Good Business Intelligence professionals understand the value of thinking creatively about data. Sales data, customer data, and transaction data are classic examples of rich data sources in your organization, just waiting to be unlocked. But have you ever thought about applying BI to your project management?

Kanban is a project scheduling philosophy that applies a novel but incredibly simple visualization to your team’s day-to-day work. Initially developed at Toyota to improve car assembly line processes, Kanban has become popular in other disciplines over the years, including software development. While not strictly a BI process, the fundamental tenets of Kanban should come easily to those familiar with the discipline of BI.

What Kanban looks like

IntotoKanban

In typical Kanban practice, the basic approach is to visually map out a team’s work on a big physical board (often a whiteboard).

While a physical board is considered ideal, electronic boards can also work very well in my experience. TFS supports Kanban tracking natively and can be integrated into your existing work flow, and a great cloud-based solution I love is KanbanFlow. It provides a free license tier ideal for personal use along with a premium tier for enterprise use, which unlocks additional features.

Divide your Kanban board into columns, each representing a particular stage of a team’s workflow – this could be as simple as a “to-do” column, an “in-progress” column and a “finished” column, though most teams find there are more stages to include. Tasks are first added to the farthest left column, and, as work moves forward, each task is moved to the next column until it reaches completion.

The four core principles of Kanban
Kanban is a descriptive methodology–not prescriptive. It doesn’t tell you how to do your work the way that other methodologies such as Scrum do. Instead, Kanban is focused on flow—ensuring that work is moving forward consistently and efficiently. Instead of structures and processes, Kanban gives you four core principles. By design, every team uses Kanban differently, working toward the most efficient flow for their process.

  • Core principle 1: Visualize YOUR workflow

To start using Kanban, you must accurately model what your process actually looks like now. Be honest and open; start with where you are at (warts and all), and assign one column on your Kanban board to each stage of your workflow.

This visualization has an immediate benefits of making your workflow visible to everyone in the team. The purpose here is to allow everybody to see what everyone else is working on. This lets team members identify where strengths and opportunities in the workflow lie.

  • Core principle 2: Pull work from column to column

Kanban is a self-organizing, “bottom up” approach to workflow management. There are immediate benefits for managers and PMs looking at the big picture, but the idea is that, for the team to be successful, everyone drives the workflow forward.

The way this works is pretty simple. First, work always (and only) moves left to right – from an initial starting point to “finished.” When you are unsure what to do, look left and right at other columns to see where you can help with moving work forward.

  • Core principle 3: Limit work in progress

This third step is considered Kanban’s most “advanced” technique, and I’ll discuss it only briefly.

Setting a limit on the amount of work in progress helps maintain an even “flow” of work within the team. By limiting the number of allowed tasks in each column, you focus the team on identifying and resolving bottlenecks.

Here’s an example: your developers are pumping out code, but it piles up in your testing phase. You’ve now identified a bottleneck in your flow of work; perhaps the team could add a dedicated tester, or refocus some developer time.

  • Core principle 4: Monitor, adapt, improve

Kanban itself is never “done.” If something isn’t working for your team, change it. If someone has an idea, try it for a couple weeks and see how it works. Iteratively improve your process, gradually getting better and better.

That’s it!

A key benefit of Kanban is its simplicity. With just the simple background I’ve given you, you can already implement Kanban. If you’re interested in learning more, check out Northwest Cadence’s excellent Microsoft Virtual Academy session Using Kanban Jump Start.

If you’d like to try Kanban but don’t know where to start, sign up for a free account at Kanbanflow and try using it for your personal project management. Once you’ve got the basics under your belt, you can start scaling up with the rest of your team.