The Executive Kanban Experiment – how to focus on the most important work

Arif Harbott
Arif Harbott

Learn how Kanban can help you as an executive to focus on the most important work, visualise your tasks and make prioritisation easier.

It is a time of reform at the Ministry of Justice. There are many exciting change programmes underway to transform the Courts and Tribunals and the biggest transformation in the Prison service in more than 100 years.

Whilst this makes the Ministry a very exciting place to be, it also means that there is a lot going on. As a federated organisation, we need good planning in order to keep up.

Using Kanban for a leadership team?

As an experiment, I thought it would be interesting to trial the use of Kanban and adopt some agile practices, to keep my private office and leadership team aligned and ensure that we focus on the most important work.

My hunch was that using a Kanban board would allow us to:

  1. Focus on the most important work
  2. Visualise our work and priorities
  3. Understand if there were team members who were over/ under capacity
  4. Make tradeoffs and prioritisation easier
  5. Identify bottlenecks
  6. Understand items I have to personally work on

This experiment would give us permission to use a visual Kanban instead of having our work buried in emails. Before the experiment, I underestimated the power of having a “picture” of work and the benefits this would bring to the leadership team.

Simple Kanban Board
Simple Kanban Board (from Art of PM Blog)

Introduction to Kanban

First off, what is Kanban? I like the definition from Everyday Kanban, which describes it as:

  1. Organising the chaos by making the need for prioritisation and focus clear.
  2. A way to uncover and solve bottlenecks in order to deliver more consistently.

Kanban accomplishes these things by introducing constraints into the system to optimise the flow of value. Flow is king. By focusing on flow, Kanban resets your brain to focus on value, or in other words finishing over starting.

Kanban is not prescriptive, so the best approach to adoption is to start with your current process or workflow. By using Kanban in this way, you will begin to highlight issues in your process that you can change incrementally over time. But you must commit to continuous small incremental and evolutionary changes to your current system.

Core principles of Kanban

1. Visualise work
Usually on a Kanban board
The most common way to visualise your workflow is to use a wall with cards and columns.

2. Limit work in progress
To take advantage of queuing theory
This is the cornerstone of Kanban as these constraints will quickly highlight problem areas in your flow so you can resolve them.

3. Manage the flow of work
How value is currently flowing through the system
A cycle of looking at your flow, analysing problem areas and making changes – rinse and repeat.

4. Use explicit policies
Understanding the rules that have to be followed
Your process should be defined and understood – so that people know how work is done.

5. Improve collaboratively
Using retrospectives, inspecting and adapting
The Kanban method encourages small continuous, evolutionary changes towards positive change.

So now we are done with the introduction and explanation of what Kanban is, let’s move on to how I started to use it.

The Kanban leadership experiment

As a starting point, we simply took our existing ways of working – with the understanding that we would improve over time.

White boarding the draft Kanban board
White boarding the draft Kanban board

Step 1 — Map out our existing process
First of all we decided on what steps there were in our process. These then became the foundation for the columns on our Kanban board. These were fairly straight forward, apart from an extra column to highlight items that needed my personal attention:

  • Backlog (items not yet started)
  • In progress
  • In Review/ Clearance
  • Needs Arif’s Input (special column for items for me)
  • Done

Step 2 – Decide our visual board structure
Next we looked at the swim lanes for the board. This was very challenging. We started by listing all of the categories of work that we do, such as commissions, strategy, finance, performance, reporting, HR and engagement etc. By the end of this process, we had 25 potential categories, which was obviously too many.

We then chunked these down into logical groups, and these became the swim lanes for the board:

  • Expedited items
  • Briefings and strategy
  • Comms, engagement and events
  • HR and recruitment
  • Portfolio and performance
  • Budget and financing
Stationery area attached to the Kanban board
Stationery area attached to the Kanban board

Step 3 — Visualise our work
We cleared a large whiteboard on the wall outside my office and built our first board. We used metallic strips to mark out the columns and swim lanes, and created a small stationery area (see photo).

Team members wrote their work items onto a post-it note or card, and added them to the backlog column so we could start prioritising work. This was not easy, as many of the items differed in size. Some items required an hour’s work, and some tasks spanned several days.

Step 4 – Place WIP limits on each step
We started with a Work In Progress (WIP) limit for each column:

  • In progress (WIP Limit of 12)
  • In Review/ Clearance (WIP Limit of 12)
  • Needs Arif’s Input (WIP Limit of 6)

These were arbitrary limits. We quickly realised that keeping to WIP limits for a management team would be one of the hardest parts of the process. However, we decided to try it anyway.

Step 5 – Create policies around each swim lane
Everyone needed to be clear on the policies for the board. We started with some very lightweight policies:

  1. Anything in the expedite lane means that all other work is stopped and expedite is prioritised
  2. Yellow post-it notes were used to identify my requests
  3. The Done column should be cleared every two weeks
  4. Anyone can add items to the backlog – there is no limit on backlog items

Step 6 – Identify bottlenecks
Once we actually started using the board, it became clear that there were some areas where we were overloaded with work. This was very evident from the number of avatars on the board.

We also found that the comms and engagement area was swamped with In progress work. This meant that we had to take some tough prioritisation decisions and stop some less valuable work.

As we are at the start of the journey, I expect us to identify more bottlenecks over time.

Our working Kanban board
Our working Kanban board

Improvements we are making

Build a common understanding of Kanban
The team involved in the experiment is a central operations team, not a software team. It soon became clear that we needed to ensure that everyone understood the basics of Kanban.

