How Kanban Supports High-Value Team Collaboration

In business, collaboration is everywhere. More and more companies are breaking down their silos and seeing the positive effects of working together, whether it’s between peers, among teams or across departments.

Despite its good intentions, not all team collaboration adds value. Without a few key principles to guide your conversations and decision making, it can be easy to stray into low-value territory. Kanban can help you stay focused on team collaboration that matters.

Shift Your View to Systems Thinking

As a systems thinking methodology, Kanban calls for a shift in how teams view their work. Instead of emphasizing individual contributions, Kanban encourages a “team sport” approach. In basketball, for example, the team’s goal for each possession is to score a basket. If the team doesn’t score before losing possession, it doesn’t matter how well individual team members dribble, pass, or rebound. It only matters when the team scores.

Similarly, teams in the workplace achieve the most value when they “score” as a system, rather than as individuals. Success becomes more about finishing work that’s related to team priorities and company objectives and less about how much work you have going on at any one time. In Kanban, the team takes collective responsibility for the team’s priorities. Seeing your team’s work as a system — and not a collection of individual tasks — naturally develops more collaborative opportunities.

5 Kanban Principles that Encourage High-Value Team Collaboration

1. Kanban allows your team to discuss, define, and modify its own workflow.

Unlike prescriptive work methodologies, Kanban gives you the freedom to map your own workflow. To do this, the team must discuss its process, gathering together to agree on how the works gets done and then mapping the workflow on a Kanban board.

Talking about how work flows through your process triggers high-value conversations that reveal not only the hidden intricacies of your work, but also how each team member works and thinks. Once you’ve identified your process, the team can openly discuss how work flows — and where work gets stuck — to help pinpoint how to improve workflow, cycle time, and throughput. Teams that come together for the process of mapping their workflow have a much better understanding of the nature of their work, allowing them to execute handoffs and navigate queues more smoothly.

Team Collaboration: Define your work with Kanban Boards - LeanKit

Making the work visible instantly leads to increased clarity and collaboration.

2. The visibility of Kanban boards gives you more information with less disruption.

The Kanban board and cards represent a shared visual language that team members and stakeholders can use to quickly communicate high-value information in a way that is frictionless and transparent. When issues arise, you can involve the people who are part of the problem, and let the rest of your team continue to work. Striking the right balance between targeted and mass communication will help you bring the right people into the right conversations at the right time.

Having all of these visual details displayed in a single place also minimizes the time spent tracking down progress reports or sitting in status update meetings. As a result, you can reduce the time spent in low-value meetings, empower team members to get information without always involving others, and ensure that when the team does meet (such as during daily standups), the conversation is of high value. Making the work visible — along with blockers, bottlenecks, and queues — instantly leads to increased clarity and collaboration.

Identifying Bottlenecks Helps Teams Work Together Better - LeanKit

The number of cards in the Develop:Ready lane indicates a bottleneck in the workflow, helping the team know where to focus its efforts.

3. Kanban empowers teams to talk about flow and address problems as they’re happening.

Many organizational structures position management with the lionshare of responsibility to identify and communicate issues. Contrast that with Kanban, where — with the aid of Kanban boards — team members are empowered to see the issues and bottlenecks for themselves. This regularly allows for rich conversations to take place between management and team members about how the work flows: What’s moving? What’s not moving and why? What needs to happen so work will start moving again? This helps the team remain focused on its priorities and eliminates misunderstandings and confusion.

Team engagement around a Kanban board facilitates standups and retrospectives of higher value. When implemented effectively, standups and retrospectives are powerful tools for teams that seek transparency and open collaboration. Without targeted discussion, however, standups can morph into what’s-on-my-schedule recitations, and retrospectives can turn into personnel critiques. Kanban boards can help focus discussions in a more meaningful way to solve problems and progress work to done.

4. Kanban operates as a pull system to facilitate the prioritization of work and work-in-process (WIP) limits.

Kanban seeks to “pull” rather than “push” work through your process, limiting the amount of work based on capacity to help work flow smoothly across the board at an optimal rate. A push system imposes work on team members — and if too much is forced onto the system clogs it up and slows everything down (and often makes for poor quality, too). In a pull system, work can be prioritized in the backlog and then pulled according to priority. Managers still get to direct the work that needs to be done, and the team knows what to pull next.

If you shift your mindset to think as a system rather than an individual contributor, the effect of pulling new work and having WIP limits encourages you to think of the impact that new work will have on the rest of the team. With Kanban, teams are better able to understand what everyone’s working on and the downstream effects of introducing more work, especially when the system is at or past capacity. By default, this requires more conversation. Someone who wants to pull new work onto the board needs to talk to everyone who will be involved, so that all team members can commit to completing the work before it’s started.

Systems Thinking with Kanban Boards - LeanKit

A sample Kanban board

To address the bottleneck in the Develop:Ready lane — and to prevent an excess of work from flowing into Develop:In Process before there’s capacity to take the work — the team implements a WIP Limit of three (3) in Plan and two (2) in Develop: Ready.

5. Kanban supports a culture of continuous improvement.

Kanban is an evolution, not a revolution. When you understand the why and how of your process, your team can begin to make small but continuous improvements. Managing your work via a Kanban system gives you the tools to measure flow — and the levers to pull — so the team can improve its processes and effectiveness.

One example of collaborative improvement is when the team modifies its board layout after observing a need for additional queues or steps in their process. Other process improvements can be prompted by analyzing the metrics gleaned from a Kanban board, discussing what they reveal about the team’s efficiency, and identifying opportunities for incremental improvement in areas such as cycle time, flow, throughput, and more. At every step, Kanban encourages the team to evolve gradually and collaboratively.

Engage Your Team Members with Kanban

When it comes to understanding how team collaboration relates to Kanban, it’s a symbiotic relationship. Kanban makes you collaborate better, and team collaboration makes you better at Kanban.

High-value collaboration, however, isn’t automatic. It takes a conscious effort from the entire team to make it successful. Kanban not only helps team members understand their individual contribution in the context of the system as a whole, but it also provides an underlying approach that guides the team in finding ways to work together more effectively.

You can’t take the human element out of team collaboration — and Kanban doesn’t try to. In team-based work, our interactions are often infused with misunderstandings, miscommunication, and competing priorities. Kanban seeks to overcome this by openly engaging team members in ways that helps everyone feel informed and accountable.

[Free eBook] Kanban Roadmap: How to Get Started in 5 Steps

Interested in trying Kanban with your team? Each step in the Kanban Roadmap includes a team activity, real-world examples and helpful tips for team members and team leaders alike. Download your free copy of the Kanban Roadmap: How to Get Started in 5 Steps eBook to learn more about how to practice Kanban with your team.

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