Kanban: A better way to manage projects

Imagine this: You’re leading a team of roughly four people across several projects. Things are already hectic as you move toward critical phases in specific projects, with some timelines already stretched as it stands. You know your team is overworked with all they’re managing now, and with the likelihood of curveballs with most projects, another task might send your team over the edge. And now with workplaces changing, you’re going to need to adapt all these different challenges onto a more unfamiliar digital terrain.

As a good manager, you understand that new challenges can be managed with good preparation and an adequate amount of adaptability. The latter you can manage on your own as you move through different projects, but the former can definitely be helped along with a few tactics and strategies that can best tackle these fast-moving tasks.

The one tool we will discuss today is the Kanban tool, which is a relatively simple yet effective way to organize different tasks that you and your team are handling while retaining intuitive understanding and visual information.

Kanban: A quick overview

For those who might be beginners when it comes to the various tools that are now becoming more prevalent in the strategic management space, Kanban is an incredibly popular tool that had its roots in “agile” work strategies that have since become a mainstay in many different businesses. It all started back in the 1940s with Toyota Manufacturing, specifically Taiichi Ohno, with a goal to develop a better planning system and reduce waste at almost every stage in the operations (including inventory management).

One of the key ways this helped Toyota gain an advantage was its ability to keep towards a “just-in-time” system, a key agile work concept. The main aspect of the Kanban method was automating certain practices while retaining human control, a practice David J. Anderson would describe as automation.

Mr. Anderson is another key figure in the Kanban method’s history as he further utilized the tool to go beyond manufacturing and order processing to be used in IT, software development, and general knowledge work. Alongside other business strategists like Eli Goldratt, Edward Deming, and the legendary Peter Drucker, Kanban was successfully adapted into other business processes while retaining its key concepts on pull systems, queuing theory, and flow.

How Other Task Managers Compare

The reason why other task managing tools fall short in certain respects to Kanban lies in the Kanban tool’s ability for autonomy and collaboration. With a Kanban tool, there technically isn’t a singular owner of the board but rather collective ownership of the tasks present. This allows everyone to be engaged in moving their tasks along on the Kanban board.

And that’s where Kanban ultimately shines compared to a variety of nested task lists currently being used by different businesses: collaboration. While generic task lists can be useful and incredibly intuitive to most, Kanban includes everyone in the task process rather than silo out work to individuals/small groups. You won’t need to hunt down managers and keep them informed on tasks as everyone on the team will have a quick and visual guide on where projects currently stand, where bottlenecks are occurring, and how best you can better make efficient some of the processes.

Important Benefits of a Kanban

Visual Organization

Probably one of the biggest factors that bring Kanban to a different level amongst task management tools is its clear and visual organization of progress across different projects. 

The tricky part with a lot of the online and digital task management tools that are used by companies is that their functionalities and modes of use can be complicated for some first-time users.

Kanban circumvents this by presenting a fairly easy-to-understand dashboard, with  different lists that indicate specific stages in your project pipeline, as well as task cards that indicate the things you’ll need to do to move your project forward.

From here, all you need to do is drag cards along the different lists so that you can properly see what stage that task is on. These lists make up the base Kanban board structure, with some as simple as “To-Do”, “Doing”, and “Done”. Once you start using the tool, you’re likely going to find other lists that pertain to your specific contexts, such as additional waiting periods and verification steps.

Since Kanban is largely a visual task management tool, you can also utilize different tactics to help better keep you organized even further. Color-blocking can help you quickly tag task cards either by specific project group, individuals holding the tasks, and/or urgency of the task to be done. Enterprising Kanban users can even introduce images, videos and files to your Kanban board, which may help better represent certain pieces of information to the rest of the team.

Easy Tracking and Updates

Kanban boards go beyond just a simple visual method of organizing tasks, and allow you the flexibility and agility to move through different project milestones with better efficiency. Take a project with an open purchase order, in the hustle of keeping the entire project moving some administrative aspects such as financials can get lost in the shuffle. The last thing you’ll want on a key project is suddenly hitting delays because a simple process was overlooked.

Kanban’s visual organization keeps things in view for the entire team, as if properly set up, you can view not just how tasks are interconnected but their respective durations and timelines as well. Digital platforms make it easy to keep track of these different tasks as you essentially operate with unlimited space, expanding lists when needed and including as many task cards as needed.

