When you’re first implementing Kanban, it’s easy to grasp the early and obvious benefits of visualizing your work: Benefits like maximizing your time, tracking progress more effectively, and communicating better often happen quickly. At some point, however, your team will hit a plateau -- a place where improvements slow or stop completely.
While it’s normal to feel frustrated by plateaus, you can push past them and keep improving with real, measurable results. At LeanKit, the documentation team traveled a similar journey. By using Kanban principles as our guide, we’ve solved several of our plateau challenges and have seen a 5x reduction in cycle time and a 3x increase in throughput.
Here are the steps we’ve taken to address the Kanban plateaus we’ve hit so far:
Decluttering the board
Switching from tasks to connections
Implementing WIP limits
Read on to learn how you can use these strategies to break through your own team’s plateaus, so you can quantifiably improve your process. You’ll also see how we evolved the design of our team’s kanban board with each step of our continuous improvement journey.
4 Ways We Improved Our Process
Decluttering the Board
The day-to-day responsibilities of the documentation team consist of writing and producing content -- revising, re-revising, and re-re-revising that content -- and finally publishing it before moving to the next project. Tracking the content creation process can be complicated, especially when multiple people from different teams are providing feedback.
When our team first began to mirror the steps in our process, we mimicked the draft, review, revision, and publication stages to keep track of our content, as shown with the board below. It worked well for awhile, but we soon learned we could do more to maximize the benefits we were getting from our tool and kanban principles.
With so many lanes on the board, it wasn’t immediately clear which stage a piece of work was in, and if it was ready for the next stage. Some teams find more clarity with more lanes, but it led to more confusion for us. While we had multiple review lanes, sometimes work had to go through more reviews than we had lanes on the board to represent. That work would have to cycle back through these lanes, so the overall progress of the work wasn’t immediately clear.
Because of our limiting board design, we also had to move cards to the appropriate lanes or assign them to the appropriate user when they were ready to move on to the next step. But with some cards still cycling through multiple review cycles, seeing which cards were ready to be pulled into the system was often difficult, even with users assigned to a card.
To solve these problems, we simplified our board, as shown below. Our hypothesis was that a board with fewer process lanes would declutter our view and improve our process.
We were right in one aspect: Reducing the lanes on our board made it easier to see where our work was in our process. However, much of our content needed to pass through the review stage multiple times, and cycling the same card through the same lanes over and over made tracking progress even more difficult. We needed a way to raise our level of visibility without complicating our board design again.
Switching from Tasks to Connections
Since many of our cards could be broken down into smaller steps or tasks, our natural conclusion was that we could represent many of our smaller work items on task boards within our cards. We assumed this would declutter our board even further, but using tasks actually created hidden work.
Task boards are meant to be used as a personal checklist for users assigned to a particular card. Because each person assigned to particular tasks was not necessarily assigned to the overall card -- and because the tasks were hidden inside of these cards -- we would often forget to move the tasks across the taskboard. As a result, it wasn’t immediately clear where a piece of work was in our process. Team members assigned to steps in the process wouldn’t always see or remember the tasks they were assigned to because they were hidden inside a card that the person wasn’t assigned to.
Since taskboards weren’t the answer for us, we needed to rethink how our work was represented. We wanted to be able to analyze how quickly small parts of our larger work items were moving through the system, and we didn’t want to keep losing track of our work. To reach those goals, we evolved from tasks and taskboards to card connections.
To use card connections, we represented our larger deliverables with a “deliverable” card type and our smaller deliverables with a “task” card type on our main board. We connected each card with a “task” card type to its own corresponding “deliverable” card. Cards under the “task” card type then represented each step associated with a card under the “deliverable” card type. As an added benefit, we started tracking the progress of these “task” card types with in-app analytics, most notably the speed report.
Simplifying our board in this way made our work even more visible and, even though we had more cards on our board, it was less cluttered than before, because work was moving faster.
Even though things were better, there was still a problem: We were pulling too much work into the system at a time. We were starting new work before old work could be finished, particularly before the review process was completed, which bogged down our review lane and created a bottleneck that stalled the whole system.
Implementing WIP Limits
Even though visualizing our work had significantly improved our process, we were still experiencing a major problem with work overwhelming our system. In trying to be fast and move forward with new projects consistently, we were constantly starting new projects before existing projects were completed. This led to bottlenecks that considerably slowed our workflow -- and occasionally completely blocked it.
In order to solve the problems caused by work flooding the system, we implemented Work in Process (WIP) limits on our “Doing” lanes. With only so many work items allowed in a lane at any one time, it forced us to stop starting and start finishing.
The review process also became easier for other team members (and those outside of our team) to find and track, because it was no longer over-crowded with work. Reviews began to move through the door quicker, and our whole workflow improved.
After decluttering our board, switching from tasks to connections, and implementing WIP limits, we were able to accurately measure our improvement using LeanKit’s in-app reporting features. We use the speed report (shown below) and flow reports to measure how our work had improved at multiple levels of our process. These in-app reports showed that we had a 5x reduction in cycle time, and a 3x increase in throughput.
We are now getting our work done faster than ever before, and it requires no more effort than it did previously: We just learned how to work smarter by visualizing our work.
Kanban Process Improvement: An Ongoing Journey
Even though we’ve considerably enhanced our process, it doesn’t mean we’re done: We’re always continuously improving. When something doesn’t seem to be working as well as it could be, we try new things to fix it. We’re also able to catch issues in workflow quicker by tracking work visually on our board using in-app reports.
If you’re stuck on where to focus your continuous improvement efforts, try talking through a few of these common starting points with your team:
change the board layout
add, remove, or retitle lanes
try a new WIP limit
edit card types or custom icons for clearer visualization
Whether you’re just getting started with continuous improvement, or you’ve been improving your process for quite some time, remember, perfection is not achievable or measurable: Just like our board, your board won’t ever be perfect. But we can all keep trying new things to constantly make the board better than before, because continuous improvement is what kanban is all about. Continuously moving toward a better visualization of your work will help you continuously improve your work process, so you can work faster and more efficiently.