To get people up to speed quickly, we ran a half-day introductory session led by one of our agile coaches, Georg Fasching. Here we introduced the basic concepts, talked through people’s doubts and answered any questions.

We also played some games so that we got real buy-in to the concepts of the need to limit WIP, the importance of delivering value early and the benefits of visualising work:

WIP by swim lane
We structured our board into mostly functional swim lanes. As each function has a different sized team, we realised that setting WIP by column was not working. We also found it very hard to keep to WIP limits, but more on that in a later blog post.

So we changed our process and set WIP by swim lane depending on the size of the team. We set the limits by multiplying the number of team members by 2 – the assumption being that each team member should not be working on more than two things, to reduce the effect of context switching.

Chunking work into similar sizes (levelling)
As we mentioned earlier, the initial task sizes were all very different. Some were a few hours, and some were as much as a week’s worth of work. We needed to chunk our work into similar sizes. This is a process called levelling which comes from Lean.

In addition, many of the tasks had a lot of uncertainty in their length. For example, strategic work or influencing stakeholders were hard to estimate.

That being said, we settled on writing tasks that were roughly chunked up to about 3 days in duration.

Start and end dates
To begin with there was no concept of showing when a task had moved across the board, so we started adding start and end dates to the work item cards.

The collection of start and end dates through each stage will set us up for managing flow better (one of the main principles of Kanban). It will also allow us, over time, to start offering better forecasting of task completion to stakeholders.

We also added a special sticker to identify items that were blocked. If an item was blocked, we wrote the duration of the block and the reason on the back of the card. This will allow us to look for any blocking trends over time.

Benefits of this approach so far

Clearing the mind and visibility of progress
Personally, I find it really therapeutic to get all of my work out of my head, in line with GTD philosophy. Furthermore, the fact that the progress of work is visible means that I do not need to ask for updates, which is very liberating for me and the team.

Transparency and engagement
Putting the board somewhere visible means that anyone from the team can come and see what is important to us. It also allows people to volunteer to get involved in areas that interest them – even if it is not in their normal remit. This means a lot more cross-pollination of skills and views.

Joined up conversation and joining the dots
Having daily stand ups and introducing the board as a place where teams come to discuss work has fostered a lot more collaborative conversations between different teams. It is also really useful for everyone to know what each team is working on.

Prioritisation – both internally and externally
Having a total picture of our work means that we can deliver maximum value. It also allows sensible conversations with stakeholders to understand the relative importance of work.

In summary

Using a Kanban board for management tasks is not without its challenges but I am personally curious of where this path will take us. We have our first iteration board and process set up and working, the team are having regular stand-ups and we have retrospectives scheduled.

There is much we can improve, but we have taken the first steps on our never-ending journey of continuous improvement.

I will follow up with another post in a few months to outline some of the things we have learned and changes we have made.

Watch this space …

The Executive Kanban Experiment – how to focus on the most important work

8 thoughts on “The Executive Kanban Experiment – how to focus on the most important work

  1. Great article Arif, thanks.

    I’ve been using Kanban for, well, pretty much anything with a task-based workflow for many years now. For much of that time, my method of choice has been Trello. I started using Trello some years ago when I needed to run a Kanban board with a large team spread over numerous locations. Pointing a video conference camera at a whiteboard didn’t really work! Being online, I find that Trello really delivers the transparency and collaboration benefits that you mention. I have a few Trello boards covering projects both at work and home. And every time I introduce a new client to the method, it’s always been embraced.

    Have you tried Trello? Or found other effective alternatives?



    1. Hi Phil, we use Trello with our product teams but I really wanted a physical board for a few reasons:
      1. One it creates a space in the office for people to discuss and talk about work.
      2. It is much easier to see the flow of work across the board.
      3. It also is much easier to see which items are blocked.
      We will consider the use of virtual boards as part of our retrospectives so we may move to Trello or something similar in the future

  2. Thanks Arif – this is immensely interesting and valuable. In my work as a business psychologist I quite often observe a tension between the members of a team who like working with visual representations of tasks, progress and the paraphernalia of PM; and those who don’t. This is often linked to whether people test on Myers-Briggs TI as “E” people (they LOVE Kanban and Trello) and “I” people (who tend not to. They think that the substance of the exercise is akin to ‘stating the obvious’). In the same way it links to models such as DISC or Insights Colour Wheel (Kanban people are also “Conscientious” or “Blue” people; the “Dominant Reds” don’t really want to know).

    I have probably bored anyone reading this entirely rigid with this very long-winded way of saying something startlingly unoriginal – that it’s horses for courses, and one model won’t work for every team every time. It’s great that it worked for you in this instance; whether it would do so next time….

    Keep up this great blog!

    1. That is a great point Jon. I am Myers Briggs type ENTJ so I will check in with the I types in my team and will report back with any findings.

  3. Really great post Arif. In the start up part of what I now do (Ably – we use Trello like Phil describes above and that works fine especially as the team is distributed and largely remote.

    But I’m going to see if we can try something similar at Econsultancy/Centaur (a plc). I think your evolutions of the basic ideas for exec teams are what makes this most interesting. Swim lanes are important; and physical visualisation.

    1. Thanks Ashley. Try it with your Exec team and see how you get on. We are already making improvements which I will write about in a follow up post.

  4. I´m really curious about your update! 🙂 We will start a Kanban board for the management team as well, and I am really happy to read your post and the changes that you made over time 🙂

    Thanks for the great post!

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