforcing the WIP limit, which means you cannot bring more work into In Progress than the limit. Uh oh, what do you do? Well, you finish what you have started! You must finish work before bringing new work in. Seems simple enough, but I will warn you that this is the hardest part. However, as you embrace this method, you find if you are truly prioritizing the incoming work, then the work you have In Progress is the most important work to be done.

kanban board physical

Let’s talk about getting things done. Finishing something gives you a sense of accomplishment and builds momentum, so the goal is to get things moved to Done. Let’s say you have 10 tasks total and each takes 4 hours to complete. If you started all 10 and worked equally on them, it would take 40 hours.  At the halfway point, you would still not have any of them done, regardless of their priority. During that time, you have the weight of 10 things on your plate, none of which are done. Not a good feeling.

Using the Kanban approach, if you pulled in 3 of those tasks and worked them, you would have 3 completed tasks in 12 hours. If you prioritized them, then you just finished the 3 most important tasks. Not bad! One last thing to mention that I hinted about earlier… priorities change. Oh, we hate when that happens, especially when you already have 10 things on your plate. But if you use Kanban and only have 3 tasks In Progress at any given point, when the priorities change within your Ready column, you simply rearrange them and when you finish one of your 3, you can pull in whatever is the top priority at the time. When reviewing the board, start with what can be moved from In Progress to Done and then evaluate if you can bring work in from Ready. As your Ready column volume decreases, revisit the Backlog and queue up the next items to be prioritized in your Ready column.

Completion (productivity) is the goal. With all of that said, note that the numbers here are just examples – you will need to define your personal and/or team WIP limit. Remember the goal is not to START as much as possible, it is to FINISH as much as possible. Your velocity – rate of moving the tasks from left to right - is your productivity and will increase if you prioritize the work and focus on finishing work that has been started.

KanbanBoard Electronic3

Kanban for teams. Now that you can visualize where tasks are in the workflow, there are a few other details of visualization through Kanban to consider. If you are building a board for a team, you may want to know who is working on the tasks In Progress. If you have a board for yourself or others, you may want to distinguish between types of tasks. You may also want to track other information, such as a due date. The great news is that having a board will allow you to do this. Using stickers or initials next to the tasks and color coding the task by type are excellent ways to extend the value of the visual board. Reserving a spot for the due date and consistently using the same area to note it makes it easy to spot as you review the work on the board. Stay with me for one more idea. Let’s say your In Progress consists of two steps – Doing and Reviewing – and you want to be able to know the difference. Is this possible with Kanban? Yes, split your column into two and set appropriate WIP limits. 

There are many options for building boards – you can use sticky notes on any available wall, white board, or even a large table top. There are also several technology/software options. Look for the options that fits best with your team and watch your productivity skyrocket!

Stay tuned for more on Kanban on 911’s blog later this year!

Be the first to know about the latest news and events from 911. Sign up for our bimonthly emails!