At the crux of project management is the idea of who is doing what when. Most Project Managers will probably agree that solving this question is a critical requirement of their jobs. If you’re trying to manage fifty people through a project, such as building a car, it’s nearly impossible to be directing all the action that needs to happen. That’s where tools like Kanban come in to give structure and easier communication channels to a process that might otherwise be chaotic or hard to manage.

What is Kanban?

As a word, it means “visual card” in Japanese. That actually tells a lot about this basic tool with unlimited applications, including your personal goals if they need some help too. It organizes work by stage in the completion process, which then highlights how many things are in each stage. 

How is Kanban used?

Setting upa basic Kanban board can be done in three easy steps:

  1. Create three columns on a piece of paper.
  2. Label the columns something like: To Do, Doing, Done or Waiting, In Progress, Complete.
  3. Organize your tasks according to where they currently are in your workflow. Use sticky notes or something movable so the board can be updated as needed.

From there, put the board in common view. That’s a critical piece if you’re using it with a team. Then update the board as you go along.

If you’re interested in an electronic option, follow this link to a huge list of possibilities. The key is to find one that fits your organization’s process, culture, and technology specifications. Note: You don’t have to use a new piece of software. A Kanban board could be set up in a share Excel file or another piece of software the team has access to.

The keys to Kanban are to limit your work in progress to as much as you and/or your team reasonably work on at one time (i.e. no multi-tasking, it’s not good for you anyway) and visualize your work, which is the main idea of Kanban.

A wide variety of teams use Kanbans – everyone from car manufacturers to software developers and freelance videographers. Anyone who follows a process can use a Kanban to keep track of where things stand. Kanban also makes short work of updating suppliers when materials are needed, because the card flows through the process just like the product itself.

Like so many other tools, Kanban works best in an organization where everyone involved buys into the idea. Get that support before you roll it out to the team. If you’re having trouble doing that, suggest a pilot program in a smaller area to show some results and value in your business case.

Successful teams are getting creative with Kanban

  • A freelance graphic designer is using Kanban software to track the flow of her design projects. She’s using the same software to track new business leads through a series of contact points. Most recently, she has added team members and some Clients to the boards so that everyone is on the same page and no one needs to send a “quick update” email. It’s all online, so she never has to wonder where she stands on anything. The software she selected has a smart phone app that allows her whole team to check in when they need to.
  • An HR consultant used a large piece of butcher paper and color-coded sticky notes to create her 2019 strategic plan and prioritize the services she’s offering. Seeing all of the projects mapped out in one place highlighted where she would need to hire help and what would need to be eliminated. That board was converted to an action board that helps her keep projects on track.
  • A restaurant keeps a Kanban board near the cleaning supply closet to show the staff who is doing what and what still needs to be done. A quick glance allows anyone to see the status of the end of shift clean-up and choose a task that will move the whole team toward finishing everything on the list and leaving on time.

Applying the best of the best to your work

  • Remember that Kanban can be used for anything, not just physical parts moving down the line.
  • Before implementing a Kanban system, get together with your team and come to an agreement on what the cards need to say. This will lay the foundation for clear communication throughout the process and ensure that things flow smoothly.
  • Get support for implementing Kanban before you begin.

Kanban is an easy way to create a culture of open communication. It can be used on its own or as part of a larger system to keep things moving along without the struggles of too much inventory or not enough. For as much as we might try to fill every single second with as much work as possible, there is a limit to our human capabilities and Kanban is good at highlighting those limits too. If you’re seeing delays at certain steps in a process, whether that process is on the factory floor or in an office, Kanban could help identify some of the causes. Just getting a clearer picture of what is currently “in process” may be enough to make some changes that will help everyone make the most of their work days.

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