How to Use Kanban to Become Insanely Productive: A Short Guide

Whatever your job, using techniques from Kanban can transform how you work and make you insanely productive. This blog post explains how you can apply Kanban in IT, including IT service management (ITSM), IT operations and IT infrastructure. A Kanban board can also transform your software development work, but this is a specialty and is explained in a separate blog post.

What is Kanban?

Kanban is a concept that originated from the Japanese manufacturing sector during the late 1940s but is now widely used across the globe in many other sectors and disciplines. Humans process visual information more than 5,000 times faster than text, so Kanban uses visual elements to make work visible. This helps to manage workloads efficiently and communicate effectively with other people and teams.

What Can You Achieve with the Use of Kanban?

Kanban provides major improvements in the productivity and quality of your work:

  • Increases your rate of output
  • Improves the quality and reliability of what you deliver
  • Delivers rapid resolutions to issues
  • Identifies and removes bottlenecks
  • Reduces stress
  • Improves teamwork
  • improves the effectiveness of communications

Before explaining how Kanban delivers these benefits, it’s important to understand why Kanban is necessary.


Issue #1: Human Behavior

Most humans don’t like to say “No” when assigned a task. They prefer to be helpful, so they almost always say “Yes.” Senior management or peers might pressure them to accept a new task. Humans also like the challenge of interesting, new tasks rather than finishing the boring, old tasks. This is a common human perspective whether those tasks are personal or work-related. Almost everyone has started projects at home, but never quite finished them.

Some individuals are actually proud they can multitask, much like the juggler who puts a plate on top of a pole, spins the plate, and then repeats the “trick” with more and more plates and poles. He or she moves from plate to plate, continuing to impart spin to each plate to maintain sufficient momentum, so it doesn’t fall off the pole. Usually, the act finishes before any plates drop to the floor and break, the performer receives a big round of applause from the audience and the curtain closes.

In reality, multitasking has been proven to diminish focus and productivity in the world of work. People assume more and more tasks, try to keep them all slowly progressing and become increasingly stressed as they quickly reach maximum capacity. Inevitably, one of the “plates” finally falls to the floor and breaks into many pieces. It’s an oft-repeated scene. The “broken plate” can be as simple as missing a promised delivery date, or it can be more serious. With luck, others may not notice the “broken plate.” Frequently and unfortunately, some do notice. Important deadlines are missed, incurring costs and causing disruptions; system outages affect users due to “human error”; and sometimes spectacular IT failures could have been prevented if more time had been available and applied to the task.


Issue #2: Organizational Overload

Multiply the effect of each individual assuming more work than he or she can finish throughout an entire organization and productivity and efficiency are adversely and massively affected.

By not utilizing Kanban, an organization’s workers will be trying to complete more tasks than they can deliver. It’s a primary management failure at many organizations. They start, but never seem to finish, a long list of initiatives. In most cases, they weren’t aware of how many tasks, projects, etc. were “spinning on top of the poles,” and often because there were separate and different lists – some written, but many in people’s heads. Kanban makes all these tasks, projects, etc. visible: those started, but not finished; the locations of any bottlenecks; and the queue of work waiting to be started. Apply Kanban to the entire organization, including specific teams and individuals and it will help the organization to achieve a new mission:

Stop starting and start finishing!


Issue #3: Process-Centric Best Practices

Most of the current ITSM best practices are utilized for processes. A process performs a function to inputs to produce outputs, usually by executing a series of steps. For the purposes of this blog post, a workflow is the same as a process. These best practices seem to assume infinite resources are available for their execution, which is rarely the case in any organization. The processes as described in the best practices have no built-in controls to stop overload. Hence, human nature takes control instead, and the processes often assume more work than can be delivered. Combining Kanban with these process-centric best practices can provide the best of both worlds.

Read about Kanban in software development.

How Does Kanban Work?

Kanban has three simple principles:

  1. Visualize work
  2. Limit work-in-progress
  3. Reduce and predict lead time (average time to complete an item) as best as possible

Visualize Work

Kanban visualizes work via what’s called a “Kanban board.” A Kanban board is either a physical board on a wall or a digital equivalent. The board has a number of columns, with each column representing a stage in the overall workflow or process. In the simplest Kanban board, these stages could be “To do,” “Doing” and “Done.” The sequence is usually displayed from left to right.

Kanban board-insanely-productive-blog

A visual card represents each unique work task, which contains at least the name of the task. The card is affixed to the board, starting with the “To do” column, with the other progressive stages displayed left to right. Sticky notes can be used on a physical board or magnets on a metallic board.

Different color cards will distinguish different types of tasks. The Kanban board can include rows for specific information, either to signify a different type of task or a particular status in a stage, such as when a task has been suspended. Once someone has been assigned a task, his or her name is written on the card, which can also include due dates. Extra colored stickers can be added to a card to highlight an important detail, such as a late delivery, or when progress is blocked, because of waiting for the completion of a sub-task or someone to start or finish a task. Any type of information is valid on a Kanban board, but the contents shouldn’t be too complex, so they can be easily scanned and quickly understood.

