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Guide to Kanban Project Management for Virtual Teams

If you are managing projects and tasks across a virtual team, you need a more sophisticated approach to project management than just a to-do list. Kanban project management for virtual teams is a powerful, flexible, and collaborative solution that systematically helps teams work smarter, not harder.

Kanban is a remarkable tool to use because of the productivity increase it yields after a small effort to centralize and streamline the work. In a matter of minutes, your team can turn a mess of projects and tasks into an actionable, shared view of what’s recently completed, currently in progress, and coming up next.

Kanban project management can increase delivery speed and program success for virtual teams.
Kanban project management can increase delivery speed and program success for virtual teams.

If you’ve been looking for a better way to align around work with your distributed team, there isn’t a better tool than a robust digital Kanban board. In this guide to Kanban project management for virtual teams, we’ll share tips, tricks, and examples to help you get your team “on board” with Kanban!

Pain Points Kanban Addresses for Virtual Teams

Working on a virtual team has many upsides. As an employer, it expands your talent pool to practically the entire globe, enabling you to draft a talented team without the limitation of needing to be physically co-located to apply.

For employees, working on a virtual team means that they can live anywhere and do a job they love, with the flexibility and autonomy of working from home.

Working closely with people who live in different states, or even countries, is made possible by technologies like video conferencing software, company communication platforms like Slack, and other tools. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy: We have all seen the pain of team members using disparate tools and ways of working, without the necessary collaboration and synchronization to complete their work.

Virtual or not, project management is a weakness for companies around the globe. According to the PMI Pulse of the Profession annual report:

  • 48% of projects are not finished within the scheduled time
  • 43% of the projects are not finished within their original budget
  • 31% of projects don’t meet the original goals and business intent

Kanban project management is the answer to several pain points all distributed teams experience at some point, which include:

  • Working in silos
  • Hidden work (tasks that creep up on us)
  • Unclear priorities
  • Staying on strategy
  • Lack of accountability or clarity on ownership
  • Absence of real-time tracking
  • Bottlenecks
  • Hidden blockers
  • Lack of accurate predictability and estimation for new work
  • Managing and including unplanned work

By adopting electronic Kanban boards, virtual teams can easily gain the visibility that can solve these problems in just a few weeks.

Let’s explore use cases where Kanban project management can help different types of virtual teams.

Kanban for Virtual Marketing Teams: From Functional Silos to True Collaboration

One use case is a virtual marketing team that had several of these identified pain points. The team, like many others, organized team members according to title; for example:

  • Designer
  • Copywriter
  • Web developer
  • Project Manager
  • Editor
  • Content writer
  • Social media management

All tasks were pre-assigned by function, and everyone was heads-down working on their assigned areas.

The problem was that these virtual team members did not collaborate with each other very often with this approach, even though they were highly dependent upon one another for completion of any given marketing campaign. This led to several missteps. They missed a big deadline with an important client and lost their business. When one of their web developers left the agency, poor communication resulted in some low-quality work and campaigns without adequately updated websites.

Introducing Kanban Project Management

The editor on the virtual team had used a Kanban board solution at a previous company and recommended they try it. Her hope was that it could lead to:

  • Increased visibility of all tasks
  • Clear focus on the status of each campaign
  • Improved ability to predict estimates and meet deadlines

The marketing team entered all the tasks associated with their campaigns and parsed them out into cards on the Kanban board. They also started a daily 10-minute standup meeting in which each team member updated the group about:

  • What tasks they had completed the day before
  • What they planned to work on that day
  • Whether they had any blockers that might interfere with task completion

Within a matter of weeks, the entire team began to understand their flow, and began collaborating in deeper, more productive ways.

The virtual marketing team saw a 40% improvement in their productivity one month after implementing Kanban project management.

Additionally, they discovered hidden bottlenecks and began to brainstorm solutions. Their daily standups became more efficient in that they could focus on immediate needs.

The virtual team also realized that they needed to break down their functional silos to be a truly cross-functional team. In other words, the social media manager might update web pages now and then and the web designer might update social media accounts from time to time, depending on the need and the workload. They discovered how to pair work and learned to do a few new things, including some editing and peer reviews.

Over time, every team member became more cross-functional. They found that empowering everyone to pull new work from the board worked much better than pre-assigning work by functional silo, which resulted in an uneven distribution of labor. When someone on the team had capacity, that person could start work on the highest-priority item in the backlog immediately.

Kanban project management worked so well for this virtual marketing team that they found themselves improving marketing campaigns and completing them well ahead of deadlines. This led to greater client retention and profitability.

Kanban for Hardware, Software, and Other Technology Teams

With a wide range of reports – like workload distribution, shown above – Kanban project management enables virtual teams to continuously improve.
With a wide range of reports – like workload distribution, shown above – Kanban project management enables virtual teams to continuously improve.

Of course, Kanban project management is not just for marketing teams. Highly technical software, hardware, and integration teams, as well as other technology teams, can use a Kanban tool for greater productivity, throughput, and quality.

One hardware organization that built next-generation servers was in decline as the company coped with the threat of a reorganization and potentially losing valuable team members. They had reached a turning point, and the status quo was no longer tolerable.

