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Kanban is a lightweight approach to managing work. It helps you easily see the progress of your work and increases your focus. How? By 2 simple rules:

  1. Visualize your workflow: When my wife and I began gardening, we got in touch with a friend with a forest green thumb. She helped us determine what needed to be done: loosen the soil, lay down compost and wood chips, plant seeds, etc. As we worked on each task, we asked our friend to verify our work (since we were new). If she approved, it was finished, otherwise we would go back and fix what was wrong. A workflow gradually emerged: To Do (Backlog) > doing > Verify (QA) > Done. We drew this workflow on a board (see picture). To visualize your workflow, first take a look at how you currently do work, then draw!
  2. Limit your work in progress (WIP): Put a number at the top of each column (except your TO-DO column). This value represents the maximum number of tasks allowed in each column. Why limit your work in progress? Imagine that you are juggling one ball. Your chance of dropping one ball while juggling is low. As you increase the number of juggling balls, your chance of dropping one ball increases. If you do not recover quickly, all the balls drop. You may think you can effectively multitask, but you will work at a slower pace and lower your work quality. WIP limits allow you to concentrate on a few tasks, allowing you to deliver quality at a faster pace.

Now that you have your workflow and WIP limits, start writing out the tasks you need to accomplish on Post-It Notes and put them in your TO-DO column. Make sure you prioritize the list. As you finish each task, move it to the next column. Keep pulling work from the top of the TO-DO column and let it flow through your process.

You might ask, what is the point of going through all this work just to do work? Look at your board, what happens if any column reaches its max capacity? You cannot move any work into that column, which means there is a bottleneck in your flow. A visual and WIP limits quickly reveals where you need to focus your attention. When you take the time to set up your workflow, you can see your progress and concentrate on fixing bottlenecks when they appear, instead of being surprised later on.

Some of you may have heard about Kanban in the context of Scrum or Agile/Lean development. What are the differences between Kanban and Scrum? Here are 3 major ones:

  1. No roles in Kanban: Scrum has three defined roles: Development team, Scrum Master, and Product Owner. Kanban does not specify these roles. That does not mean roles are no longer important, it means that the purpose of Scrum’s roles must be shared among the team.
  2. Kanban uses a pull system: Scrum requires you to have a sprint planning meeting to determine what work goes in to a sprint. In essence, you push work in Scrum. Kanban takes the opposite approach: when a task is completed, pull the next task from the top of the backlog.
  3. Kanban limits tasks, not time: Scrum limits times for sprints and release cycles, and all work is done against the clock. In Kanban, instead of limiting time, it limits the number of tasks in the flow.

Remember, Kanban plugs in to your existing workflow and reflects how it currently works. If someone asks you how things are going, point them to your board. In a simple glance they can determine what you are currently working on, what you will work on next, and find any bottlenecks.