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Using Kanban for Workflows

Kanban is a methodology intended to help manage the amount of work in progress (WIP). Many years ago as a young IT Director, I managed the data services for one of the major radio networks in NYC. I had an amazing amount of work and a very tiny staff. One day, I tried to put some order around the overwhelming number of tasks in front of me by creating a list of tasks/projects and rating them in priority order. Some of these tasks involved installed Dec Vax terminals, writing VAX VMS scripts and installing PCs for sales reps. Every day the list got longer and it seemed like we were just destined to always be behind on our deliverables. I put the list on the wall of my office and somehow thought that my users or perhaps my management would be sympathetic to the overwhelming number of tasks and projects before us. I was wrong and soon learned that no one really cared that my team was stretched thin and that each one of us had to do the work of five people. What I really should have done is learned to say, “No” and only accepted tasks that could be completed given the resource constraints before us. I have never been very good at saying no and realize now that Kanban could have been a big help back then.

We have two cars in my family. One is a Toyota and the other is also a Japanese car. When I first graduated college, I purchased a brand new American-made car that stopped working about about three years after I bought the car. I never bought another American-prouced car because I was frustrated with that experience (and the fact that the manufacturer did not compensate me for the “lemon” that I had purchased). I am not endorsing one manufacturer over another, but I am mentioning my own personal connection to the efforts to produce high-quality automobiles at Toyota. Taiichi Ohno, one of the creators of the Toyota Production System, has been quoted as saying that “the two pillars of of the Toyota production system are just-in-time and automation with a human touch, or autonomation”. [1]

The basic principle behind Kanban is to limit the amount of Work In Progress (WIP) and to simply “pull” requests when a resource is available to work on the task. There are many examples of pull systems, which are widely regarded as being more effective than “push” systems which simply assign tasks as they come in without regard for whether or not resources are available. I have done a fair amount of volunteer work as a volunteer police auxiliary and also an emergency medical technician. It has been my experience that requests for response by emergency personnel are generally assigned on a pull basis but there are times when emergency jobs just get assigned or pushed to first responders who are expected to just adjust their work to get to the life threatening emergencies as needed. Obviously, if your house on fire you expect to see a fire truck right away although there have certainly been times when demand for resources exceeded available supply.

In manufacturing and IT operations we can usually work with a pull system that allows us to assign tickets as resources are available to work on the required task. Limiting the amount of Work In Progress (WIP) has been shown to improve productivity and quality by allowing for better distribution of work across all available resources. Workflow automation tools, often integrated with source code management solutions, can be used to implement Kanban-like systems. IT operations can also use Kanban to manage workflow for Service Desk and other related functions.

I am interested in hearing about your experiences implementing workflow automation solutions using Kanban, Drum-Buffer-Rope (DBR) or other methods consistent with the Theory of Constraints (TOC), Systems Thinking or my own favorite – Demings' teachings on controlling variability [2].


[1] Anderson, David J., Kanban Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business, Blue Hole Press, Sequim Washington, 2010, p. 6.

[2] Anderson, David J., Kanban Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business, Blue Hole Press, Sequim Washington, 2010, p. 15.


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