How to Use Kanban to Increase Productivity

Workplace Success

shutterstock_308314898The world is full to bursting with self-help tips, blogs and books, each one promising to streamline, revolutionize or optimize your workflow. Do many of them work? Almost certainly. Sometimes, however, the simplest solution is the best one.

That’s where Kanban comes in. It might just sound like another funny word to you – the kind that exists because every other word on Earth is already trademarked – but the truth is much more interesting. The word Kanban comes to us from the Japanese language, and means card or visual sign. Thanks to its novel approach to productivity, it’s helped all kinds of companies from a wide variety of industries – software development, supermarkets, automobile manufacturing, you name it – to do exactly what it promises: increase productivity simply and effectively.

So what is it, and how can it help you or your business?

What Is It?

Kanban got its start as a software development tool. You can think of it as a kind of productivity pipeline, where requests or blocks of work flow into one end and a polished, finished product flows out the other.

Kanban works because it helps its practitioners effectively visualize all of the work they have to do – and that kind of visualization can happen on a computer screen or with index cards tacked to the wall. Whichever method you choose, Kanban goes something like this:

  • At one end of the pipeline is your to-do column. This is where you stage each piece of the development process – whether you’re developing software, designing a website or even cleaning your room. Tasks might include “design new start button for user interface,” “create about us page” or “vacuum the floor.”
  • The middle of the pipeline is where you put tasks that are already in progress, and you’ll typically have an agreed-upon limit for how many tasks can occupy this space at once. This helps to keep you from becoming overloaded, or losing sight of your highest priorities and most time-sensitive tasks.
  • Finally, at the end of the pipeline, you get to see the fruits of your labor. This is where you get to move your tasks once they’re completed, and then commence with basking in good work done well.

Real-World Applications

Although it’s most closely associated with software development, Kanban has become an important tool for all kinds of businesses. In fact, it was pioneered by Toyota in the 1940s to help reduce waste in its factories. It was inspired by the way supermarkets optimize their supply chain and restock products according to customer demand, which often means only ordering more units of a given product when the existing stock is completely sold out.

Toyota employees borrowed this idea and made it their own: They fashioned physical cards, each one representing a particular task – a block of work – to keep track of who was working on what, and when. The end result was a new kind of workflow that emphasized both accountability and efficiency in a whole new way.

It’s not hard to imagine how this could benefit small businesses, where the phrase “time is money” is perhaps truer than anywhere else. With a limited pool of labor, and plenty of work to go around, Kanban can help make sure that every step of a given process is accounted for, assigned and gently shepherded through to completion in a way that’s highly visual and intuitive.

Waste and redundancies are to be expected in sprawling, multinational corporations, and their sizes help mitigate the losses that arise as a result. For small businesses, it really pays to use a system like Kanban to eliminate bottlenecks, duplicated effort and avoidable miscommunication.

Approved for Personal Use

Of course, Kanban isn’t just for companies – it’s helped millions of individuals get their personal lives in order, as well. If you want to make sure you’re getting the most out of each day, apply Kanban to your to-do list with the following two benefits in mind:

  • Visualizing and breaking down multistep tasks will better allow you to anticipate the time each step will take, and help you prioritize the more important parts of your workflow.
  • Limiting your work-in-progress will go a long way toward alleviating those familiar feelings of being overwhelmed. We know you’re busy, but applying order to a disorderly life can help you breathe a much-needed sigh of relief.

So how about it – have we convinced you yet? Hopefully it’s clear by now that the Kanban methodology can work wonders on the individual level as well as the corporate level, where it’s all too common for projects to just fade away into oblivion without proper accountability.

Maybe you’re already using Kanban, or something like it. If so, tell us about your unique approach!