Kanban board is not Kanban system

So, you have set your Kanban board in place. Although your team has been enthusiastic in visualizing all of their work, months have passed without any progress. And although there was an initial process improvement, you quickly reached a plateau. We understand that you probably feel discouraged and consider throwing away the board. However, before you do that, ask yourself: Is your visual management board really a Kanban system?

If you can’t answer the question confidently, then, you have landed at the right place. In the following paragraphs, you will learn what makes a visual management board really a Kanban system. If you stick to the end, we will walk you through the most important components of a standard Kanban system. In addition, you will find advice on how to turn your visual management board into one, without provoking serious resistance within your team.

Understanding a Kanban System

What many people fail to understand initially is that Kanban is more than sticky notes on a board, and using Kanban goes way beyond reason. Therefore, it is no surprise that, too often, the method doesn’t live up to their expectations and the promises that come with it.

Due to its visual nature, deploying a proper Kanban system guarantees a quick and simple information-sharing mechanism and allows you to respond to changes in a timely manner. As everything about your work process becomes transparent in front of everybody, it becomes truly easy to delegate responsibility to your team. Even better, it encourages you to empower individual contributors and give them ownership of their tasks to a reasonable extent.

Together these characteristics of the Kanban system facilitate the necessary environment to improve significantly the efficiency of your workflow. With all of this stated, let’s dive into the core components of the system.

What Is a Kanban System?

In reality, a true Kanban board is a system that requires you to implement more than just a few columns and cards to improve the efficiency of your work process. Therefore, to make the most of your Kanban board, you need to adopt systems thinking approach and look at everything on it as part of a larger system that needs to be managed and continuously improved.

The standard Kanban system that you need to create as a start consists of 4 core elements:

  1. WIP limits
  2. Explicit commitment and delivery points
  3. Deferred commitment
  4. Work items that are to be pulled in progress

Laying the Foundation with WIP limits

Limiting work in progress (WIP) is crucial for establishing a Kanban system. By doing so, you can maintain control of your process without micromanaging your team.

It is a convenient and easy way to optimize your workflow according to the available capacity of your team. The goal of applying WIP limits is to reduce the time work items spend waiting once they have been started. When doing so, please keep in mind that you want to reduce the burden on your process and reduce over-capacity in order to improve its overall performance.

Therefore, when considering what number of items to allow in progress, you want to reduce multitasking and context switching as much as possible.

WIP limits serve as a basis for creating a pull system. To explain it in just a few words, your team only pulls new work in progress when they finish the work they have already started.

The absence of WIP limits is the most frequent mistake that teams make when starting with Kanban. They visualize their work on the Kanban board and continue working like before. As a result, new tasks are pushed in progress all the time and the team divides their attention between them.

Naturally, work items take more time to be finished due to the amount of wait time that they accumulate while your team juggles a plethora of other tasks they have on their plates.

wip limits in a kanban system

Please note that WIP limits are visualized directly on the board and must be visible all the time.

Explicit Commitment and Delivery Points

It is important to understand that your Kanban board is practically a value stream map. Therefore, your goal is to visualize the most important steps of your process and limit work in progress so you can optimize your capacity in the best possible way.

By default, a Kanban board has 3 basic stages:

  • Requested
  • In progress
  • Done

In this particular case, the commitment point is In progress. Once you pull a card there, you commit to finishing it. This is the moment you promise your customer that you will deliver the result of the work inside the card you are pulling.

Logically, Done is the delivery point. When a card reaches this stage, there should be no more action required on the work item.

Although this basic example makes it sound unnecessary to define explicit commitment and delivery points, teams that apply Kanban rarely stay with this board design for more than a few weeks because it doesn’t facilitate much room for improvement besides reducing the time required to finish a task due to the WIP limit in place.

On the other hand, the basic board design won’t be able to tell you where your process needs improvement, because all processing stages are unified under a single column.

deferred commitment in a kanban system

So, when the board design starts to get more complicated, your team must be aware of where they commit to process a task and where they put the card when they’ve done their part with it.

Deferred Commitment

Deferring commitment is another important part of the Kanban system. The goal of doing so is to mitigate risk and make delivery times more predictable. The problem that makes this necessary is that we are naturally inclined to say yes to every request.

