A guide to getting started with Kanban

February 2016

5 years ago whilst working at, what some might say, a leading tech firm, I had the great fortune to be introduced to, what some could say – in technology years, is an ancient way of working. Ever since that day, in every professional situation (and some family ones too!), I have never failed to show friends, colleagues and associates the fantastically simple approach that can help you de-clutter your calendar, to do list, your life and help you to deliver bigger, better and faster than you have ever before.

What can do this? Why Kanban can of course!

Building your board…


The first task is to design your board. The design of the board should essentially describe, from left to right, what you do in your organisation, or department, or team to get something from an idea to a live, value adding product. This is ‘the value stream’.

The challenge here is to be honest. Do not describe a written process, or how you think it should look. Build in to the board all the stages you actually have to go through to select, plan, prepare, build, test, release and measure success. Straight away stakeholders, when you show them your board, should be able to identify how they can help you make things easier, simpler and more effective.

6 Ways Kanban will help you kick butt

So you’ve got your board up and running, you’ve got buy-in from your team and you’re ready to introduce Kanban into the workplace but what exactly should you expect to see? Below I’ve outlined 6 of the benefits of using Kanban and hopefully they’ll help you to better understand what all the hype is about and how it’ll help you improve your own IT service.

1) Banish the ocean boilers

We are all so busy nowadays, busy, busy, busy. There is a sense that if we are not busy, we are not useful. Load me up, supersize me, more, more, more. Realistically we know this not to be true, we know that doing more does not necessarily mean doing better. Here is how Kanban can help you learn to focus. By ‘visualizing’ the work i.e. describing every piece of work you intend to do on a card and sticking it on the board you make that intention tangible. Once you’ve done that for every piece of work you will begin to understand the cumulative endeavour. It may be that everyone involved gathers round, looks at this big list, and then looks at the limited number of people there are to do it, takes a collective deep breath and starts to take things back down from the board. This is a good moment. From this point on you will start to be more selective about what you want to do and why.

2) Remove yourself from the debate

So you are at the board with all your stakeholders; business reps, your tech staff, reps from other downstream and upstream contributors. You’ve designed your board around the steps the work needs to move through for your team to deliver and you put all pieces of work (demand) into your ‘backlog’ section. Like Charlie Chaplin unwittingly igniting a bar room brawl everyone jumps on top of you and you disappear under the onslaught of people wanting a piece of your team’s action. But wait here you are, again like Chaplin, climbing out from under the scrum, walking to a safe distance and watching what occurs. The thing about having a board that describes; (a) what your team does (b) how much work you have on (c) through avatars who and how many people are in your team who are able to do the work, is that you don’t really need to be a part of that conversation. Everyone can see your constraints and everyone who needs your team is there in front of the board. They can work out, amongst themselves, whose piece of work gets done next. All your stakeholders have access to all the information necessary to prioritise their work that your team fulfils for them. On that premise you can also get them all to agree that if they do not attend the regular stand-up in front of the board then they unfortunately forfeit their say or claim on the next slot (meaning attendance will always be pretty high).

3) Hey, we really are all One Team

With this type of access and open conversation about what everyone actually needs doing you really do begin to encourage transparency and collaboration. Done regularly enough, preferably daily, these stand-ups will last only a very short amount of time. If everything is going swimmingly and there are no hold ups in the pipeline we are talking minutes. If there are some blockages that need discussing and prioritising it could be as long as 20 minutes. I bet there aren’t many meetings you have in your calendar that are this short and only discuss actual work and have real outcomes. You have loads of weekly meetings that churn out dozens of actions that 90% of the time never get completed and it’s mainly because the actions are buried deep within an email backlog that will probably never see the light of day.

4) Eye-catching and inviting, come on join the fun

These boards are big, colourful and bold. There is no escaping them. They are not hiding. If you are a senior leader and you want to know what’s going on – walk up and take a look, ask questions, and offer help or suggestions if you can. If you are a curious technician from some unrelated team and you walk past a board and see that something you are working on can help or affect the work on the board in some way, shout out. If you are a member of the team described on the board and you find yourself with some free time, go and pull some work or see where you can help, it may be you are the team member that is stuck and needs help, the board will tell you who is available to lend a hand or what else is being worked on that could get you un-stuck.

5) It won’t let you get distracted

By adding limits on to the work that you allow through the pipeline Kanban ensures you keep your focus and with that focus comes pace. It’s a very human desire to want to keep busy. It’s human nature to try and find the easiest way of doing that. If we come up against an issue or a blocker what we usually want to do is shelve what we were doing and pick something else up that looks like it would be easy to progress. Multi-tasking, we are led to believe is the thing to do, only what happens when that new thing gets difficult or another blocker springs up? We shelve it and go back to the first thing, oh it’s still blocked. How about we start something else….and so on and so on. With limited work in progress, instead of picking up something else we keep with the original job but look for ways of unblocking, we focus, we stick with it, ask for help, get others involved but we do not veer from the end goal. This way we make sure we stop starting things and we start finishing things. We know that unless the job makes it into live it won’t start releasing any value. So starting 3, 4 , 5 things and not finishing them releases nothing and is just a waste of time.

6) Getting stuff out the door

And so by staying focused as described in point 5 you get more done. Imagine if you attempt to get 3 things done, juggling them, doing job 1 for a bit then putting it down picking up job 2 for a bit then going back to 1 or moving on to 3. You might be able to get them all done and dusted in a week. What if you focused on just one job? You’ll probably find that you could get it done in a day if you stuck at it. So what if you did one job every day for a week. That’s 5 jobs done by limiting you work in progress or 3 if you jump from one to another.

What it really boils down to for me is this…
Kanban instils a very easy, very sociable and a very low overhead means of getting us all talking, sharing, and working together. We share our trouble and successes, we “work out loud”, in plain view for all to see and for all to get involved. It’s completely inclusive and all it takes is some cards, some tape, some pens and a board or even just some wall space. They don’t sound like magic ingredients, but just wait until you see the results.