The Kanban board is familiar to us today. We can easily see Kanban anywhere in a software company. A physical board with sticky notes, a simple screen with three columns: To do | Work in progress | Done. Kanban is a task management method that could not be more simple. However, are you sure you are using it effectively?
Commonly, the project team starts taking on Kanban in their project very quickly. Things work smoothly at first. But then, strange things happen. Some tickets aint moving. The overall throughput of the group slows down. Members are drowned in the sea of tasks. The tracking of timeline, target and quality no longer exists. As a consequence, customer satisfaction is at risk!
Why? What has gone wrong?
To find the answer, let us all return to the basic.
6 simple practices of Kanban
1. Visualise the Workflow: Kanban aims to provide visibility to the software development process, communicate priorities and highlight bottlenecks. Therefore, the team’s approach should be visualised on a board with work items and columns, each representing a step-in workflow. Workflow visualisation is crucial for organising, optimising and tracking progress.
2. Limit Work In Progress (WIP): This is the essential rule of Kanban and also the most commonly violated rule in Kanban. Limit WIP means limiting the number of tasks your team or each member can work on simultaneously to avoid overburdening and context-switching.
3. Measure and Manage Flow: The transparency of the processes supports the team in measuring the speed and processing time of the work.
4. Make Process Policies Explicit: The condition when moving work between columns must be understood by the team and clearly defined in Definition of Ready (DoR)/Definition of Done (DoD).
5. Implement Feedback Loops: Create a culture where continuous improvement is everyone’s job.
6. Improve Collaboratively: Kanban sees errors as accepted parts of daily practice, contributing to continuous learning and improvement. There should be no finger-pointing or accusing but encouragement to make the impediments visible as soon as possible so the entire Kanban communities can benefit from the resolution and know-how.
Returning to the example at the beginning, we can see many symptoms of the team diverting from the core practices above. For example, the workflow needed to be visualised more, so the team could track where they were; the measuring could be in place so early signals of delaying could be identified; and possibly, due to the team being overloaded, WIP may not be adequately implemented.
Let’s look at the WIP in more detail in this blog.
Limit Work In Progress
Limiting work-in-progress with Kanban encourages higher quality and improved delivery performance. With Kanban, only a number of works could be in a stage. Pictures a full tank of water; we must drain some before more water flows in. As a result, any blocking could be identified as soon as possible.
The question would be: “How can we identify the optimal number” and, more importantly, “How can we ensure and honour the WIP”.
Setting WIP limit: No specific formula or rules define the WIP. But most practitioners will use this Kanban WIP limit calculation – number of team members + 1.
For example, if you have a team of 5 people, you would set a WIP limit to be 6. This way, each team member can only work on 1 task at a time and must finish before taking on a new assignment.
Setting the WIP too tight will block the flow and make people idle, but if the limit is too loose, it will increase cycle time and waste as some items shall be on the waitlist for a long time. Defining the WIP is not a one-off activity but rather a continuous adjustment according to the team’s maturity and the nature of work.
That leads to the need to control the WIP daily in your Kanban world, and the daily standup meeting is an effective tool for the team.
Daily standup meeting to reflect tasks in Kanban: Make sure everyone focuses on a particular assignment and dedicates effort to dragging the task to another state. The power of WIP lies in the focus and collaboration to get the work done. Also, remember to update the blockers, which must be discussed and handled at the earliest possible.
Don’t forget DoR/DoD: It may sound strange to Kanban, but this Agile concept will help your team be more efficient. Let’s coach the member to answer the question: Are you sure this task is done? This technique allows the team to focus on the value of each task. For example, define a mini DoD for completing the test before dragging it from TEST to REVIEW. The same applies to a mini DoD for pulling from REVIEW to DONE. It will enhance transparency and limit rework, i.e., the task be returned to its previous stage.
Address bottlenecks: By adhering to WIP limits, the team can quickly identify bottlenecks. If a column consistently exceeds its WIP limit, it indicates a problem that needs to be addressed. All stakeholders can collaborate to resolve the blockage, redistribute tasks, or allocate additional resources as necessary to maintain a smooth flow.
Continuously optimise WIP limits: As mentioned before, WIP limits are not fixed and can be adjusted over time. Regular review and analysis of the Kanban system allow the team to evaluate the effectiveness of existing WIP limits and adapt as needed. Changes can be made based on team capacity, workload changes, process improvements, or external factors affecting the workflow.
Kanban is simple and effective. Being transparent about what’s happening, sticking notes with the team, and discussing around the board are great ways to increase team cohesion and coordination. However, it’s also easy to overcomplicate the approach and be dragged away from Kanban’s core practices. Understanding the root of Kanban shall support you in delivering the project in no time.
The upcoming blog will discuss visualising the flow and bringing light to the hazy world.
Let’s build your Kanban board!