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Kanban, more than just sticky notes on the wall

When I got the invitation to a Kanban training session, I have to admit that I had no idea what the meeting I was going to attend was about. I listened to my peers carefully during the session, which lasted about an hour and a half, and as soon as I left the Zoom room, I put the word "Kanban" in Google, and through different articles and videos, I dug deeper into the subject.


At first, it was not clear to me why I was invited to the meeting; I don't remember having heard the term Kanban before with my colleagues. However, this meeting was recurrent once a week for about a month, and at the end of it, I realized that I had been participating in projects that followed this process model for some time without even knowing, and that it was important to have my presence there so that I could adapt the following projects that I had within the company with the Kanban methodology.


This method of managing work has been gaining popularity in recent years. It originally came to be applied to manufacturing, but over time, it was the software community who adapted it for their processes. In the early 1940s, Toyota Production System took on the task of developing a "pull system" where production was based on customer demand and not on overproduction; over time, this process was transformed into minimizing waste without affecting production, and thus creating more value for the customer without generating more costs: this was called Kanban, a word that comes from Japanese and means "card with signs".


The Kanban method uses a basic board consisting of three columns: "To Do", "In progress", and "Done". The idea of these boards is to identify where the bottlenecks in the process are. Today a lot of companies are using it, as there are so many benefits of Kanban that will reflect improvements on what’s being done.


Accepting Kanban's philosophy is a crucial step; for me, it was a bit difficult to transition from having a personal work process to a public board where the team could learn my tasks, but a plus on that was that we were able to identify the work that consumed the most time and thus, get on finishing it as soon as possible. There are other Kanban practices that, during my short time using it, I have identified and would like to share below:


The first is to be able to visualize the workflow. In my case, I have used the Trello tool, and more recently JIRA from Atlassian, to create the boards. Being able to visualize the flows will help us understand what we need in the course of the project, from the beginning to the final delivery. To visualize the process in Kanban, we need a board with cards and columns. Each column of the board represents a step in the workflow and each card represents a work element. So, we start by placing the cards in the "To Do" column, then, when we are working on the task we move it to the “Doing” column, and when the element is finished, it is moved to the "Done" column.


Another practice that I consider fundamental is the elimination of interruptions. If there are no limits to the work in progress, no Kanban is being done. Limiting WIP means that a maximum number of items per stage is set, ensuring that only the essential tasks are worked on, creating a continuous flow. The following practice goes hand in hand with the second one, which is to have a common goal. In this way, the people involved on the board will be able to work and make decisions regarding the changes that have been done on the board.


The fourth and final practice is continuous feedback. For a Kanban board to flow, it doesn’t only need to be defined in a first meeting but also to have continuous communication. These meetings should be done with the board visible to all participants and each member shares with the others what he or she did from the previous sprint and what he or she will do for the next delivery. The frequency of the meetings depends on many factors, but the idea is that they should be regular, at a fixed time, and that they should be short meetings of between 10 and 15 minutes.


Now, I firmly believe that Kanban has been a hidden treasure that I found during this time of quarantine, and that, without a doubt, unites the teams in times where remote work is the only option. Most companies nowadays have remote employees due to the Covid-19 health contingency and there are teams distributed all over the world. Not being able to work on a physical dashboard, cloud-based Kanban is the most effective way to get everyone on the same line, as information is accessible from any device, at any time, and actions or changes are displayed live. In my current projects, Kanban boards give me valuable insight into the whole process, save me time, and have increased my efficiency.


In conclusion, Kanban sessions opened my eyes to a methodology that exponentially facilitates the work. Kanban is more than just sticky notes on the wall: it is accepting and applying this philosophy to our daily work that over time seems logical and inevitable. Trying to learn Kanban might seem difficult at first, but I am convinced that visualizing the workflow, setting up the WIPs, managing the flow by setting up continuous meetings and collaborative improvement, will take your work process far beyond what you can imagine and you will get the most out of this methodology that is easy to adopt: it is all about starting with what you have.

Hiram P.

Style enthusiast with a crush for black skinny jeans and pretty shoes. He loves reading fashion magazines, all things Snoopy and Tokyo is his dreamland.