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Kanban Method of Project Management

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Author: Palak Kumar

Kanban Method of Project Management

Organizations typically get improvement work done through projects. Each project has a definite start and stop and employees within a company may be working on dozens on projects to accomplish company goals and objectives. The problem occurs when employees are overwhelmed with multiple projects each at different stage of execution. If this is not managed properly, then as new projects enter the system and they get lost in the process and take a long time to exit the system while customers are impatiently waiting for their results. There is no defined time that the project is expected to be completed as it may be stuck behind other projects that are currently active. How then do we manage projects to ensure a predictable level of performance for the company and its customers?

If you are facing the same issue of working on dozens of projects at the same time and you keep starting projects but are unable to finish it, then you are in the right place. In this article, we will learn the Kanban method of visual project management. The Kanban will help you manage your projects in an orderly fashion and deliver the work on time.

The Kanban method accomplishes the goals by introducing constraints into the process to optimize the flow of work. The Kanban method helps to manage the workflow continuously without overburdening the team therefore productivity and efficiency are higher. Since the team is not constantly being overburdened with too many projects, the number of defects is lower and hence the quality of the projects also improve.

How to deploy Kanban Method

Use the following steps to deploy the Kanban method of visual project management. It consists of the following six steps: VPM Figure 1
  • Visualize workflow – the visualization of the workflow is the most important part. This can be done using a Kanban board or an excel sheet where each column represents a step in the workflow and each card represents the work to be done. Every item or project must move from the start to end (typically from left to right). This allows you to track progress and identify roadblocks in a timely fashion. By making things visual, everyone on the team can easily understand the status of the different projects and help if necessary, to remove roadblocks. An example Kanban board is shown in the figure below. From the figure below, we can get a quick idea on how many projects are currently in progress, how many are completed etc. For your own projects, you can determine what the appropriate column headings need to be. For example, it could be Pending Orders, Orders Placed, Orders Being Manufactured, Orders Being Shipped, Completed Orders. Try to limit the number of categories to keep things manageable. In the example below, there are 2 projects in the backlog, 2 projects in the to-do category, 3 projects in progress and 1 completed project. VPM Figure 2
  • Limit Work in Progress (WIP) –WIP denotes projects that are currently being executed and have not been completed. If a person is working on only one project at a time, his/her efficiency would be lower since if they are stuck on the project because of a machine breakdown, lack of supplies or any other reason, they would be waiting for information and thus will be unproductive. However, if they are working on multiple projects, they can quickly start working on a different project in case they are waiting for some information on one project. However, if they are working on too many projects, they will lose focus and things can get stuck in the inventory for a long time. The long lead-times and the uncertainty of when projects will be completed leads to dissatisfied customers. Hence, it is very important that we correctly estimate the WIP limits for each step in the process. The WIP limits is based on how long each activity is expected to take, how many people are working in that step of the process, available working time, expected re-work or other problems that are expected in that work step. The term Kanban stands for a signal or a sign to make more. The WIP limit that is established is the sign we are talking about. If the number of items or projects in a step reaches the WIP limit, then the previous step in the process will stop making more items and put new projects into the WIP queue. For example, if the maximum number of items in Step 3 is 3 and currently Step 3 is working on 3 projects, then Step 2 will not introduce more work into Step 3 since the WIP limits have been reached. Once an item has been completed from Step 3 and moves to Step 4, a new project is picked from Step 2 and introduced into Step 3. The WIP limit for each step of the process can be calculated by Little’s Law which states that the WIP should be average Lead Time for each project times the exit rate. For example, if we want roughly 1 project to exit the pipeline every month and the lead-time to complete the activities is 3 weeks, then the WIP inventory should be roughly 1 * 3 = 3 projects. VPM Figure 3
  • Manage flow – Every task is moved across as it progresses. This way we can keep a track of which tasks have been completed and which are still pending. The Work in Progress Limits, for example 2 and 3 shown in the picture above, helps us align customer demand with the team's capacity. Therefore, the work does not pile up and the team concentrates on finishing the current work before taking up new work.

    Problem areas can be identified by analysing the workflow patterns and efficiency of flow. Kanban creates a smooth workflow by improving the lead times and avoiding delays. Ideally, work should be done on a First-In First-Out (FIFO) process. We can monitor the time it takes for each work element by writing down the start time and end time on the project Kanban card. The difference between the end time and the start time for each activity gives us the lead-time for that activity. Each project will probably have different lead-times to complete. So, we can determine the average lead-time for that activity and compute the lead-times in the best case and worst-case conditions.

