Why Kanban may not be working for you…and how to fix that


Kanban is a great tool to visualize your workflow, manage your to-dos and generally, be more efficient. But like every other tool or method, it can seem difficult to use, even counter-productive, if it’s not applied correctly.

Some of the commons questions we get are: How do I account for daily/repetitive tasks using Kanban? How do I deal with the ever-growing number of items on my WIP list, which somehow never seem to make it to the completed column? How do I manage tasks that are stuck in WIP because they’re awaiting action from someone else? Or ‘I seem to get sucked into tasks that don’t even make it to my Kanban board.’

Here are some of the most common issues that are important for Kanban.

Managing WIP:

If you have a high number of projects that you need to work on, one suggestion is to create a “Backlog” (waiting list) area prior to your “Ready” column. Use this column to keep your ‘just ideas only” projects, so you don’t lose sight of them. Move them to the Ready or In-Progress lane only after they have been reasonably well-defined.

Also, if a particular project is stalled because you’re awaiting action from someone else, remove it from the WIP and put it back to the ‘backlog’ list. Perhaps you can add an action item to follow-up with that person, if appropriate.

Prioritization:

If you have a long list of to-dos, then you definitely need to prioritize the top 3-5 items that absolutely need to get done. Put only those on your WIP list and move the rest to the backlog column. Make sure you finish the priority items before starting on something new. If something more important DOES come along, it is important to move one of the In-Progress items back to the Ready or even the Backlog columns – so there is no clutter on your Kanban Board. You need to prioritize ruthlessly.

 

Sizing:

An important aspect of Kanban is the need to break down the tasks into ‘bite-sized’ action items that can be managed. For example, let’s say your task it “Prepping car for sale.”You may want to break it down to smaller tasks that you can better see progress on. A single “prepare car” project might take days or weeks, but smaller cards like “get smog check”, “Detailing the car”, “get new tires”, etc. will be shorter – and you will be better able to get a sense of progress, better define your project for your own clarity – and better sequence/ prioritize individual tasks. Dealing with tasks at this level also might help reduce procrastination!

 

Most importantly, breaking down projects to more ‘equal sized’ tasks across different projects will give you a clear picture of really how much work you are dealing with – and thus force you to start only one (or a fewer) things at a time, work on those with the highest priority and complete them before starting others. Kanban is all about “Stop Starting, Start Finishing!”

Over-estimating and Overscheduling:

Most of us are guilty of believing that we have more time at hand than we really do. For instance, there may be some tiny tasks or routine tasks that don’t make it to your Kanban board, but take up a significant chunk of time. It would help to keep aside some time for these tasks – and be clear that for the tasks on the board, you only have the remaining time in your typical day. So, if you think you need three hours of your eight-hour day for the small tasks, keep four or five hours only for the Kanban board tasks. Again, this helps you better understand what your real capacity is and so what your throughput can be.

 

With these tips, you’ll be able to use Kanban to its fullest potential.

 

Nishanth Appaiah Mittu. He’s been helping Digite, a company providing enterprise agility and integrated project management software platforms for IT companies. He has been managing their Marketing function for the past 3.5 years. In a previous life, he helped test out ideas for cognitive radios at CEDT, IISc post which he went hunting for the best biryani and prawn curry in and around IIM Kozhikode.

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