Kanban to the Rescue

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Planning Six 150-Person Events Concurrently

Back in August, at the tail end of an insane three months spent on the road, I received a DM expressing more than a passing interest in bringing Kaizen Camp to New York City.

The venue: TBD
The date: ASAP

A little context here: my creative partner Jim Benson and I were at an onsite in Virginia finishing up our last client engagement for a while. We were just three days shy of what we thought would be a protracted and well-deserved break. The last Kaizen Camp we threw in Seattle ended just two weeks prior, and while we were over-the-moon ecstatic to be hearing from people around the world who either wanted to sponsor a Kaizen Camp or bring one to a city near them, we assumed we’d have some downtime before actually jumping back into the rigorous planning process – and getting back on the road – for yet another event.

And by “downtime” I mean at least long enough for Jim to work his way through the chocolate chip cookies left over from the Seattle event, and for me to justify creating a Toni-will-be-out-of-the-office-to-catch-up-on-3-months-of-sleep auto-response email.

Now our goal with Kaizen Camp is to provide a space where people from different industries can engage in meaningful, cross disciplinary conversations about collaboration, innovation, continuous improvement, and the evolution of leadership, as they relate to the future of work. Bringing Kaizen Camp to New York City ASAP was going to be a significant undertaking to be sure, but it certainly wouldn’t be an endeavor without its merits.

This was an opportunity we simply could not pass up, and so within a few days we began to discuss logistics, form a steering committee, enlist the help of volunteers, and firm up some dates.

A week passed. Jim was back in Seattle still working his way through the remainder of the Kaizen Camp: Seattle cookies, and I was in DC barely unpacked from the Seattle and Virginia trips when I heard from two different groups of people interested in bringing the event to their part of the world…

…which is roughly 10,000 miles away.

Excited, but already knee-deep in prep for NYC, I took comfort in the fact that unlike the NYC event, at least there was some decent lead time with the Sydney and Melbourne Kaizen Camps. Although I know February 2013 is not as far off as it seems.

In the interim, companies in both Colorado and California who earlier expressed an interest in sponsoring events in Boulder and Irvine respectively, were now ready to etch some dates in stone. Unlike Australia and NYC though, they were able to secure venues up front, getting us beyond a huge logistical hurdle early on.

And then came the news about Tel Aviv.

Really? Are you sure I didn’t tell you about Tel Aviv?

Um…no Jim. You didn’t.

Jim never did finish those chocolate chip cookies, and by the time the remaining few decayed into their constituent molecules we had six Kaizen Camps on the horizon.

So here was my dilemma: how to simultaneously plan six events, each with very different requirements, while creating and then coordinating the efforts of distributed teams comprised of a half-dozen individuals each, across six time zones. Recognizing the complexity of this task, we naturally wanted to visualize all of the work this entailed while limiting our work in progress and ensuring our work flowed smoothly. It was time for us to drink our own champagne.

Enter LeanKit.

As many of you know, Jim and I work on opposite coasts. In addition to a thick skin and a healthy sense of humor, our livelihood depends on three things:

  • Skype
  • Google Drive
  • A Shared Kanban

It’s how we’ve collaborated for four years. It’s how we wrote a book, even.

Each morning we sign onto Skype, and hold a daily “standup” in front of our virtual cardboard. After we’ve established our priorities, we jump into our day.

Opening up our kanban to two dozen people tracking six additional projects would weaken its power as an information radiator. Instead, I created a dedicated board for each Kaizen Camp (this early on in the process we’re using one board for both events in Australia. Recent observations show tasks get increasingly granular as we move closer to an event, so I suspect we’ll soon be transitioning to two distinct boards). I invited steering committee members to the appropriate boards, many of whom uploaded their avatars to easily identify at a glance who was taking ownership of which task. For each user I assigned a WIP limit, beginning with three, then adjusting as needed.