As a result, it is not uncommon to have up to 50% abandonment rate of committed work items that initially seemed like good ideas but later, when there’s more information about them, we decided otherwise. It gets even worse when your team has already invested time and effort into working on such bad ideas and you have to abandon them midway through the process.

A Kanban system allows you to carefully consider your orders and commit to processing them only when you are sure that the time is right. This way you can significantly reduce the percentage of abandoned work items and minimize waste in your process.

On the other hand, deferring commitment will help you reduce overproduction. Although in a knowledge work environment overproduction seems like something abstract, it is actually a problem that can damage your company in the long run.

For example, overproduction in a software development environment would be constantly adding new features that your customers don’t use. In a marketing context, overproduction would be performing a lot of activities without connecting them to a larger strategy or vision and so on.

Pre-commitment section in a Kanban system

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A common practice is to add a backlog section to your board containing multiple steps for streamlining commitment and making sure that you are working on the right tasks at the right moment. Refining customer requests may sound like a waste and an expense that you should avoid but it protects you from investing even more resources in doing the wrong things or failing to deliver in the end.

You can even add a two-phase commitment to your Kanban system to mitigate risk. The first point is where you commit to working on a request, while the second one is for committing to the delivery date.

Work Items that Are to Be Pulled in Progress

Finally, we get to the sticky notes on the wall. 🙂 With everything else in place, the last piece of a standard Kanban system is visualizing the actual work and pulling it through your process.

We advise you to be concise when putting information on your Kanban cards, especially if you are using digital Kanban software. Your goal is to provide quick and precise information about the task at hand so you can keep in the loop everybody on the team.

Please have in mind that stuffing too much information inside a card may have to opposite effect as it will require team members to spend time reading details that might not be important for them.

Next, we can’t stress out enough the importance of the word pull.

We already covered the basics of how work should be pulled according to the WIP limits in your system. Therefore let’s focus on how to improve the efficiency of your flow with it.

To keep things flowing all the time, you should focus on breaking down customer requests into small individual tasks that take no more than a few days to process. This is especially important when there are multiple handoffs in your workflow. When the assignments are quick to process, stakeholders will spend less time waiting and more time working on customer’s orders.

In addition, we have to clarify a common misconception about the pull in a Kanban system. Although your team must start work items when they’ve got capacity, you can freely assign tasks to individual contributors. Just don’t push them to start every new card they get immediately unless it is with a higher priority and tolerates no delay.

How to Turn a Visual Management Board Into a Kanban System?

Now that you are aware of the essential elements of a Kanban system, you can begin transforming your visual management board into one. As a start, you must get acquainted with the Kanban principles and communicate them clearly with your team.

If this is the first time you are hearing about them, here they are:

  1. Start with what you do now
  2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change
  3. Respect the current process, roles & responsibilities
  4. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels

Taking all of them to heart will allow you to build a sustainable Kanban system that will stand the test of time. As you can see, these principles are culture-related and aim to evolve your organization over time without making drastic changes initially.

Although it is a good idea to study some Kanban board examples, don’t rush implementing them by the book. We can’t stress enough the importance of starting with what you do now. This is the best way to minimize the inevitable resistance to change from your team.

Also, when setting up the WIP limits on your process, be sure to communicate their need with your team so they understand the expected outcome. Be sure to discuss what would be appropriate and give them some room to maneuver within these limits initially.

As a rule of thumb, we advise you to set the initial limit in a way that allows each team member to have more than one task in progress but not too many so they can get used to the new way of working. In time, you can adjust the limits in your Kanban system to reduce context switching further.

visualizing process policies in a Kanban system

To make your process policies explicit, you must visualize them directly on your board. You can do so above or underneath each column. As a result, everybody will be aware of exactly what needs to happen during each stage. This will contribute to less need to return work items for rework and improve the overall quality of your work.

In Conclusion

Building a Kanban system requires systems thinking approach. The standard Kanban system that we advise you to start with consists of 4 key components: WIP limits, explicit commitment, and delivery points, a mechanism to defer commitment for as long as possible, and quick-to-process cards on your board.

To get started with a Kanban system quickly, you need to be aware of the 4 Kanban principles and communicate them with your team.

Last but not least, you need to be systematic in implementing Kanban and evolve your current process instead of replacing it with a new one that you saw working somewhere else.

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