Solving bottlenecks with the Kanban method
is this the first time you’re reading about the Kanban method? If it is, sit back and relax for a second – this can get pretty overwhelming fast. Using Kanban to manage your processes is pretty intuitive. Understanding how it works without the proper initial knowledge, however, can be confusing.
Don’t worry, though, that’s why I’m here for. I’ll take you by the hand and guide you through the basic information you need to understand it. Let’s make this an efficient effort so we’re not running going around in circles.
By the way, going around in circles is exactly the type of useless effort Kanban helps you avoid.
Let’s go back to the beginning. We’ll go over the fundamentals of the Kanban method so you can understand its impact on your process management. From then, we’ll explore the benefits of using it and how it can help avoid bottlenecks.
According to many references, Kanban is a practical way to organize the chaos that sometimes surrounds teams. It does that by making the need for prioritization and focus clear.
A Kanban system, therefore, aims to improve the efficiency of a team by making very clear what tasks should be prioritized within the team’s processes. It also helps reduce idle time by analyzing each process and making the best out of the process’ steps.
The actual Kanban method, in its textbook concept, can seem quite complex and challenging at first. If we study it according to its practical application, though, it becomes a lot easier.
By using a few of the principles of the “just-in-time” system (mastered by Toyota back in the day), Kanban offers a user-friendly approach to making long-term success possible.
Even though creating software or managing an office routine may seem very different from the processes Toyota follows when manufacturing vehicles, there are some general similarities that can be adopted as rules in order to make sure the effect is maximized.
The Kanban method
In simpler words, in a software development perspective, a feature request enters one side of the pipe and comes out the other as a working, improved piece of software that can be trusted and relied upon to “do the damage” it was requested to begin with.
The entire method is built upon making sure the journey through the pipe itself is simplified and made as time and resource effective as possible for everyone.
Typically, though, the Kanban method deals with the following prerequisites:
- There will be detailed and serious analysis of the requirements of the job;
- The development will be carried out to fit with the analysis;
- The outcome will be deeply tested (specially in software development) to ensure that it works just right.
Preventing/solving bottlenecks with the Kanban method
The next thing to consider is that, no matter how well planned some things are, sometimes they go wrong. When something goes wrong within the system it may cause the information flow to stall or even stop completely.
This what is known as a bottleneck. As the name states, bottlenecks constrain the way the work flows. It literally restricts the “passage in the pipeline”, slowing jobs down and diminishing their effectiveness. If you haven’t noticed yet, that’s a bad thing.
The Kanban method and its linear view of tasks allow bottlenecks to be quickly identified (cards start piling up at a phase) and dealt with. This helps minimize their impact in the effectiveness of the system. Finding out what or who is holding up the queue will ensure the natural flow can be restored asap.
For example, let’s say that your software development process is getting more ideas than it could possibly develop simultaneously. That’s creating a backlog.
If new features are only being analyzed and not developed/shipped, your customers will become unsatisfied. As a result, you’ll have less customers, profits will dry up and, eventually, your company will lose its value and relevancy. This is an extreme case, but believe me when I say: it does happen.
This is what the Kanban method aims to eliminate. The linear, transparent view helps make sure no one is taking shortcuts or leaving unfinished jobs behind. Kanban allows you to look at how the bottleneck was formed to begin with. With that perspective you can work around it to restore the flow in a streamlined, consistent flow.
Finding/solving bottlenecks with Kanban
The best way to use Kanban when it comes to bottlenecks is not letting them happen to begin with. If they eventually happen, identity and solve them before they become too much of a problem. Kanban based interfaces are great to keep work moving at a consistent pace.
It’s hard to imagine how such a simple method can be so powerful, but it’s true (especially in this particular situation). If it weren’t it probably wouldn’t be known worldwide as such an important management method.
At the simplest of its forms and styles, the Kanban method can be implemented using no more than a few sticky notes stuck to a board.
The surface of the board should be divided in columns according to the process’ phases. Depending on the complexity of the workflow, there may be more or less columns. Each column comes with its own functions and rules, as well as a numeric value at the top.
If there’s a number at the top of a column, it’s the maximum amount of cards simultaneously allowed in each column at a time. That’s also known as WIP limit.
This “card limit” stops processes from becoming overwhelming or too generic, while allowing for specialization more freely. It also makes sure that there are less limits on your staff members, so that they can adjust the right amount of tasks for each area.
Knowing the correct way the tasks should be flowing and having a limit of how many tasks can be on each phase simultaneously allows for better tracking and correction of possible bottlenecks throughout the process.