Despite the fact that several of our users were unfamiliar with kanban, little more than a five minute walk-thru was needed to ensure all teams felt comfortable using the app. LeanKit makes the initial set-up a breeze and from there on the process is intuitive. Perhaps most important, is that the tool is enjoyable to use. It was imperative users enjoyed their online kanban experience, otherwise I knew they’d never use the tool, impeding insight into the project’s progress and quite possibly, impeding the project. I thinks it’s safe to assume none of our newest kanban users have even accessed the site’s myriad demo videos. It’s simply that straightforward.

Now when it comes to event planning, the director for marketing and public relations at SEP is my inspiration. After watching Kelly Wilson (@spaldingwilson on Twitter) in action at the past two Lean Software and Systems Conferences in Long Beach and Boston, I’m comfortable admitting Kelly’s not just my friend, she’s essentially my spirit animal. Unlike other event planners I’ve worked with who are all angst and attitude, Kelly is perfection and poise personified. Kelly doesn’t just have her ducks in a row, she has them lining up in formation, spit-shined and reporting to her for duty. She is THAT squared away. And her events are THAT well-organized.

But Kelly plans events for a living. I don’t. Or okay, so I didn’t.

Then I began thinking about the similarities between event planning and project management. Both begin with an objective and share similar constraints in scope, budget, schedule, while identifying and mitigating risks and ensuring quality. In both Kelly’s work and mine, efficiency in terms of a healthy workflow is vital.

Kelly was among the first people I ran to for advice. “No matter how big or small a problem” she stressed, “focus on the details.” It was paramount that the details in planning Kaizen Camps concurrently didn’t fall through the cracks. Or the time zones, which in my case is perhaps equally apropos. I didn’t want a task I saw as vital and Jim deemed minutiae to result in conflicting priorities for the team. I didn’t want to wait for our weekly team check-in via Skype to learn that efforts were being duplicated, or that a certain task was proving challenging, or that volunteers were overwhelmed by their workload, or that waiting for input from Jim or me was creating a bottleneck. Transparency into priorities, status, decisionmaking, and issues had to be in real-time. In all time-zones. WIP limits needed to be adaptable. LeanKit provides us all the functionality a project manager – or an event planner – could ever ask for.

Having thrown three Kaizen Camps so far, I had a relatively simple value stream in mind for all venues, and customized all of the boards to reflect that:

ToDo -> Priority 2 -> Priority 1 -> Doing -> The Pen -> Done

I color coordinated the card types: logistics, research, marketing, website, sponsorship, etc. so that even at a glance, users would know what types of tasks we were making the most progress on, which tasks needed help, and areas where our process could benefit from improvement (kaizen). I am able to incorporate icons as visual cues (see the orange “Design/Order KC Biz Cards” task) to denote a priority has been elevated to critical (see pink exclamation point), or that a task has been blocked and its progress is contingent upon outside action (see the red X). I can even add a due date for tasks that are time sensitive (see the orange calendar page “5” on the orange “Plan 9/15 Tweet/SM Strategy).
Kaizen Camp event planning LeanKit Board
I keep several event boards open during the course of the day (see my Tabs). I especially appreciate how LeanKit allows me to choose different color palettes for each board so that when I switch between kanban I can easily distinguish between the venue.

If recent email traffic is any indication, it’s looking as if I’ll have to wait another six months to finally create that much anticipated out-of-office memo. We’re getting ready to add a board to our Kaizen Camp portfolio and another timezone to our logistics planning. I can’t promise that we’ll have chocolate chip cookies at the event in Ho Chi Minh City (sorry, Jim), but there’s no doubt in my mind LeanKit will continue to give the Kaizen Camp planning team peace of mind by enabling us to work smart, share information, improve our processes remotely, respect each other’s work load, and have fun collaborating.

After all, isn‘t that what the future of work is about anyway?

Tonianne DeMaria Barry

Tonianne is an author, systems thinker, photographer and historian. She looks beyond obvious problems for social and systemic root causes. Along with her creative partner, Jim Benson, she's author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (recipient of the Shingo Research & Publication Award), and Why Kanban Works. Connect with her via Twitter.