Each task card can also be assigned additional details such as assigned points of contact and notes/comments. This can help you better track why certain projects are left on specific lists and who you might be able to work with to get them moving.

Collaborative and Engaging

For Kanban, collaboration is key to ensure that the whole project board is kept updated at a regular pace as this will be used as a reference for everyone else moving forward. This gives each team member the responsibility and the overall autonomy to manage their own tasks. Team leaders also get to avoid micromanaging as they can easily see updates made by their team and properly monitor where bottlenecks occur as well as have insights on how to tackle them.

This all contributes to the overall engagement of the entire team toward the overarching project. The tricky part with developing a large initiative is that team members and workers can often lose sight of the bigger picture while managing the minutia of daily tasks that keep it moving along. Instead of getting bogged down at the idea of needing to send different emails a day, you can shift that perspective towards how exactly these seemingly small tasks contribute to the project as a whole.

Sometimes, all it takes is a little perspective change and you can start seeing better participation and productivity from your team. Alongside better ownership, more meaningful work can lead to different auxiliary benefits such as work satisfaction and employee retention.

Better Workload Management

If Kanban was simply a visual task card organizer, it will likely not have the same impact it currently does on business management as a whole. What sets it apart is its founding principles of efficiency and reduced waste, which are practically baked into how Kanban is set up and used throughout the project.

The first thing you’ll notice with Kanban boards is that you’ll likely be very quick to notice where and when bottlenecks begin to occur. You’ll start seeing this when a particular list becomes overloaded, with roughly 6 or more task cards being assigned to it. You’ll need to shift resources and manpower towards clearing this bottleneck before proceeding with other tasks as well.

The next thing that can be useful is assigning WIP limits, which is a quick way of seeing whether or not you’re overloaded in a particular list. This essentially limits the number of cards you can add to a column and will help you keep from overloading specific managers of lists with too many tasks at any given time.

Culture Reinforcement

This benefit might be more running in parallel to your overall Kanban efforts, but utilizing an efficient tool like this gives you more opportunities to reinforce a specific working culture in your company. Everyone wants a productive and innovative workplace, but how you get there can differ greatly between industries, companies, and even teams.

The Kanban board can better help you reinforce specific behaviors, such as individual work ownership and creative problem-solving with specific tasks getting stuck or hitting a bottleneck.

You can even begin introducing incentives to specific Kanban milestones, such as clearing tasks for the week or lessening the amount of overwork on a specific list. With these boards, you’ll have much more to put in front of your team, which means much more opportunity to show them what working with you and the larger company will entail.

Things to Keep in Mind when Using Kanban

The Kanban tool, at the end of the day, remains a tool that can be incredibly useful when managed well and just another piece of management clutter if used improperly. While there might not be exact strict rules on how a Kanban board should work for your context, there are ways to improve your usage of the board and keep things relevant for your situation.

Keep Things Scheduled Regularly

A Kanban board lives and dies by how your team interacts with it. Barring any automated processes that move one task card to another list, Kanban boards will need regular updates to keep it at its most relevant state. This means determining a proper cadence with your team on when and how you will go about keeping the Kanban up to date.

Some more seasoned matrix teams can get by on updating the list on an individual level, but almost every team will require a scheduled update so that everyone can be aligned on the current status of the project. The exact period and frequency of these meetings will vary based on your work situation, but keep a consistent and regular schedule so you can see all the benefits that come from Kanban boards.

Keep Tasks SMART

Kanban boards may help with the overall organization and visual aspect of task management, but it is still up to the team and ultimately the lead manager to ensure that the tasks indicated on the Kanban are efficiently made with productivity in mind. This means that tasks, even on a Kanban board, can benefit from following the SMART framework.

As Kanban is an overall organizational tool to help you better manage tasks around specific status updates, it’s important that you keep your tasks specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-bound. Having the Kanban board in place is one thing, but keeping the task cards within it complete and manageable is the bread and butter of the exercise. With each task likely affecting the progress of another task, you’ll want to better illustrate how each card is benefitting the project at large as well as important dimensions regarding deadlines and specific action steps needed to be taken to achieve them.

With all these said, Kanban remains an incredibly simple tool to use that remains flexible enough to meet the specific needs of your individual (and team’s) context. Experiment with Kanban for one of your projects and see how it affects your working style as a whole.

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