How to Organize Your Startup Using Kanban

Staying organized and on task can be tough for any business, but especially startups. Distractions are common, and sometimes there are problems because too many people have differing ideas of which tasks should take priority. Fortunately, there’s a system you can use to fix these issues and it’s called Kanban.

In Japanese, the word Kanban roughly translates to “sign you can see.” During the 1950s, it was used by Toyota to streamline the flow of parts on auto production lines, but you can see Kanban’s benefits no matter what type of startup you have.

Get to Know the Basic Parts of a Kanban Board

Kanban relies heavily on a visual system that immediately lets team members see which tasks are in progress. You can make a simple Kanban board using a piece of poster board, a marker and sticky notes or you could develop the board using an online Kanban tool.

Depending on your business processes, the headings on your Kanban board may differ slightly than what’s suggested here. Generally though, you want to have at least three columns: one for work to be done, another for work that’s in progress and another for completed tasks.

Put a Limit on Work in Progress

A key principle of Kanban involves eliminating waste and slowdowns that can come about because team members are focused on too many things. If you’re serious about making Kanban work well for your startup, be strict about the number of tasks in progress.

If you have a five-member team, you probably don’t want more than five tasks being worked on at once. When you stick to such limits, it becomes much easier for you or other team members to spot bottlenecks in the workflow that could become so severe they cause missed deadlines.

Emphasize Shared Skillsets

Although it’s crucial to insist people not tackle too many tasks at once, that doesn’t necessarily mean each team member should only work on one thing all the time. Ideally, the whole team recognizes the shared responsibility of keeping everything flowing smoothly and pitching in when needed. If you are testing the usability of an app your startup is launching next month, don’t just depend on your QA team to tackle that testing. Ask developers to perform user testing, too.

Understand Kanban Takes a Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach

Once you’ve gotten to the point where you’ve created a Kanban board and everyone at your company understands how it works, make sure to drive home the point that for Kanban to help your startup be maximally productive, everyone must work together. Besides just working together by pooling specific skills, it’s necessary to be open about getting feedback from everyone about how to make the workflow better.

Issues are highlighted through stand-up meetings, which are commonly held daily. During those gatherings, talk about every sticky note on your Kanban board and request that anyone who has ideas about how to resolve blockages in the workflow speak up with their ideas about how to keep things moving forward. Although a stand-up meeting should have a leader, the person responsible for the leadership can change depending on how many people come forward with feedback. The important thing to remember is once problems are identified, the team should work together to come up with a plan of action for each thing that’s acting as hindrance to productivity.

Engage the Team by Encouraging Continuous Improvement

Besides implementing a board that indicates workflow, consistent progress is another important component of using Kanban. Many startup leaders stay focused on the goal of continuous improvement by tracking easy-to-understand metrics, which even works well if you examine them across a relatively short period of time.

Some potential metrics include total amount of work in progress, the number of completed items in a given time period and the amount of items on your Kanban board that are “blocked” because there are obstacles preventing them from moving to the next stage. You may also represent chosen metrics through a cumulative flow diagram. Check weekly, or more often if you prefer, to see if metrics are moving in the right direction.

Hopefully you now have a good idea of how to use some of Kanban’s most powerful and well-known principles to keep your startup workflow free of trouble. No matter what kind of business you’re involved with, these tips can help you get tasks done.

James White works in sales for a startup and uses the Kanban methodology for both his personal and professional projects. He's a frequent contributor to BizCommunity and Pipeliner CRM blog. Connect with James on Twitter.

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