Lean Office

Trying Out My Agile Kanban Board

By Jon Miller Updated on May 19th, 2017

One of the biggest challenges of doing kaizen in office work is to make the work itself visible so that waste can be clearly identified. Much of the time spent in office work is finding files or information, switching between tasks, finding one’s place after an interruption, or deciding what to do next in the face of too much WIP. None of that is true work. We could argue that it is waste. The software development community has taken the idea of using kanban to limit WIP in an interesting direction. I am still a bit at a loss as to what to call the kanban boards used in Agile and other software development environments, since to me kanban has so much other meaning. Until instructed otherwise by a more senior member of the community, i will call them Agile kanban.

Inspired by the examples I’ve found on the internet, and perennially challenged by a task board that is full and growing, I decided to give Agile kanban a try. I have a nice 48 inch wide magnetic whiteboard which until today was just used to write down tasks, attach documents by magnet, and otherwise manage my WIP. The only rules were that I would add things to the board and look at it each day. Being large and heavy, it doesn’t travel well so when on the road the key items for the week go with me in my Moleskine. Inevitably, the list in the Moleskine grows rather than shrinks by the end of the trip.
I bought and cut up dry erase tiles, 12 inch x 12 inch, available in a 2 pack fo r$12.99. On the foam backing I attached business card-sized adhesive magnets. This freed me from paper, and also gave me the ability to move these tiles around on the board as needed simply by picking them up and attaching them magnetically within another column.

This is a brand new experiment so the basic idea is to limit WIP. My inbox was already full to bursting, so before anything further is added to my to-do list, I will need to move them towards the right into “work in progress” or to “delegated”. When things are done, they will come off of the board and the tile will be erased for reuse. It’s also clear at a glance that I am not delegating enough, and this is a combination of improvements needed in communication with the team, making sure people have the skills needed to take tasks off of my board, and making a habit to follow up each day. The blue arrow on the top right of the board is a reminder for me to start each day by following up and / or delegating items to others, and then proceed to the “waiting for” section to see if I can get anything unstuck and off of the board, then onto the actual work of the day. When there is a gap above the blue line, another task can be added. I am permitting myself to multi-task between 3 projects at any one time at this point.

The diagonal lines are there mostly to prevent me from cheating and adding more tiles to that space, and for now also show the “started / completed” dates to give an idea of how long something has been in work. The items below the blue line represent quick “do today” items and we will have to see how many are allowed there each day. Not everything will make it to this board, since making telephone calls or answering questions are not development tasks that belong on an Agile kanban board.

Open questions and remaining issues to be resolved in using this new Agile kanban board:

Defining the unit of work. Since this is brand new I did not make an attempt to categorize items by size or complexity. They are certainly not all equal. A few slow movers could prevent smaller projects from getting done, and this is real life. Hopefully this visualization will help projects move along quicker and the unit of work question will be less important. It’s just blue electrical tape so if changes are needed to this board to accommodate separate streams by size of task, it will be easy.

Defining the limit of WIP. The limit set currently is arbitrary. This will have to be tested. WIP of one seems unreasonable due to the interrelationship between projects and the anecdotal benefit of capturing ideas and using the learning in one development project in another. This requires switching between projects and some loss of time, but I think this loss is the price of learning.

Measurement of performance. I have no good benchmark of personal productivity in the development area. This is something I will need to develop and tie to the volume and speed at which these tiles are being turned, or flowed through the Agile kanban process.

I haven’t done a lot of reading on this and though it was best to try it since I’m guessing that the development work I do differs quite a bit from software development. If you are a a veteran at agile kanban compared to me, please let me know if you have any hints or key points to making this work.

  1. David J Anderson

    June 19, 2009 - 1:22 pm

    Jon, Love this post. Thanks for sharing with us all.
    I agree with you, we are all struggling with what to call these boards. They don’t match any existing manufacturing precedent as far as I know.
    Also you are correct not to limit WIP to 1. You need to spread your risk by having more than one item in progress and allocate your time across them. While this is suboptimal from a cycle time perspective, it is probably more optimal from a system perspective because it allows you to manage risk better.
    You might try classifying your work:
    Strategic/long term
    Medium term/revenue generating
    Short term/tactical/intangible value
    then having a kanban limit for each of those categories. If the overall limit is 3 then you would have a limit of 1 for each category.
    You would also set separate cycle time expectations for each category.

