sticky notes on board

What is Kanban?

[To watch the video, click here.]

As a team leader, ask yourself these two questions:

1) “Do I have a very accurate understanding of all of the things that my team is currently working on and is responsible for delivering?”

2) “Do the different members of my team have a very accurate understanding of what each member is working on or is responsible for delivering?

Whenever I’ve asked this question, the answer has almost always been no.

And it’s not “no” because they are empowering their teams and encouraging autonomy. It’s usually a “no” because everyone in the team, including the leader themselves, is being pulled in so many different directions that no one has had a chance to pause and take inventory of the work they are producing, let alone question whether the work they are doing is (still?) adding any value.

One method that we introduce almost as soon as we start working with teams, is Kanban.

If you’re a leader who has not heard of this term and/or you’re in an organization that has not implemented it, you’ll want to read on.

First of all, what does “Kanban” mean and where does it come from?

Kanban is a Japanese word that literally translates into card or sign card or large visual board. The Kanban system was introduced by Toyota to help their teams visualize work, and limit the amount of work team members had in progress at any point in time.

So very simply, Kanban is a way to visualize your team’s work.

Are there benefits to visualizing work?

There’re some pretty cool benefits here so let’s go through them.

  1. The first thing you’ll notice is a surge of efficiency. Now that everything is plotted, you’ll be able to see quickly where things are getting hung up in the overall system and work as a team to reduce those bottlenecks from occurring.
  2. The second thing that it drives is focus. With everything in one spot, you can now fiercely prioritize, and focus on the top item exclusively until it’s ready to move to the next stage in the workflow.
  3. With elevated focus and practiced prioritization, your team will then be able to have meaningful conversations about how much work they will be able to reasonably handle at any point in time (we refer to this as WIP or “work in progress” – for more on that, check out this blog post) in order to increase their throughput.
  4. With greater efficiency and focus, you’re going to start to see greater productivity.
  5. You’ll see that your team will learn to appreciate transparency. A few notes on this one:
  •     The team will become used to sharing openly, in a variety of ways, from their opinions and ideas, to their own discomforts and difficulties, to honest feedback with one-another. Where this may have caused some apprehension beforehand, the team will evolve to the point where unfettered transparency will soon become a required team precondition – so “if you want to be in this team, here’s how we roll…”
  •     Transparency leads to building trust which leads to building empathy among team members. You’ll start to see is team members showing an interest in learning skills from one another, and an organic interest in supporting each other’s work. This in turn leads to powerful knowledge transfer and team dexterity.
  1. And with all of this, the team will learn to collaborate effectively. Two things here:
  •     Collaboration will create a heightened sense of morale
  •     Collaboration will continue to feed and boost the other previous benefits on an ongoing basis; so your efficiency, focus, productivity, transparency, trust and empathy will continue to improve and deepen.

Final thoughts:

  1. If you’re interested in experimenting with visualizing your work as a team, it’s important to start by keeping it simple. Start out with the four basic columns, like this:What is Kanban_ — ShelisaB

Put All of the work items will be posted in the Backlog

  •     Move the prioritized items will be posted in the “Next” column
  •     The pieces of work that have already started will be posted under “In Progress”
  •     And completed pieces of work will be represented under “Done”
  •     If you are going to constrain your work (reducing your WIP) I would recommend you add a number in each person’s “in progress” box. If you are unsure where to start: start with “1” (meaning that individual team members will focus on no more than one thing at a time.) Experiment with a low number and check to see what the effects are in terms of throughput.
  1. Give your team time to adopt and become comfortable with this method. You may notice that your team may express a bit of trepidation at first. Between adopting something new and now being asked to showcase their tasks and work publicly, nervousness and trepidation are normal reactions. Recommendations for you as a leader:
  •     Share this post with them so that they understand the benefits
  •     Remind them that this will be an experiment and that as a team, you will adjust your Kanban to suit your team’s context

Experiment, have fun, and GO SHOW THEM WHAT YOU’RE MADE OF!

If you are a new or emerging leader, check out how The Master Class can help you supercharge your career and positively impact your organization and those around you.


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