They were late (months, even years) in delivering client orders. They had stale critical projects in the queue; management gave ultimatums, yet nothing changed.

The teams’ inaccurate estimates for time of delivery were embarrassing the product leaders who had to interact with customers. Their backlog had grown larger and larger, with very little accomplished over a period of several months.

Some projects had grown so stale that several team members who had not been with the company years earlier when the teams had taken on the work had no idea what they were about. There was no solution in sight.

That’s when a senior manager hired an Agile coach to come in and share ideas on Kanban and Scrum. After a few days of training and discussion, the hardware teams decided to adopt Kanban project management with some Scrum events, such as a daily Scrum and a monthly retrospective (adapting the Kanban tool for their own version of “Scrumban”). They also utilized the idea of having a team product owner, the person who owns, ranks, reorders and prioritizes the backlog based on business value.

With these small changes, the team was able to uncover the root causes of their inefficiency. It turned out that their backlog was their biggest challenge. There were two hundred items in the backlog, and at least 150 of those items no longer had business value or were so low on the list that the newly elected product owner was able to eliminate them, freeing up 75% of capacity to work on the top fifty backlog items.

After limiting their work in progress (WIP) and practicing more effective board maintenance, the results were phenomenal. In less than a month, the team’s output improved from completing one to five items per week to completing thirty. Lead time from client order to client delivery was reduced from months to weeks.

The teams used the Kanban board to better visualize the flow of work and began to self-organize around two types of work:

  • Continuous flow simple tickets (order fulfillment)
  • More complex next-generation server projects that took longer to develop

This approach to project management accommodated the continuous and haphazard flow of work.

With the daily standup, the teams now had a good inspect-and-adapt process to ensure they were always starting with the highest priority cards. This turned out to be an incredibly effective and somewhat familiar approach for the hardware team.

Additionally, in the retrospectives, the teams were able to identify and remedy many of the age-old broken processes that had been blocking progress before.

Kanban for Manufacturing and Engineering Teams

Manufacturing, engineering, and other teams have great success in implementing electronic Kanban boards as well. In fact, the manufacturing floors of Toyota are where Kanban first originated. Although modern-day implementations of Kanban vary from the original practices used, many manufacturing and engineering teams still find Kanban project management principles to ring true.

One commercial bus manufacturer was falling behind every month in completing all the engineering tasks that were needed for production. The backlog of engineering tasks was becoming larger every month and threatening bus delivery and customer satisfaction. Kanban project management was a last-ditch effort to restore the backlog to a normal level.

Various engineering groups also had created a problem by working in functional silos; everything was organized by either mechanical or electrical engineering tasks and no one was allowed to work across that line.

No one worked together and the inefficient handovers back and forth were killing their throughput.

Everyone focused on their engineering tasks without pairing up, swarming, or collaborating with dependent teams or groups as needed. Their list of blockers grew as big as their ungroomed backlog.

Initially, a physical Kanban board was implemented because their process was so convoluted. It took a few weeks to iron out who did what, and where the Kanban cards went after that. One group spent a day with a Kanban project management trainer who went through their process with them and helped them design steps in their flow that made sense.

The teams began holding a daily standup where they worked to identify and resolve blockers, and pair up and tackle the most critical work together, rather than only working on tasks that had been pre-assigned to them.

The gentle pull system of Kanban began to do its magic! Engineers spoke up and asked for help; others offered help when they had capacity. The workload started to balance out between team members.

Soon, engineers had cleaned up their backlogs, prioritized their board by the most urgent and critical work, and delayed the trivial, non-urgent work by handing it over to the offshore team.

Kanban project management allowed key engineers to focus on urgent, critical work immediately and reduce their cycle time from about eighteen days to nine days.

The engineers also were able to improve their throughput so dramatically that they created bottlenecks at the review and processing stage, leading to even more collaboration. They learned to create war room reviews where all the required reviewers met in an Agile open work area and time-boxed each review to twenty minutes, so they could break through a big bottleneck of twenty reviews in less than a day; prior to this, work commonly stayed in the queue for review for two to three weeks.

Soon, their success was touted across the entire engineering organization. This led to cross-pollination of other teams, who went through the same process, until all the engineering teams had implemented electronic Kanban boards to better monitor and track their work, reduce bottlenecks and cycle time, and improve throughput.

Fazit

Kanban project management is a proven, effective way to encourage your team to collaborate more deeply, operate more efficiently, and complete work with a greater sense of clarity and purpose. For virtual teams, it provides the transparency, accountability, and structure necessary to keep progress moving, even if everyone is in a different time zone.

Kanban project management leads teams to a better understanding of their process, which in turn drives the process improvement necessary to maintain agility in an ever-changing world. Kanban helps virtual teams stay focused on delivering what really matters, by helping them visualize their work every step of the way.

Meet our author


Rachaelle Lynn

Senior Marketing Manager

Rachaelle Lynn, a Certified SAFe Agilist, is a marketing manager and subject matter expert at Planview, a market-leading provider of project portfolio management, lean and agile delivery, project management, and innovation management software. Her experience in diverse B2B and B2C industries continue to drive her interest in the SaaS customer journey. Rachaelle holds a BA in Communication Studies from the University of Florida.