Kanban boards should be updated at least daily, ideally with the entire team present to discuss progress, move stickers, identify any blocked tasks, agree who is responsible for unblocking them and decide who will work on tasks that are ready to be started.

The following image shows a more complex Kanban board, with several columns and rows and additional stickers on some cards.

It’s most important to ensure every task is on the board, so the actual workload and the status of all starts are visible, which will help change behaviors. When the entire team realizes everyone has assumed too many tasks, then refusing even more tasks doesn’t seem so scary.

It’s a good idea to have a “hierarchy” of synchronized Kanban boards:

  • Organizational-level board – This board displays one card for each project/initiative that has started, using separate lanes for each department.
  • Department-level board – This board shows each project/initiative separated into more detail, with different cards for different teams’ tasks.
  • Team-level board – This Kanban board shows all of the detailed tasks in which the team is engaged, including project and operational tasks.

Individuals within teams can also use a Kanban board for all of their tasks.


Limiting Work-In-Progress (WIP)

Contrary to what many people think, they will be more productive if they work on just one task at a time, finishing it before starting another. Multitasking is only the appearance of being busy. Actually, there is a limit to how attentive anyone can be to the task at hand since the human brain can’t actually focus on two tasks simultaneously, it just switches between them. Instead of focusing completely on one task and applying the energy it deserves, most of us thinly focus on several tasks, almost guaranteeing a mediocre job of all of them.  

Kanban is a simple method to avoid overload, known as “limiting work-in-progress (WIP).” On a simple Kanban board, the two columns to the left have “WIP limits.” That’s the maximum number of cards in each of these two columns, which, of course, is the maximum number of tasks in each stage.

Kanban board-WIP-insanely-productive-blog

For example, the “Doing” column already contains seven cards. The boss arrives and asks the team to start working on a new task. The team has already reached the limit with seven. Never exceeding the WIP limits is a rule of Kanban. The solution to placating the boss, but also adhering to the limit is first to inform the boss the team has reached the limit. Then, the team discusses the best plan to complete one of the tasks currently in progress, so it can be moved into “Done,” which also helps to support each other. As soon as the selected tasks have been completed, the team can start to work on the boss’ new task. The entire point of Kanban is to move each task through the stages as quickly as possible, which requires each task to be small.

There are many ways to determine the WIP limit, but the simplest approach is to match it with the number of team members. Each person will only work on one task at once. If the team is regularly reaching the WIP limit, then creating a new Kanban board for the overflow is not the answer! Reaching the limit indicates a lack of capacity. If the limit is constantly pressured, then it’s a sign of committing to too much work.


Making Lead Time as Predictable as Possible

Kanban works best when the lead time (the time from starting a task to completing it) is relatively short, ideally hours or days rather than weeks or months. This requires large portions of work to be separated into smaller, self-contained tasks. This works particularly well for projects that are delivering new products, services, systems, processes, etc., such as major infrastructure upgrades, which can easily be divided into the delivery of the component parts. It also works well for making continual improvements, with each task a small incremental improvement. It can be more challenging in ITSM areas, such as problem management and change management, but with a bit of thought and planning these can also be separated into smaller tasks that can be advanced quickly across the Kanban board.


Example of Uses of Kanban in IT and ITSM

Kanban can be applied to virtually all IT and ITSM projects, including planned activities, such as new infrastructure builds and managing software releases, and unplanned activities, such as managing major incidents and reactive IT operations tasks. Here are just a few examples:

Change management

Use a Kanban board to visualize the status of every change. Each change is represented on the Kanban board as a unique task. Typical columns for change management are “Received,” “Under review,” “Awaiting approval,” “Approved” and “Implemented.” Other separate areas on the Kanban board could be “Rejected” and “Further information required.”

Release management

Use Kanban boards to display the progress of releases through their lifecycle. The master board shows all releases and their status, for example, “Building,” “Testing,” “In deployment” and “Completed,” with a separate task for each release. There can then be a specific Kanban board for each release, showing the status of every component task. Individual delivery teams may then also have their own Kanban board containing their detailed and required tasks to complete their delegated release activities.

Major incident management

A Kanban board can be very useful to support the management of major incidents that require the simultaneous involvement of multiple people and teams, each with distinct tasks. The board helps to avoid overlaps and “black holes” where tasks are lost, and provides an easily and quickly understood view of the status and activities.

Problem management

Each problem has its own task on the Kanban board. Typical columns are “Pending,” “Under investigation,” “Root cause identified,” “Fix under development” and “Done.” Using Kanban boards for problem management often highlights there are more problems to fix than the capacity to fix them.

Kanban boards can be used in IT operations to control the management of scheduled activities, such as executing routine batch jobs and housekeeping tasks.

Start Being Insanely Productive with Kanban Boards

With these detailed insights about Kanban boards and their use, it’s time to start using them. For example, pick a process area in ITSM, such as release management, and use Kanban to manage your next release, or create and use a Kanban board to manage your next major incident. If you’re in IT operations, then populate a Kanban board with all your currently active projects – it will show you just how much work is on your plate! Wherever you work in IT, make a start, become familiar with using the Kanban board and don’t be afraid to make changes. Kanban WILL make you insanely productive, but only if you start using it!