Today, we’ll explore a structured approach to setting up a Kanban system. It follows five simple, essential steps that, together, ensure you get the most out of your data.

As you’re working through these steps, keep in mind this isn’t a sequential approach – it’s iterative. As you go through the steps, you’ll naturally collect more information.

When that happens, I encourage you to revisit the previous steps. Ask yourself, “Does anything need to change? Is there anything you’ve uncovered that better informs those previous steps?” That iterative process will make your foundation stronger and ensure clarity and consistency from start to finish.

Let’s dive into this process and learn how to set up a Kanban system to track metrics effectively.

The 5-Step Process to Setting Up a Kanban System

Before we dive into the specifics, one final note: this process should be applied on a team level. Outcomes will differ from team to team, so apply the same steps for each team you manage.

With that in mind, let’s go through the steps in more detail.

#1 Understand Your Motivation for Change

The first step to setting up a Kanban system is understanding your motivation for change. What isn’t working right now? What’s causing stress or friction? What’s slowing you down?

In running through these questions, you’ll be able to quickly identify impediments. We’ll return to these findings later with an eye on eliminating them – or, at the very least, reducing them to a level that no longer hinders your performance. Ultimately, your Kanban system should be set up to help your teams improve the flow of work.

This step is critical, so be sure and give it the time and focus it deserves. By understanding your motivation for change, you’ll reveal the why behind your improvement efforts. Whenever your motivation wanes, return to that why to help keep yourself accountable and your improvement process going.

#2 Map Your Knowledge Discovery Process

With your why in place, the next step is to model your workflow as a knowledge discovery process. To do this, you’ll need to visualize it on a Kanban board and map the activities your work is moving through.

As you dive in, keep your focus on results – specifically, to identify the steps your team follows to deliver those results. Those activities become columns on your board.

It’s important to remember that your columns don’t represent handoffs, disciplines, team members, departments, or software environments. They represent your activities. Activities are about collaboration – how people naturally self-organize together and, as a result, get the work done.

Depending on your background and Kanban experience, this may feel a bit awkward – traditionally, organizations look at workflows as a series of handoffs between teams or individuals. That’s the reason why work usually moves back and forth on the board (which, you guessed it, is a bad practice!)

Your Kanban board should visualize how work progresses through the stages of gaining more knowledge as you shift concepts into tangible deliverables.

This step, ultimately, sets the basis for your Kanban system – one that will continuously improve over time.

#3 Define Your Commitment Point

Now that you have a foundation in place, clarifying your commitment point is essential – how do you define the beginning of your workflow?

The goal of step three is to determine the point in time when you confirm you’re ready to initiate your work and commit to delivering it.

Remember that a commitment point is not the point when a customer request arrives. It is the moment when you and your team have gathered enough knowledge about the work to confidently say you’re ready to get started.

Think of a commitment point as the line between your “to-do” column and your first work-in-progress column. When the work moves from “to-do” and crosses the commitment point, your work is no longer considered optional, it is now “officially” committed.

Define Your Commitment Point in a Kanban System

While this may sound redundant, defining your commitment point brings immediate transparency, clarity, and alignment across all team members. Here, you’re creating greater predictability around the work and ensuring teams know exactly what they need to work on next. Visually, you’re moving from Discovery to Delivery.

#4 Classify Your Work Items by Type and Class of Service

By this point, your Kanban system should be taking shape – and in this fourth step, we’ll focus on how you organize the work that will move through it.

Here, it’s important to classify your tickets by type and urgency.

As you’re going through this classification, be sure you’re thinking about the nature of the requests your team handles – the bugs, features, improvements, user stories, production issues, and maintenance requests, just to name a few.

Furthermore, classes of service define the urgency that comes with these requests.

  • What are the expectations of your customers?
  • Are there items that need to be done as soon as possible?
  • Are there items with an end date in place?

By answering these questions, you’ll clearly define how to organize items in different classes of service going forward. And by assigning these classes of service, you’re helping teams prioritize effectively – they immediately know what needs attention and ensure risks are properly mitigated.

#5 Create Your Process Policies

Lastly, step five is all about creating explicit process policies that will dictate how quickly work items move through your Kanban system. To get started, discuss the following questions with your team:

  • How do we handle urgent items?
  • How do items with different priorities move through the workflow?
  • How do items with the same priority move through the system?
  • What happens when an item gets blocked?
  • How do we manage defects in the workflow?

Don’t limit yourself to these questions – feel free to expand this list to include anything that will help you define how you currently manage your work.

In this final stage, we’re setting the rules that your team will follow to move work to completion while ensuring everyone knows what to do at any given time.

Put all these concepts together, and you’ll have a strong foundation for tracking metrics effectively and making the most of your improvement efforts.

Here is your action item: If you’re ready to take action, and want to go deeper into each individual step and understand how to implement it in your own context, check out our Sustainable Predictability signature program. This week, we’re extending free 7-day access to the first module!

Go ahead and request your free access here

Thanks for reading. Make sure to share this article if you find it valuable. I’m excited to join you on Tuesday, same time and place, for more action-packed managerial insights. Bye for now!

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