One of the curses those with my T-Shaped interests suffer is that often I will come across topics that grab my attention and temporarily distract me. However, I’ll generally explore these and consider how to put the concepts into action in the context of IT Leadership.

Recently I attended a SIM meeting at which a fellow CIO shared how he had implemented a Kanban board in his organization to communicate to various stakeholders the amount of work requested of his limited IT staff. My interest was piqued – I was curious about why and how he chose Kanban as a tool. My limited knowledge of Kanban led me to assumptions that it was primarily used in manufacturing environments or agile software development shops – his environment was neither.

I did a deeper dive on the information that he and his staff presented and he suggested that I attend one of their stand-up meetings where they “walk the board.” They meet on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and the meeting takes no longer than 20 minutes. I took him up on his offer and attended the next meeting. True to his word, the meeting went quickly, updated all involved and even pulled a new item into the input queue. Following the meeting we discussed what had taken place. I peppered him with questions about his implementation of the process.

In answering my questions, he gave me a copy of an excellent book on the subject – Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business by David J Anderson. The book, a great resource for anyone who wishes to implement Kanban, listed some of its basic premises of Kanban:

  1. Use your existing processes rather than trying to implement new ones as this leads to higher adoption.
  2. Use the Kanban board to visualize both the amount of work and the flow of work throughout the organization.
  3. Limit the amount of Work in Process (WIP) to increase quality and decrease lead time.

The aspect of Kanban that seemed both counterintuitive and satisfying is the idea of limiting Work in Progress or WIP. In most situations, the IT team is under pressure to produce more and to produce faster; it seems odd in some respects to limit the amount of work for that group. Upon reading further, the explanations made sense: by limiting WIP, lead times actually improve overall and results (and quality) are more predictable. One reason for this is that by limiting WIP, you also limit the number of shifting priorities and focus from one task to another. In other words, the tendency to multitask is removed as a potential threat to productivity.

I led a team of IT professionals in a previous role that included a high-energy individual who prided herself on her ability to multitask. She believed that she was highly productive due to the number of projects or tasks she would keep on her plate during a given timeframe. What I noticed was that much of the high energy was used to deal with the frustration of the workload and the loss of focus when shifting from one task to another. It was a bit like a plate spinner trying to keep the plates from hitting the ground.

I attempted to coach her on the fallacy of multitasking. Earlier in my career I had been in a meeting where my vice president introduced the concept of “slowing down in order to speed up.” This is the essence limiting WIP. If you focus on fewer tasks but actually devote the necessary time to complete them accurately, there will be less rework required, whether it’s fixing bugs or attending to missed requirements.

Many studies have shown that the human brain just isn’t good at handling more than a single task at a time; that it must shift focus from one task to another. While the brain has the capacity to make those shifts quickly, part of us must still “reset” when we shift from one task to another. The required re-engagement with a stopped or shifted project can be a significant productivity drain.

The Kanban process, by its flexible nature, allows a team to design steps to ensure each portion of work has the necessary resources to complete it prior to starting. Also, due to its visual nature, everyone involved can see the work underway. Since all work on the board is pre-approved, staff have the flexibility of choosing the next item to work on, knowing that it is critical to the organization. And since it is designed around existing, rather than new, processes, staff feel less threatened by change and more empowered to keep quality work flowing through the queue.

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