Why Kanban is more than a visualization board

It's about developing a problem-solving mind-set, for example when it comes to clogged workflows.

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There’s a sentence that I hear over and over again that kind of irks me, and maybe you’ve heard it too? “We’re doing Kanban, we have a Kanban board.” While having a Kanban board is important, you are not really practicing Kanban with this alone. 

Kanban is really tricky for most people to get their heads around because it’s so much more about culture than process. To understand the cultural aspect of Kanban, we have to remove ourselves from thinking about a project and think of it instead as a practice.

A practice of evolutionary change

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Karate Kid then you may remember that Daniel learned to master the art of karate by painting a fence and waxing a car. The Karate Kid movie reminds me that the real learning in Kanban isn’t the physical act of moving tasks on a board, but rather the ability to instinctively know how to respond and evolve as a team.

Kanban originated in Japanese culture and was used as a way to improve productivity of car manufacturing at Toyota. However, the practice wasn’t, and still isn’t, about a process — it was all about the mindset of continuous improvement through collaboration and radical change. 

The Kanban teams understood that, to become more efficient in how they worked, they were empowered to pursue evolutionary change — and that working the way they always had would not move the needle.

Evolutionary change can really only happen when leaders allow the people closest to the work to suggest new and different ways of working and empower them to make real change that revolutionizes the way they work today. Kanban teams can’t be static in how they operate — they must be given the opportunity to be dynamic explorers of new possibilities.

A marketing team I was helping was frustrated at how long it was taking to get an email marketing message from conception to execution. Even though it was a small company, it was taking more than three weeks. The team’s go-to response was to complain about it, but as a Kanban team, they need to actually resolve the problem. This is where Kanban usually ends because the team doesn’t have any authority to change, so they go on about their same way of working while silently getting more and more frustrated.

Through leadership and team coaching around ownership and empowerment, this team is using a timeline of two weeks to execute an email as a baseline and is working to find ways to get rid of unnecessary processes that add time.

Understanding flow and measuring cycle time

A Kanban team needs to understand how work flows from conception to execution and where the flow gets jammed or broken. The agile marketing team looking to improve their flow for emails documented how they worked today and noted the trouble spots. It went something like this:

  • Layout and design meeting (1 day)
  • Copywriting (1 day)
  • Copy Review (5 days)
  • Design (3 days)
  • Layout (2 days)
  • Coding (4 days)
  • Testing (4 days)
  • Deployment (1 day)
  • Final review (2 days)

Total time (23 days)

By looking at the process of each work item type (in this example – email), the team can now identify what is slowing down the flow. If the team doesn’t know how long each step takes, they should look at the next four or five items and measure the time, then get an average.

With this visibility into where work is getting slowed down, the team can begin discussing how to solve the problem. In this example, copy review is taking the longest, so it may be a good place to see where this can be streamlined.

Let’s say the team talks through copy review and realizes that it takes so long because of the number of reviewers. The team suggests several improvements such as, “Reduce the number of reviewers, have all reviewers in one room or require a 24-hour turnaround time.” The team would then share their ideas with the reviewers and come to an agreement on reducing cycle time. If just this step could go from 5 days to 1 or 2 days, it would be a good step forward in streamlining the workflow.

Setting work in progress limits

Setting work in progress (WIP) limits are a great way to help the team focus on improving cycle times. When a team has too many items in progress at any given time, it may hinder their ability to complete work. 

Think about your daily to do list. Let’s say that you have to schedule a doctor’s appointment, pick up dry cleaning, order dinner, do the dishes and mow the lawn. Now let’s say that you start to unload the dishwasher but stop halfway through and go out and mow the lawn. The lawnmower runs out of gas so you go to order dinner, but you can’t decide where to order from so you decide to go to their dry cleaners. What you have now is too high of a WIP limit and tasks aren’t getting done. If instead you focused on completing a task before moving on to the next, you would start fewer things, but get more actually accomplished.

In marketing, a team needs to establish how many tasks they can have going at once, and at what point they are losing focus. The team can test and measure this to come to the best number for them. A team of five marketers may find that five tasks at once is too many, two is not enough, but three is the ideal number where they are focused enough on getting work done, but everyone is still producing value.

Kanban is a great technique to use in agile marketing, but make sure that you have a culture that allows the team to own the way they work and continuously improve. By understanding that Kanban is much more than a board, you’ll be set up to truly reap the benefits.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Stacey Ackerman
Stacey knows what it’s like to be a marketer, after all, she’s one of the few agile coaches and trainers that got her start there. After graduating from journalism school, she worked as a content writer, strategist, director and adjunct marketing professor. She became passionate about agile as a better way to work in 2012 when she experimented with it for an ad agency client. Since then she has been a scrum master, agile coach and has helped with numerous agile transformations with teams across the globe. Stacey speaks at several agile conferences, has more certs to her name than she can remember and loves to practice agile at home with her family. As a lifelong Minnesotan, she recently relocated to North Carolina where she’s busy learning how to cook grits and say “y’all."

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