Improving Processes: Kanban Workflow
The Kanban Method focuses on making iterative, incremental changes to work processes to increase efficiency and productivity. How can you translate your project processes into Kanban workflows and make them more efficient?
What is a Kanban Workflow?
A Kanban workflow is made up of the step-by-step process states between starting and delivering a task. The simplest workflow could have just three process states – To Do, Doing and Done. Tasks move sequentially from the first state to the last.
In reality, most workflows will have more process states. This can look very different for different projects – the workflow for a retail environment will not have the same steps as one for software development.
During Kanban’s history, visualising the workflow has always been a key component. This keeps you whole team on the same page – everyone can see which tasks have been started and how work is progressing.
Is Kanban good for every work process?
Some activities translate well to this format – some do not. The activities which work best for Kanban workflows are:
- Repetitive: All tasks will move through the same process states
- Sequential: Tasks progress smoothly from one step to the next without unpredictable jumps
- Continuous: New tasks constantly enter the workflow as old ones are completed
For example, a process for publishing blog posts works very well as a Kanban workflow:
- All blog posts must go through the same steps – plan, write, review, edit, publish (repetitive)
- Posts always go from one step to the next in the same direction (sequential)
- The blog always needs new posts! (continuous)
Some activities do not work well with Kanban. Activities where decisions can have many different outcomes, or processes which rely on high levels of subjective judgement are not well suited for Kanban.
Mapping your workflow
Once you have chosen a workflow, it’s time to really break down each of its component steps. Think visually – drawing out the steps of your process with pen and paper is a great way to keep things clear.
We recommend involving the whole team while mapping out your workflow – more people available makes it less likely for important steps to be missed. Make sure to identify any actions that could potentially block the workflow – for example, verifications, stage gates and hand-offs to other team members.
Many teams choose to draw a process flowchart for their workflow, mapping out where the workflow path can split, when decisions need to be made and which team members are responsible for each action.
Hexagon: Start/End point
Preparing your Kanban board
Once your workflow has been mapped out, you can start translating it into a Kanban board. Many teams get started using Trello, a popular project management tool, for this purpose. Each process state is represented by a vertical column or list. You can add as many process state columns as your workflow requires.
Each task is represented by a card, with the highest priority cards ordered from top to bottom within a list. Cards are moved from one process state to the next as they are developed. The Kanban board clearly and visually represents your workflow. Team members can instantly see what tasks are being worked on, how close they are to being finished and if bottlenecks are forming.
Kanban workflow best practices
Once your board accurately represents your Kanban workflow, you can apply the other important aspects of Kanban. We recommend learning more about the six essential practices, here are the most important points when getting started:
Work in progress limits
In Kanban, each list has a work in progress limit, a cap on the amount of cards it can contain at any one time. This means that if the WIP limit has been reached, no new task are allowed to enter the process state until an outstanding task has been completed.
In practice, this stops tasks from being forgotten and ensures everything gets completed. Limiting the amount of work in progress also keeps your team focused and reduces time wasted to context-switching. Finally, WIP limits stop bottlenecks from getting out of hand – team members must focus on clearing existing tasks and resolving blockages to continue.
Kanban doesn’t just visualise workflows – it seeks to improve them. To get better, it’s important to know how you are performing. Kanban metrics like cycle time and throughput are used to measure your team productivity, track past performance and identify areas for improvement.
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Classes of Service and Swimlanes
Some projects are too complex to be accurately represented by a basic board. Classes of Service (CoS) and Swimlanes can be used to split up the process states. CoS classify tasks according to priority level – for example, having different policies in place for emergencies and maintenance tasks. Swimlanes, however, are often used to organise tasks according to department, stopping the Kanban board from getting cluttered during complex projects.
Transparency and efficiency go hand in hand. By having a clear view of your process – from mapping out the steps, to creating your Kanban board, to delivering results successfully – you remove uncertainty about what action comes next. By combining the visual Kanban workflow with in-depth analysis of performance metrics, you can incrementally increase workflow efficiency.
Tell us more about your Kanban workflow! How easy was it to convert your processes? Which best practice was most useful? Tell us about your experience in the comments!
Meet the Author
Sonya Siderova is a passionate product manager and a driving force behind Nave, a Kanban analytics suite that helps teams become more efficient through data-driven decision making. When she's not catering to her two little ones, you might find Sonya absorbed in a good heavyweight boxing match or behind a screen crafting a new blog post.
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