    This data can then be analysed to identify if the actual time to complete the work is comparable to the expected time to complete the work for each step in the process. This information can be used to identify improvement opportunities and to design the ideal WIP limits for each step in the process. If the lead-times are large, improvement projects can be launched to identify the root causes and provide fixes. The improvements in lead-times could happen either through eliminating non-value-added activities in that step or using concepts such as workload balancing to redistribute the workload to other steps in the process in order to reduce the lead-time for the critical steps.

    VPM Figure 4
  • Make process policies explicit – The process should be clearly explained and confirmed by everyone in the team. All the employees should follow the defined process for working using the Kanban boards. Especially, no work will be started until there is a clear signal from up-stream in the process that the work has been completed and the remaining WIP is within the specified limits. Employees should be trained on working in a First-In-First-Out manger (FIFO). The quality at the source is also important to ensure so that the work flows linearly from left to right. If a previous step makes defects and passes it on to the next step, then there may be problems since it will increase the lead-time for downstream steps or work may have to be sent back to an earlier step to fix the problems. Every employee should ensure that they do quality work and no defects are passed downstream. There may be exceptional cases where new work may need to be expedited for example if there is customer pressure or for important customers who have a higher priority. In such cases, clear rules and guidelines need to be established for how work needs to be handled for priority customers and regular customers.
  • Use feedback loops – Regular meetings are crucial to understand the issues with the current process and for improvements to occur. Feedback from the team is essential to improve workflow. If there are problems during execution, the employees need to be trained to raise the Andon signal to notify other team members and management of the problems faced so that corrective can be taken to address the current problem and preventive actions can be taken to ensure such problems do not recur in the future. A team dashboard can be established to monitor the quantity and types of issues being faced by the team and projects can be launched to attack persistent issues and problems.
  • Improve collaboratively – Kanban must have a constant evaluation, analysis, and improvement. Teams should have a complete understanding of the process to improve collaboratively. It is especially important to involve the team working on this to develop corrective actions since they are closest to the problem and will have the best information on hand to solve the issues encountered.

Why does the Kanban Method Work?

Scientific studies show that a picture is worth a thousand words as the brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text. 40% of all the nerve fibres connected to the brain are linked to the retina. Visual information is about 90% of the data that is registered by our brain, suggesting that our neurological pathways prefer pictures over text. Anything that is made visual is easier for the humans to understand and grasp better. The Kanban method harnesses the power of visual information and creates a picture of the work. Problems become more visible and hence the team can collectively address the problem areas and improve the overall performance and productivity of the process.

Advantages of Kanban Method

In traditional project management, detailed project plans may be created, and status updates may be shared periodically with the management team on a regular basis. However, problems stay hidden until the reports are shared. On the other hand, the visual Kanban method of project management has several benefits:
  • Work flows smoothly within the process
  • Improved efficiency of the workforce
  • Lower backlogs of work within the process
  • More predictable cycle times that you can commit to your customers
  • Improved communication between different steps of the process
  • Reduced defects since workforce is not under strain to handle excess workload

Reasons for Failure of Kanban Method

Here are a few reasons why the Kanban method may fail in real-world implementation. Make sure to watch out for them to have a successful deployment within your company.
  • Scope of Kanban Deployment: It is tempting to design a whole new work process while implementing Kanban but starting everything from zero can cause trouble. Sudden changes lead to stress and uncertainty. In addition, large scale changes may introduce new problems and risks into the process. Hence, when implementing Kanban within the organization consider current processes and ways of working and design the changes gradually by considering inputs from the organization to ensure proper buy-in and support.
  • Setting Proper Limits: Make sure that you are using the right historical data and the team’s capabilities to establish the WIP limits. If the limits are too low, then we lose the teams productivity and if it is too high it causes excessive strain on the workforce. Use factual data that is agreed with the team to set the appropriate limits and make sure that you use continuous improvement strategies to constantly look at the limits and improve them over time.
  • Not respecting WIP Limits: Another reason for the failure of Kanban is not respecting WIP limits that have been developed. If new work is introduced without respecting the WIP limits, this will lead to overload of work and add stress to the teams. It is very tempting to keep adding new projects to the team based on pressures faced from customers and managers. The project team leader must ensure that the sanctity of the WIP limits are always respected. If additional projects need to be worked on, the project leader will need to change the resource allocation or work additional hours to be able to handle increased workload.
  • Updating the Visual Information: If not enough attention and importance is given to the information on the visual boards, the information on the visual Kanban boards may not be updated and over a period of time will contain outdated information which will no longer be useful to maintain the projects. Make sure that the visual boards always contain current and accurate information. No projects should be launched outside what is displayed on the boards and all information on the boards must be accurately maintained.

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