  2. Jon Miller

    June 19, 2009 - 1:55 pm

    Thanks David. That’s great advice. I will give it a try.

  3. John Santomer

    June 19, 2009 - 11:25 pm

    Wonderful post! It is a very visual tool in tracking work progress Jon. You mentioned also tracking start and completion dates, suggest to put on top of cut up dry erase tiles for each work entry S:(start date) and at bottom C:(targetted completion date). This way you have “tahseen” for the blue tapes and have the important dates moving with the tiles as it transfers from column to column. Also, it would free more space on the board clearing clutter and making things easier to track. While computing for work completion you can also base from the dates on each tile by just glancing on each entries and checking what is the current date you are viewing the entries on the “Agile Kanban” Board. “Waiting for” column can be titled “PENDING”, at its right side will be “CAUSES” of delay. Further right “Delegated” column would probably be better containing the intitals of the person to who the task has been delegated and to its right, “Follow-up” would probably useful to contain the follow-thru date on the delegated person of the task. Once the date has been reached means the WIP need to be adjusted back to the correct column to the left again if not yet complete or marked completed if already done. I wonder, why you don’t have a column for completed tasks? And if you have, how long do you need to keep completed tasks in the, let’s say; “FINISH” column? I hope these are good suggestions. If there are things that need more details of addressing – a change of tape colour could address that or tile background with corresponding legends to mark its meaning for ease of comprehension just by looking at the board would greatly increase functionality of each unit in the board.

  4. Yuji Ota

    June 20, 2009 - 6:40 am

    In our Kaizen activity promotion in my company, we call this kind of Board “Task Board”. Normally most of our boards has calender type structure and emphasize on “how we can find problems ‘delay, not start yet, too much tasks for 1 person” in each task”. Of course this is to find the Kaizen point.
    Yuji Ota
    Fujitsu Japan

  5. David Moles

    June 22, 2009 - 1:25 am

    Awesome, Jon. I’m just starting week five as an Agile lead and week four of using a kanban board (inspired by Mr. Anderson’s talk in Antwerp a year and a half ago!). Wrestling with much the same issues w.r.t task size and scope. And I suspect there’s still a lot of work — or apparent work — that isn’t being captured yet because I / the team aren’t used to thinking of it as “tasks”.
    Also, limiting WIP is clearly going to take some education, as several of my team members don’t seem to be happy unless they’re working on four things at once. I’m hoping they figure out it’s in their best interest, too.

  6. sharma

    June 22, 2009 - 2:29 am

    Dear Jon,
    Excellent work.
    I think this same board(with 5 baskets) can be used for sales lead performance tracking which I have made some time ago having columns :
    | | | |
    | | | |
    | | | |
    As, soon as we start with a new prospect we allot one coloured plastic cube with the name of the prospect and date in huge fonts, visible from a distance.
    Different colours are alloted to different salespersons.
    The plastic cube keeps proceeding as per the sales stages mentioned above.
    Also, there are wait areas in each basket(mostly wait is due to customer’s delayed decision making).
    This helps us set the pace of sales call targets of our sales force, not very fast not very slow.
    At the same time withing seconds everyone knows the status of each prospects and the performance of each salesperson.
    In this way we have tried “FLOW WHERE YOU CAN, PULL WHERE YOU MUST”.

  7. Roy B. Vance

    June 22, 2009 - 8:28 am

    Jon – great way to make office work more visual. Limits are very hard to set. Our work group of four “vote” on the limits to keep everyone involved and supplying input.
    We use magnetic backed plastic envelopes (from U-line S-3831 2×3.25 / S3832 3×5 on our visual boards) for kanbans. Great way to re-use the posting.
    Keep up the good work.

  8. Jon Miller

    June 22, 2009 - 4:32 pm

    Hi Sharma,
    I know exactly what you are talking about. We have a sales pipeline board very similar to what you describe. One of these days I will make a post with photos about that board also.

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