Successful projects always start and finish with a plan, but it’s how you put that plan into motion that will ultimately make or break your project. Without a clearly defined process, project managers end up unable to manage their work efficiently, while teams work overtime to meet impossible demands. All too often, the result of a poorly executed project is a failed product delivered late by a team that’s lost motivation due to burnout.

Kanban project management solves these problems by shifting teams away from the productivity and quality-control problems that come with multitasking to maintaining a value-focused workflow throughout. Tracing its roots back to the Toyota factories of the late 1940s, it’s become an industry-standard in both knowledge work and lean manufacturing. In this article, we’ll explore how you can use the Kanban Method to maximize efficiency, productivity and, ultimately, the delivery of value.

Visualize Your Work with Kanban Boards

Long before computers became mainstream, Kanban provided a way to visualize project progress from start to finish. Today, the core principle remains the same; the primary goal being maintain focus on the work at hand. The ability to visualize each stage of a project is fundamental to this effort. As a framework for projects of virtually any complexity, there are four main steps towards visualizing your workflow with Kanban:

  • Define your workflow steps
    Kanban is all about improving efficiency by keeping track of work in progress. You’ll want to define each step of the workflow and implement work-in-progress limits. This way, your team completes one job before starting work on the next.
  • Create your process policies
    Create your process policies to establish the workflow rules and help your team become more self-managed. These might include workflow steps in need of executive approval and those which have stalled due to unforeseen problems.
  • Include critical information
    Every card on a Kanban board represents a task. Each one should clearly display essential information, such as a list of people assigned to a task and its due date. Other useful information might include comments, attachments, and checklists.
  • Assemble your Kanban board
    Now comes the time to assemble your Kanban board so your team has a complete visual overview of the project from start to finish. Each column corresponds to a process state. All new tasks will appear in the left-most column, moving towards the right-most column as each workflow step is completed.

Avoid Bottlenecks by Limiting Work in Progress

Combined with data-driven insights and consistent input from your team members, the Kanban system suggests applying limits to work in progress to help you instantly spot bottlenecks. Project managers often reference the ‘stop starting, start finishing’ philosophy when keeping track of ongoing work.

Trello does a great job of helping teams manage workflows with its simple, intuitive, and lightweight user interface that allows them to clearly visualize works in progress. Moreover, by utilizing a Cumulative Flow Diagram for Trello, you can better identify bottlenecks before they become a problem. If there’s a sharp increase in the gradient of the bands, there may be too much work currently in progress, while flat bands indicate that no tasks are being delivered. Just remember to account for any major changes in priorities or team size before drawing conclusions.

Manage Backlogs by Prioritizing Tasks

The Kanban Method suggests an approach using Classes of Service and sequencing policies to arrange Kanban backlogs that eliminates the need for manual backlog reordering.

Product managers classify user stories in the backlog by assigning a Class of Service to each story at the moment of its creation. Then explicit sequencing policies are defined to determine how to treat each Class of Service and how they interact with each other.

Keeping a backlog of work displayed on your team’s Kanban board can be quite distracting, especially for more complex projects. For best results, consider keeping a separate board for backlogs, pulling tasks into the working board once the team has the capacity to do so.

Maximize Value with Regular Feedback

You’ll want to prioritize your tasks based on regular feedback from customers and key stakeholders. Ultimately, your job is the swift delivery of a top-quality product. To that end, using Kanban to manage your project will help you find the fastest route from start to finish.

Kanban is ideal for software development teams, where regular communication, early feedback, and close proximity to stakeholders are key principles for success. With the help of Kanban, you can build a minimum viable product in less time, while asking for feedback before adjusting your direction accordingly. Quick feedback helps keep project teams focussed while avoiding the release of underutilized features. The process works much the same in lean manufacturing, in which feedback typically involves regular input from supervisors, quality-control teams, and other key stakeholders.

To incorporate feedback, you’ll want to organize a series of meetings known as Kanban cadences.

Set the Standards with Clear Process Policies

Process policies are basically the rules governing how your Kanban board can be used by setting specific standards for works in progress. For example, a policy might dictate that tasks should always be pulled from top to bottom in every process state in order to prevent flow debt. Not only does this help foster a culture of accountability – but it also helps promote a collaborative environment in which everyone’s on the same page. You can compare it to the way road-management works by using things like traffic lights, rights of way, and intersections to control the flow of vehicles. When you have everyone following the rules, there’s a much lower risk of costly incidents.

In manufacturing, process policies have long been a key part of the workflow due to the importance of worker safety and assembling components in the right order. However, these policies are just as important in creative work like software development, marketing, and content creation. For example, by enforcing the right policies, teams can improve efficiency and reduce the need for back-and-forth handoff between different departments. Once again, this empowers continuous delivery and improvement through optimized feedback loops, rather than having completed tasks constantly keep ending up back in the pipeline.

Leverage Data-Driven Insights to Continuously Improve

Although manufacturers have been using the Kanban method for decades, modern technology greatly extends its capabilities using data-driven insights. Using data generated by digital Kanban boards, such as those in Trello, manufacturers, and software developers alike can improve operational efficiencies throughout every stage of a project. This approach is in line with the core Kanban principle that project management should continuously improve over time as works in progress are reduced and bottlenecks are solved. Here are some ways you can use data-driven insights to improve your workflow over time:

  • Increase the predictability of your workflow
    By implementing a stable process, in which tasks start and finish at the approximately same rate, you can increase the predictability of your workflow. With a cumulative flow diagram, you can measure the amount of work in progress, identify increases in cycle times, and determine how much work your team delivers. This information will help you forecast future completion times.
  • Determine how trends develop over time
    By analyzing the distribution of your cycle times with a cycle time histogram, you’ll be able to determine whether your processes are too varied or if your teams have spent too much time on a specific task.
  • Monitor how much work you deliver
    By tracking completed work using a throughput histogram or throughput run chart, you’ll be able to explore how your workflows have improved over time. This will help you deliver work in a more stable and predictable manner.
  • Keep an eye on work in progress
    Watch out how much time tasks spend in your process using the Aging Chart. The higher the cycle time, the higher the chance for a delay. Pay special attention to tasks going above the 50th percentile; this means the task has already been in the process longer than half of all the other tasks.

Adding real-time data analytics to your Kanban workflows will allow you to model the probability of different outcomes and estimate future throughput. In other words, it answers some of the most crucial questions concerning your operational processes while driving smarter business decisions.

What does your Kanban workflow look like? There’s a lot of valuable information hiding behind all those rows and columns, and the Nave Dashboard for Trello helps you make sense of it all. Start a new trial to find out how.

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