When it comes to identifying opportunities for improvement, your busy team members are among the people who would provide the most insight. However, pulling these people off task and getting their input may not seem possible. After all, who will get the work done while the team is brainstorming and implementing improvements?

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A team can use a Kanban system to identify opportunities and implement their own unique solutions.
A team can use a Kanban system to identify opportunities and implement their own unique solutions.

This is the unfortunate catch-22 that many teams find themselves in: Because they’re too busy to make improvements, they never improve the things that could alleviate some of their busyness. So the cycle of inefficiency continues.

To overcome the challenges of having too much work and not enough time to take a step back, many teams have found Kanban to be a good starting point. Kanban offers a systematic approach to identifying opportunities for improving efficiency.

Plus, Kanban is a practice, so teams can leverage its principles in their everyday work instead of having to stop what they are doing to focus on a new improvement initiative. When a team practices Kanban to identify opportunities, they can use its proven methods to invent and implement their own unique solutions.

Kanban’s Roots

Kanban, or the Kanban ordering system, originated in Lean manufacturing and quickly grew in popularity as knowledge workers embraced the technique to reduce costs and keep up with the ever-increasing demands of their customers. There are now thousands of companies in all types of industries using the Kanban method of continuous improvement, inspired by Toyota’s innovative use of the Kanban ordering system.

Kanban for Software Development

Due to its affiliation with Agile development, Kanban has become a popular tool for software development teams. Kanban is different from other project management methodologies such as Scrum, Extreme Programming (XP) or the Waterfall approach in that it does not use time-boxed iterations.

A time-boxed iteration is a set period of time in which a project phase must be completed. Instead, the Kanban system relies on the continuous delivery of products that are geared towards meeting the expectations of customers.

One benefit of practicing Kanban is that, if the customer’s expectations are not being met, a team has multiple opportunities to give direction for course corrections during iterations. Kanban is based on iterative work, or work that is done in small segments so as to reduce the amount of re-work should any changes occur. For this reason, customers of a team practicing Kanban can provide honest feedback and request changes during a particular iteration while preserving the timeline and keeping the budget in check.

What is a Kanban System?

A Kanban system is a work scheduling system that maximizes the productivity of a team by reducing idle time. Idle time can occur within any process, workflow or procedure and can usually be traced back to opportunities within the process itself. But how can a team measure idle time and trace it back to a lapse in process?

Kanban tools help maximize time and resources

A good Kanban tool goes a long way in helping teams understand how their time is being spent. Most online Kanban tools provide tracking and productivity data that helps people easily identify problem areas.

Once they have a better idea of where the problems lie, teams can begin to develop solutions to those problems. Maybe one team member is severely overworked, while another doesn’t have enough to fill his day. In this instance, a manager would help delegate tasks to team members with more bandwidth, alleviating the pressure from the overworked individual and removing the impediment for the entire team.

Another way in which a Kanban system helps to maximize resources lies in the ability to continuously deliver products while continuously improving the process required to get there. Software development teams, accounting teams, finance teams and even creative agencies have adopted the use of the Kanban system, despite its lack of emphasis on due dates. By delivering products continuously, customers gain the benefits of using those products sooner and the ability to make modifications based on new information that has become available since the start of the last project phase.

Because the principles of Kanban may not exactly fit the needs of all organizations, some Lean / Agile teams use a combination of methods along with other methodologies, including Agile Scrum and Extreme Programming (XP), as they seek to deliver products that meet the business requirements and exceed expectations around the time it takes to deliver.

While some Scrum and XP teams follow more specific processes that entail their own set of project management techniques, all team members can benefit from using a Kanban board to visually communicate information that is otherwise difficult to process, understand or retain. Not only is visual data easier to understand, it also allows for a certain amount of creativity and innovation necessary for so much of the knowledge work being done today.

Advantages of Using the Kanban System

There are many advantages to using the Kanban system as a way to manage work, including:

  • Flexibility
  • Focus on continuous delivery
  • Reduction of wasted work / wasted time
  • Increased productivity
  • Increased efficiency
  • Team members’ ability to focus

First, Kanban is flexible. There are no prescribed phase durations, and priorities are constantly reassessed based on the most recent information.

Another advantage to using Kanban is the focus on continuous delivery. By delivering small portions of a project continuously to the customer, teams have multiple opportunities to synchronize future iterations with the updated business requirements. In this way, teams can ensure they are delivering exactly what the customer wants.

Iterative cycles and continuous improvement are techniques that provide maximum value to the customer, while time-boxed approaches that entail waiting until the end of a project for customers to provide feedback / request changes may open the doors to higher project costs.

A common scenario can be found in teams using a time-boxed approach. After waiting weeks or even months to see a working prototype, the customer finds the deliverable to be lacking in some way.

For the software team, this means going backwards and undoing (or perhaps throwing away) weeks’ worth of work, a frustrating place to be as a developer. For the customer, this means more cost and a bitter aftertaste, leaving them with little appetite to take on another project any time soon.

Other advantages to using Kanban revolve around productivity and efficiency, two concepts that also tie back to the reduction of waste. The Kanban system focuses on the reduction of waste in all its forms: Over-production, unnecessary motion, defects, over-processing and waiting. In terms of software development and project management, waste can be thought of as:

  • Work that is not needed
  • Work that is incorrect
  • Time spent doing the wrong work (work that has less value), rather than focusing on the work with more value

When waste is eliminated from a process, project or workflow, productivity goes up, people are able to focus more on the work that matters, and efficiency is improved in the way people manage their time and in the way they do their work.

Finally, when work is properly re-prioritized as needed and communicated visually using a Kanban system or task board, an individual doesn’t have to question what to work on next. Instead, the team member pulls the next Kanban card from the top of the queue without spending any time considering which task to pull next.

Let’s explore the concept of “pulling” tasks in more detail.

The Kanban Pull System

Kanban is considered a pull system. In a pull system, work items are pulled into the queue by the people doing the work as they complete tasks in order of priority.

The Kanban ordering system enables the delivery of work as it becomes available and as part of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) that is sometimes defined in the business requirements. Another term for Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is Minimum Marketable Features (MMF), a term used to describe the work that can be delivered which meets the business requirements without exceeding them. This way, the amount of wasted work is minimized while delivering the product as specified in the customer’s business requirements.

Minimum Marketable Features and Kanban

MMFs meet the must-have requirements for releasing the product, even though some of the “nice-to-have” features may not be included in the first release. Although the MMF philosophy may seem counterintuitive, it allows teams to save time by focusing on the things that really matter (deliverables that hold the most value for the customer), as opposed to allowing things that don’t matter as much (bells and whistles, nice-to-haves) to stand in the way.

The concept of MMF is also beneficial in keeping a project’s scope in check. Scope creep is a phenomenon that occurs when a project gradually increases in scope or size and is caused by the addition of new business requirements (new functionality, enhanced features and other changes that impact a project’s timeline) that were not part of the original requirements.