Quite often I get to introduce people to using a “work visualization board” (often referred to as a kanban board), these days. When I do I’m struck with the common misconceptions that follow many tools - especially tools that I have been nudged (or forced) to use..
I wanted to share a few of the things that find myself repeating to new users of kanban boards.
A board is just a tool
A board visualizes your work. That is its use. Just like a hammer is used to hit (and occasionally extract) nails.
Use this tool to get more value from the tool. If you find the board “being a pain in the ass” or “hindering from working at all” then you should probably find another way to visualize your work. I strongly suggest that you visualize the work somehow, but find a way that doesn’t hinder you, especially not if it causes you pain in sensitive areas of your body.
What is the value that you get from a visualization like a board? First of all, it makes work that previously was invisible seen. We will start to see synergies (“what? are you also doing that - let’s work together”), duplicates (“what? are you also doing that? Let me stop my work”) and confusion (“What does ‘time bug in the flux capacitor’ even mean?”) by just writing work on post-its and post it on a blank whiteboard.
If we also create some kind of visualization of the different states of our workflow and map the work items into the correct state… well then a lot of other things can be shown;
- do we have bottlenecks hindering the flow?
- do we have empty states?
- where is work piling up?
- what is not started?
- what is completed?
Do you see a common theme with all these bullets? They are questions. Because that is what you get out of a visualization like this. Questions - it’s up to you do something about it to improve. If you change nothing - then nothing changes. You can take that promise to the bank.
A board is your tool
Since you create your own board (like a great Jedi) you also can change it. No, wait; you should change it. Make it fit your world, your work and your workflow. The closer to reality it is the more close to reality your improvements will be too.
Start with something and tweak it as you go. I always suggest starting by drawing it with a marker on a whiteboard. Not with tape or not as an electronic tool. I’ve seen very small hinderances or annoyances of making change lead to very strange workflows a few months later.
Change the tool to fit your work.
Showing how much we do for others
Not seldom I hear calls to “create a board to show to others how much we do”. I don’t think that is a great value of the board. The board is mainly for you. To show and help you flow your work - so that you can get more value out of the work.
People outside of your team/workgroup are (or should) not be interested in the details of how you accomplish the value you are here to create. Show effects and outcomes to others - have the details that are helpful to you on the board.
One of the most common questions I get is
What goes onto the board and what should not be there?
And the answer is to put all the things on the board that you need to make good decisions for your work. Good decisions that lead to more value created. If that means that you put a lot of details on the board - go for it. It’s your board - if you find that helpful; knock yourselves out.
If you, after a while, find that all those details are just too much to even see what is going on; take them off. Go to a higher level of abstraction. Change. To improve. Improve what? The value delivered.
Have a WIP limit
Don’t ever create a board without a WIP limit. Because a WIP limit helps you to not take on too much work at once (which will slow work down as well as work you to death).
With a WIP limit, there will be a mechanism to pose a question about priority. “This new thing is important, but is it so important that I should drop this other thing?”.
It also focuses on capacity in a new way: “is the thing so valuable that we should spend our rare and limited capacity on that now?”
Any (good) visualization shows you what is going on. A kanban board is just a tool to help you see your work better. Once you see the work and any problems you can start noticing problems with creating value. If you do something about that and help your work to flow you will improve.
It starts and ends with value; helping value to flow, knowing what value is and focusing on getting more value rather than keeping people busy.
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