“There is this perception that Kanban was a mass conspiracy devised by 3M to sell Post-it notes,” sighs Daniel Vacanti, “But it’s so much more.”

Vacanti, along with his business partner, David Anderson, is one of the founders of Kanban for Software Development, a workflow technique which is best known for writing down tasks that need to be done on squares of yellow (or other bits of coloured paper) and sticking them to the wall. And while he is eloquent on the subject of why Kanban is not just Post-it notes, the chances are that if you’ve heard of Kanban, they’re what you think of and if you’ve walked into an office where the walls are decorated in sticky notes that company is an active practitioner of Vacanti’s work.

Kanban originated in manufacturing. It’s a Japanese term that means “signboard” that was coined in the 1940s by Toyota to describe its production management processes. After studying supermarket supply chains, Toyota found that by keeping track of production and demand of parts by assigning cards to track the movement of goods it could more easily balance supply and demand and prevent overproduction or lack of stock.

What Anderson and Vacanti realised in the early 2000s was that software development was becoming a project management nightmare as programs became more complex to keep track of. So they began formalising a framework for bringing best practice from physical manufacturing to knowledge work.

In fact, since Anderson began writing about Kanban in 2003 the processes he advocates for managing teams have been taken up far and beyond the software industry. Technology houses, call centres, and even newsrooms – we use a Kanban-inspired method to keep track of our daily output here at htxt.africa – are formally adopting the principles that Vacanti advocates are tools that can bring order to even the most chaotic of trades.

“I’ve had clients who have brought me in to use Kanban for the marketing department and sales departments,” says Vacanti, “It’s about the principles, nowhere in there did I use software as a resource. People use Kanban for managing their personal lives and kids timetables.”

Dan Vacanti - catch him in Joburg next month.
Dan Vacanti – catch him in Joburg next month.

The common practical implementation of Kanban in knowledge work is to break every job down into tasks or ‘stories’. Every story is then assigned a card, which moves through a physical representation of the workflow process as things get done. It could be as simple as assigning a card to “Bug #101” which then gets moved to Sipho’s to-do list, then the in-progress list, then the to check by someone else list.

But where people misunderstand Kanban, says Vacanti, is that it’s not at all prescriptive in terms of process – those tasks can be on Post-its, chalkboards, computer screens or anything else that takes your fancy.

“Kanban says that you decide a system of work for yourself and your company,” Vacanti explains, “But so long as you stick to the five main principles you’ll be fine.”

Those principles are straightforward.

  • Visualise work – Hence the sticky notes
  • Reduce work in progress – By focussing on the task in hand
  • Measure and manage workflow
  • Make policies explicit – By putting your workflow on the wall, everyone from top management down has a better idea of what’s going on and why
  • Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally – Once everyone can see what’s going on, there’s more opportunity to talk about it and suggest ways to improve it

Lately, Vacanti has also begun to include feedback loops as a sixth tenet, encouraging organisations to use the Kanban charts as ways of evaluating work as well.

There is, however, a lot of value in the Post-it method, says Vacanti, because it gets people away from their screens at least temporarily.

“The physicality of Kanban is meant to force more collaboration within teams and within personalities who might otherwise not do that,” explains Vacanti, “It takes a lot of things out of the subjective and puts them into the objective – the dynamic changes because you can have a more objective collaboration.”

What you might notice, however, is that Kanban for Software Development is a bit of a misnomer. By their own admission, the founders of the movement point out that Kanban works alongside software focussed techniques, like scrums and agile principles, supplementing rather than replacing them. It’s an effective way to become agile, but it is not the be all and end.

When he talks, there’s a danger that everything he says is simply common sense. But what’s striking is how few companies actually think about workflow, and how many employees are left to simply self-manage an over bearing task list. If the only feedback you’re getting is a regular monthly bollocking because work hasn’t been done on time, you probably need something like Kanban in your organisation.

“I believe that how you manage your work is just as important as doing the work itself,” says Vacanti, “A lot of people ignore the management aspect and expect processes to evolve of their own accord. But there’s so much more that we can do to drive overall organisational efficiency and effectiveness.”

And if all that sounds a bit dry and corporate for your fledgling start-up company, don’t be put off. As mentioned earlier, we use many ideas from the Kanban method for managing the small and creative team we have at htxt.africa, and they work.

If you want to find out more, you can hear Vacanti speak at the Agile Africa conference at the Parktonian Hotel in Braamfontein, Johannesburg on 11th and 12th August. Agile Africa is the launch event for the month-long Fak’ugesi Digital Arts festival – which we’ll be previewing in-depth over the coming weeks.

[Main image – CC 3.0 Jeff Iasovski]