How to Manage Tasks Using Japanese Kanban Technique

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Whether you’re working as part of a large team, or simply trying to handle a multitude of tasks by yourself, it’s easy for a host of smaller jobs to morph into one unassailable task. If that sounds familiar, try introducing Kanban into your workflow to see whether it lightens the load.

By breaking jobs down step-by-step and laying them out visually, Kanban helps people understand the progress that they’re making and establish where there’s room for improvement. Despite having its roots in automobile manufacturing, the core concepts behind this strategy can be applied to a broad range of working environments.

It’s relatively easy to set up, and could have a marked positive effect on your day-to-day working life. Use this guide to set up your schedule and start implementing Kanban.

What is Kanban?

Kanban is a business practices that was established in the 1940s by Taiichi Ohno, who was an industrial engineer attempting to streamline the daily workflow at Japanese automotive giant Toyota. Looking at the thought process behind the restocking of shelves in supermarkets, Ohno developed a method of using a linear process with clearly defined limits to control the effect of productivity bottlenecks.

The basic setup of a Kanban schedule divides the given process into its component steps. Individual tasks — typically represented by Post-it notes or a digital equivalent — move from left to right through columns that are labelled with the name of each step and a number.

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This number, determined by the scheduler, represents the amount of tasks that the team or individual responsible for that stage of production, can handle at any given time. Tasks in each column are separated into two groups; in progress, or complete. When a task is complete, the next stage of production can claim it and move it into the next column — but only if there’s sufficient capacity to do so.

A public Kanban board gives your entire team an overview of the project from start to finish, rather than having their awareness of workflow pigeon-holed to their own stage of production. From a managerial perspective, this can help allocate staff to where they’re needed most, but it also helps individuals determine where assistance is required on a more informal, ongoing basis.

Setting up a Kanban Scheduler Using Trello

If you’re just getting started with Kanban — and particularly if you’re introducing it to a group unfamiliar with the concept — it’s best to make sure that the tools you’re using are as simple and approachable as possible. While it does suffer from certain limitations that might put off Kanban purists, project management and more tool Trello is a great pick for getting things off the ground.

To get started, register for a Trello account. Once that’s done, create a new board and start creating lists. Each list will represent one column of your Kanban workflow, so name each after a stage in the process that you’re overseeing. For my example, I’ve used the various steps toward creating and publishing an article, but these can be swapped out for any project you might be working on.

kanban trello

The key is those all-important numbers in each column’s header. Feel free to put in placeholders to begin with and tweak them as you get a feel for your process — it’s likely that you won’t really know how much can flow through each stage of the project at any one time until you’ve worked with Kanban for a little while, particularly if you’re using the strategy as part of a team.

Once these are in place, you can create cards that represent individual tasks, which will then be transferred from one list to another as appropriate. It’s crucial that anyone using the board keeps these cards organized, and sticks to the numbers stipulated for each stage of the process.

However, for the system to work as intended, there needs to be a method of distinguishing tasks that have completed a particular stage of the process from those that are still in progress. On Trello, labels are the simplest way to keep track of this; I’ve used a green label to signify that a task is ready for the next stage, and a yellow one to signal that it’s still being worked on — make sure only one label is applied to any given card to avoid confusion.

trello in action

Above, you can see my example Trello board in action — notice that the task in the Writing column hasn’t yet been moved across, as there’s no more capacity at the Editing stage. When another of the yellow labelled tasks is completed and re-labelled accordingly, that task will then be moved across and have its status amended.

Using Kanban as a Team

Although it can be used on an individual basis, the original implementation of Kanban was as a method of ensuring groups could work as a cohesive unit. It might sound like well-worn advice, but communication and teamwork are two of the most important facets of making this strategy a success in your workplace.

Most digital means of executing a Kanban workflow, including Trello, feature some method of leaving comments or messages for other users. While overuse can result in a sea of white noise, it’s important that workers throughout the process take full advantage of the communication tools these platforms offer.

trello comment

This feeds in to the crucial importance of teamwork. The crux of the Kanban system is that it gives anyone looking at the schedule an immediate idea of where a bottleneck is forming. This is where it pays to have colleagues that work in multiple disciplines; if one stage of the process is slowing up production, reassign some of your team to help out.

Depending on how your workplace is laid out, the best way to relay this information may well be via an instant messaging client. Slack is a powerful tool for any office, and is even better when outfitted with bots that can automate certain processes.

Using Kanban as an Individual

Using Kanban while you’re flying solo has a reflective quality as well as helping you prevent any major bottlenecks in your workflow. Rather than focusing on where your resources are being rolled out as you might with a group, you should instead be looking at which stages of your work tend to slow down the overall process.

One advantage of working with Kanban by yourself is that you’re not constrained by a digital scheduler — these options are great when you’re working collaboratively, but the convenience of a physical schedule might win out if you’re the only one who needs access.

notebook kanban

Using a combination of a notebook and some Post-it notes — or even a pinboard that you can place on the wall of your office for easy reference — removes any technical complications from the principles of Kanban. It’s not for everyone, but a pen-and-paper solution is sometimes preferable for simplicity’s sake.

Other Kanban Tools

Trello is a good way of getting a basic Kanban process up and running, but you might want to branch out once you’ve found your footing. Leankit is one such solution that offers a 30-day free trial, and specializes in supporting Kanban methodology as well as other strategies like the ever popular Scrum technique.

Kanban-specific options are also out there. Kanbanery offers a smart UI with very little to distract from your work, with free plans available to teams with less than two members, charitable organizations or open-source projects. Meanwhile, KanbanFlow offers comprehensive mobile tools and powerful Pomodoro integration to enhance a very strong core product.

Have you had success implementing Kanban in your workplace? Are you just learning about the strategy for the first time and have more questions? Share your experiences and your queries in the comments section below.

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