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Robert Brown

Robert Brown

Content Director

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Kanban: Maximize Efficiency by Visualizing Workflows

­A Kanban board is a project management system implemented by Fortune 500 companies to maximize output while minimizing wasted resources. Kanban works because it visualizes the project pipeline, each step of a project’s life cycle, and empowers the team to continuously output deliverables without becoming overwhelmed with tasks.

Although Kanban is most often associated with technical teams, the same tools and strategies can be applied to creative teams to align goals, eliminate waste, and increase overall productivity– all while lowering stress. In this article you will find out more about what makes Kanban boards unique, how a Kanban board will optimize your project management system, and why so many top companies are drawing up Kanban boards before planning their next work cycle.

What is a Kanban Board?

Kanban– meaning signboard in Japanese– is a technique popularized by Toyota to visualize and organize tasks throughout a project’s life cycle. It was developed by Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer, and takes its name from the colored cards that track production and orders for new shipments of materials. The Kanban board was created to organize manufacturing operations including logistics, supplier management, and customer delivery.

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Kanban boards succeed because they are agile and simple to use while delivering extraordinary results. The core concept is the reduction of cost through elimination of waste by optimizing machine and human labor.

Each task is tracked as a card on the Kanban board. Various types of work, with varying due dates, are differentiated by a color code to quickly separate and visualize tasks. As specialists complete work, the cards are moved from one column to the next until the task is completed.

The board is divided into columns, sometimes called “swimlanes,” that represent the different stages in a project’s life cycle. The most basic structure is three columns: “To Do”, “Work in Progress” (WIP), and “Work Completed;” although a Kanban board’s structure is flexible and should be adjusted to meet each team’s need. There are variations but for many companies the typical breakdown is five columns: To Do, Analysis, Development, Testing, and Done.

Optimizing Task Management

Kanban makes the position of each step in the project pipeline very clear. Unlike other project management methods, Kanban boards have parameters that can be adjusted during a work cycle. If teammates are getting stuck or if there is a bottleneck in tasks accumulating, a project manager can easily identify this backup and deploy resources that will unblock the workflow.

However, Kanban cannot be fully utilized until it is optimized to meet your company’s needs. Your team must agree on expectations to get the most out of a Kanban board. The original Toyota team followed six rules when using their Kanban boards.

Toyota's Six Rules

  1. Each process issues requests to its suppliers when it consumes its supplies; Level the production.
  2. Each process produces according to the quantity and sequence of incoming requests; Fine-tune production.
  3. No items are made or transported without a request; Produce the exact quantity required.
  4. The request associated with an item is always attached to it; Stabilize and rationalize the process.
  5. Processes must not send out defective items, to ensure that the finished products will be defect-free; Never pass on defective products.
  6. Limiting the number of pending requests makes the process more sensitive and reveals inefficiencies; Take only what is needed.

These are excellent rules, but leave room for customization. A critical principle to consider for your Kanban board is determining how to hand off a task, whether it be explicitly or implicitly, push or pull, without clear expectations bottlenecks will disrupt workflow and lower morale.

The most difficult aspect to navigate are the pinch points when transitioning tasks. When is a task ready to move on? Should the last specialists who completed the work, place the card in the next column or should the next team be responsible for deciding which to pick up? Establishing expectations for transition points will guarantee that resources are applied to the most important tasks and that less favorable work is not overlooked.

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Utilizing Kanban Boards with Marketing Teams

Recently, marketing teams have been transforming their operations by implementing a Kanban board to manage their workflows. You’ll discover that this methodology promotes transparency and collaboration while empowering individual accountability to support a continuous workflow that balances the team’s daily capacity.

Novvum’s marketing team utilizes an electronic Kanban board to organize everything from content sprints to major branding initiatives. Our articles and newsletters start as cards on a digital Kanban board and move from conception, to drafting, to copy editing, to your inbox. Using a digital Kanban board allows teammates and stakeholders to be involved throughout the management process, ensuring we’re all on the same page and that nothing gets lost.

Take a tip from us, be flexible. At Novvum we encourage each specialist to bring a card to the board and see the task to completion. We manage our bottlenecks by setting our WIP limit for each column based on the expected staffing for each cycle, but we pivot if resources or priorities shift. It doesn’t matter where in the world our team is as long as they are connected to our board.

A Kanban board is ideal for teams that want to promote individual responsibility with light touch leadership. Try using a Kanban board for your next big project to see the results for yourself. Managing your workflows has never been easier.