Applying the first three core practices of Kanban will fix 90% of issues we have in knowledge work. Kanban is an approach to incremental, evolutionary process change for organizations.

The practices are

  1. Visualize,
  2. Limit work in progress,
  3. Manage flow.

Visualize

As knowledge workers, our work is intangible and abstract. We receive abstract items from our customers (e.g. a need for a feature), we use our organization’s collective brains to process them, and we produce abstract products (e.g. software). That’s the nature of knowledge work.

A cobbler repairing shoes can visually see how many shoes there are on the shelf waiting to be repaired. A knowledge worker has abstract queues in digital “tools” with very poor visibility on the whole. This issue is further aggravated when we work in teams or when we look at the whole organization. In knowledge work, we have a hard time understanding when and where work is being worked on.

This is why we need to visualize. We visualize to regain an overview. With a better overview we make better decisions, we have better discussions, we focus on the important stuff and we fret less about the irrelevant.

Regaining overview by visualizing
Work visualized on a board. Post-it’s are work items. Columns are work phases.

Limit work in progress

When driving to work we all hate traffic jams. Yet at work we seem to love them. Why else would we be swamped with so much work? Judging by the way we behave we seem to think starting more work will get more done. While, of course, it’s the opposite that’s true. Focusing on finishing gets work done.

When we limit the amount of things we’re working on, we force ourselves to focus on finishing. With limits in place we’re not allowed to start new work before finishing something first. We even start co-operating in order to finish work. We limit work in progress to finish things faster. But you don’t need to take my word for it since it’s actually a law from queuing theory.

Kanban board example

Limits on work in progress are the numbers shown in red. This team will only work on three bigger items (epics). These items are divided into tasks. Number of tasks you’re allowed to work on in each phase simultaneously is also limited.

Manage flow

A customer request starts a process within our company that produces an end result which is of value to the customer. What should happen in between is flow. Work should flow through the organization, everyone pitching in when needed, to finish the work as quickly as possible, but without skipping on quality.

However, instead of managing the flow of value to the customer we tend to do quite the opposite. We divide our organizations into departments that focus on one part of the flow and then we manage them. We make sure everyone in every department is working at full capacity. We start optimizing the parts and not the whole. And we forget about the customer.

This is why we need more focus on flow. We manage flow to serve our customers better. As a by-product, people will be happier when they’re actually fulfilling a customer request instead of working on an item completely separated from its original context. Essentially, flow brings back the meaningfulness in our work.

Fixing work

The Pareto principle says that by focusing on key areas we can fix the majority of problems. Even though, in this case, the 90% estimate was produced with the Stetson-Harrison method, focusing on flow will help you solve a large majority of issues knowledge workers struggle with at work. Visualization and limiting work in progress are prerequisites that enable you to do so.

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