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Kanban originated in Japan as a way of managing inventory. It has since become a popular method for managing software development projects. I believe some Kanban lessons have good implications for all kinds of business projects and in this blog I outline some reasons.

For those readers who are unfamiliar with Kanban, let me provide a simple and intuitive illustration of the thinking behind Kanban. In the very simple neighborhood lemonade stand, space realities limit the amount of lemonade in any location.

Think about it. The kitchen where the lemonade is being mixed has a finite amount of counter space. The freezer can only hold a finite amount of ice. There is only so much space on that table out in the front yard and the ice won’t last but so long in the scorching heat.

The young folks who are selling lemonade use a “pull” system – a basic concept behind lean manufacturing and inventory management. Inventory is pulled from one space to another when the need exists.

A “push” system, or a system where inventory is pushed out of the warehouse when it is ready, simply doesn’t work. Until the folks selling lemonade need more, it just doesn’t work to have more pitchers of lemonade delivered to the table. Where would they put it? And yet, those folks don’t want to run out of inventory.

In Kanban, the leaders simply manage work-in-progress by specifying an optimum amount of work for each stage of the process. The Kanban board has an assigned number for each column and the number of sticky notes in each column cannot exceed that number. Simple.

What are some Kanban lessons that can be applied to business projects?

Keep it visual.

One aspect of Kanban is its visual nature. There it is – that board on your office wall – or on your computer screen. A Kanban board makes it easy to spot problems. Regardless of the approach that you use to manage your project, having a very simple and visual way of depicting progress makes it easier on the team.

Take a lesson from Kanban – make your project tracking visual. Click To Tweet

Focus on continual improvement.

Kanban focuses on continual improvement. Always focus on learning. Document lessons learned. What can you learn today that will make your project run smoother tomorrow?

Move activities from the backlog to the completed pile.

One goal in Kanban is to move inventory (or work) from the earliest stage in the process, through the process, and into the final ‘done’ stage.

In inventory creation, the stages may be raw materials, production (which may have a number of different stages) and completed inventory. If you don’t understand this, I recommend a fun trip to a craft brewery.

In a business project that earliest stage can be a backlog of ideas that executives have expressed an interest in, or it can be activities that have been clearly defined and have simply not been started.

If you are running an actual project, you need to be always looking backwards and forwards at the same time. As you learn from what you are doing, you may be adding or subtracting from any backlog. You may be actually recommending project changes that will streamline the work to be done, or increase the scope of what is needed.

Project management is about looking backwards and forwards at the same time and using that to… Click To Tweet

Control work in progress.

In a Kanban environment, users are limited to a certain amount of work at each stage. One of the things that I frequently see in business projects is that the team members can be working on too many things at one time. Part of the problem is that many of the activities can be interrelated, and so work on one activity can inform work on others. It is tempting to skip around from one activity to another without finishing anything.

Resist the temptation to spread yourself so thinly that you aren’t moving work products from the ‘drawing board’ stage to the completed stage. There are two reasons for this:

  • Finishing a work product gives teams a ‘little win,’ which can be energizing and inspirational. Everyone likes to work on teams where they think that progress is being made.
  • Finishing a work product means that those products can be shared. Feedback is obtained. Ideas start to be implemented. People learn.

Minimize the Planning. Maximize the Doing.

Whenever a new team takes on a project, there is the question about how much detail to put into the planning process. It is essential for project teams to understand where they are going and how they are getting there. Yet, hours are finite, for the most part. Time spent planning a project is time that cannot be spent executing the project.

The challenge is to spend an appropriate amount of time planning the project. If you have clearly defined the essential activities that are needed to get you to your destination, you are likely ready to begin execution, recognizing that things will change.

What are some Kanban lessons that you have learned along the way? Share them in the comments. And if you want more tips, sign up for our weekly newsletter containing a quick productivity or a short book review.