If an enterprise can't fix workflow, what if a Kanban can?

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright August 6, 2017
Already popular in DevOps and lean manufacturing, Kanban is now seeping into other enterprise functions where it can help fix workflow in distributed teams

Angled view of Kanban board with colored stickers © karashaev - Fotolia.com
What's the best way of tracking work progress in tightly-knit distributed teams in the digital enterprise? Increasingly, the answer is Kanban, first adopted as part of lean and just-in-time manufacturing practices in Japanese factories in the 1960s, but now extending into software development, call centers and many other functions across the enterprise.

As Denis Pombriant wrote on Friday, Salesforce has added Kanban into its Sales Cloud and Service Cloud products, for use in tracking sales or support issues, due to its track record for managing production processes:

Kanban is a method of managing work and workflow through visual input rather than words and it has been highly successful in helping production managers get a sense of work in queue and that in process.

As I discovered a few months ago at SuiteWorld, there's a Kanban add-on for NetSuite too. Swedish company AlterView has developed an app that applies Kanban to project task management, support cases, and various sales processes. The idea for the app came out of work done with a leading Swedish manufacturer to apply Kanban principles to projects being managed in NetSuite.

Many people who work in DevOps environments will also be familiar with Kanban. It's a popular choice for managing tasks within a continuous delivery environment, as I learned from Julian Dunn, Product Manager at DevOps toolmaker Chef. It's an important part of how Chef's DevOps teams collaborate to produce its software:

Kanban [is] a technique borrowed from just-in-time manufacturing to manage the flow of work through a development team. Because it breaks down work into atomic tasks, Kanban is better suited to a continuous delivery approach than the scrum methodology where developers work in fixed-length sprints, typically of two weeks, to deliver a set of tasks at the end of the sprint ...

A Kanban approach in particular forces transparency and collaboration because each individual work item forms part of a larger project and therefore must be visible to others who have an interest in its progress.

Manage the flow of work

Kanban is particularly useful for showing the fit between the resources available and the work that needs to be done. While CIO at Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, Fin Goulding introduced Kanban as part of a lean approach to DevOps, replacing the existing scrum style of agile development. He explains the role of Kanban in helping to decide what to work on next:

Development teams use Kanban predominantly and they use it because it demonstrates WIP [work-in-progress] limits as we call it — if you’ve only got five people, they can only do five things. If you’ve got 100 things on the lean wall, you only need to bring five in for the development teams.

Chef's Dunn also cited Kanban's role in managing the flow of work. Instead of piling up a backlog of tasks that can't be dealt with — a problem that's common in scrum — a new Kanban card is only moved into the 'to do' list when there are resources available to take it on:

The work tickets that Chef creates in Jira today are effectively Kanban cards that define the tasks each team will work on. But they’re no longer created ahead of time, to avoid building up a backlog of unused items. Instead, the business context is defined first so that when a work item is created, the team understands where it fits into the bigger picture.

In his article on Friday, Denis Pombriant describes how a Kanban system applies to support tickets in a customer service environment. Again, it's all about allocating resources in an efficient and transparent manner:

In a Kanban based support process, cases would be color-coded and move from buckets labeled pending, in process and complete. The colors might represent a type of service issue and rather than having a system send work instances to agents, they might pick them based on expertise. So for instance, a rep whose specialty is yellow incidents might preferentially take cases represented in yellow. When no yellow cases are available that rep could fall back to a secondary specialization.

This sounds deceptively simple but it works to put the best asset on a specific case and assets and needs are brought together they ought to improve job and customer satisfaction. It might make metrics and analytics look better as well.

The self-service aspect is an important aspect of Kanban, which was originally inspired by the notion of applying aspects of the supermarket retail model to the manufacturing process. In the same way that supermarket shoppers pick groceries off the shelf instead of waiting for someone to serve them, available workers or teams pick tasks off a Kanban board. And while the original Kanban boards were physical boards on a factory floor, of course in today's digital enterprise, those boards become virtual, and can be seen and shared by distributed team members wherever they happen to be.

These characteristics have been a big part of the appeal of Kanban for agile and DevOps teams. As Jay Simons, president of developer tools vendor Atlassian, told me in a conversation earlier this year, it's part of the philosophy of transparency these teams need to practise:

Software teams actually need to work together with a different degree of openness than I think most other teams are accustomed to. The practice of agility and being more iterative is accompanied by the practice of openness ... everything that they’re iterating on together, they’re doing as a group. And so they start with this principle of everything is available with all of us.

My take

This self-service transparency is why Kanban is going to become more and more prevalent in the digital enterprise. Kanban is a tool that's uniquely suited for supporting agile, iterative work patterns in distributed, highly collaborative teams. This is what the future of work looks like.

It may not always be recogizable as Kanban — Trello, the task management app that Atlassian acquired early this year, provides a perfect framework for setting up a simple Kanban system (here's a good overview of how one developer uses it), but many who will do so won't realize that's what they've done. In other cases, especially when using formal Kanban structures set up in Atlassian Jira, Salesforce Service Cloud or some other platform, it will be quite deliberate.

In a world where we all have to work more closely together, producing rapid results that are highly responsive to changing conditions, the simple methodology of Kanban provides an effective mechanism for managing the ecosystem of work.

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