8 Steps to Increase Productivity and Reduce Overburdening of Your Team

Does Your Team Look Like This?

They identify as a team, yet team members tend to work separately. If asked, they say they value collaboration but don’t appear to be behaving that way in practice. They focus on getting things done and are quick to blame each other when a team member’s work is running behind. Leaders manage individuals. They depend on and need heroes to take on certain types of work. Unintentionally this causes chaos/conflict within the team. Leaders or team members are quick to assign more work to fully utilize any under-utilized members, preventing them from exploring how to help other team members. Team members only understand their piece of the end-to-end workflow; there is little to no understanding of the end-to-end mechanisms in their organization or big-picture. Daily meetings and retrospectives run regularly, and retrospectives feel more like therapy since little improvement action is derived. The team feels overburdened, abused and often has a victim mentality. They blame leaders for improperly managing their workload.

How Does Your Team Track Their Work?

Your team isn’t getting the first level of benefits that Kanban provides if your team sounds like the team above. If they track their work on a Kanban board, it’s time to start assessing where they are in their Kanban journey.

Does their Kanban board have team level work-in-progress limits? Do they have explicit policies for how work flows from stage-to-stage? Does every member of the team have their work visible on the Kanban Board? Is work explicitly prioritized perhaps by urgency or value? If your answer is no to most of these questions, there is A HUGE opportunity for the Kanban Method to help your team.

Your team’s Kanban Board may look something like this.

Example Kanban ML0-1 board

Your Team Isn’t Getting Kanban’s Benefits Yet

If this sounds like your team, your team hasn’t achieved the benefits that are possible and proven with Kanban. Your team has encountered the first failure mode when using Kanban as a vehicle to mature your team, a false plateau. Your team feels that they’ve improved as much as they can or need to with Kanban. Unfortunately, without help, most teams and organizations start with Kanban and never get the real benefits possible. In this article, I’ll step you through how to get there. The first sign that your team has achieved the first level of Kanban maturity is a distinct relief from overburdening and a decrease in how long work takes.

The second failure mode is an overreach where practices are ‘installed’ into a team that isn’t ready for them. They don’t see a need for them, even though YOU can. This is where you meet resistance, conformity (just doing the practice but not doing it well), or reversion (failed adoption of the practice and going back to old practices). I’m going to help you avoid these failure modes in this article with pragmatic steps you can take to mature your team with Kanban.

8 Pragmatic Steps Towards Benefits

Introduce Stressors

The good news is, you can avoid both of these failures modes. A plateau happens because of a lack of awareness of improvement opportunity, ability, or desire. Often, teams believe they are doing well. I’ve had teams tell me that they are “perfectly perfect” when I see oodles of opportunity. A signal that they don’t see a need to be better right now.

Introducing a stressor helps them learn about problems in their workflow they previously were not aware of. It removes illusions and invokes cognitive dissonance. It other words, stressors create just enough stress and discomfort that the team starts looking for solutions.

Stressors create just enough stress and discomfort that the team starts looking for solutions.

To do so, have a leader inside or outside of the team ‘push’ for these stressors:

1 – Discover and Visualize Initial Policies – Define what each column means, including a checklist of things that must happen before it moves from one column to the next. During the conversation, they’ll uncover differing expectations. During execution, they’ll discover that they aren’t doing what they agreed to do, causing a realization that their process is inconsistent.

Example Kanban ML0-1 Policies Defined

2 – Use avatars to visualize each individual’s workload – This will highlight when people are or aren’t collaborating. It will also show an imbalance of workload across the team, with some members taking on much more than others.

Example Kanban ML0-1 Avatars

3 – Establish per-person WIP limits – When a conversation starts emerging about an imbalance between team members, establish a per-person WIP limit to ensure that no one becomes unfairly overloaded. Start high and gradually decrease it until it creates some stress. When team members start to talk about trouble observing their personal WIP limits, it’s likely because work is coming in too quickly. They’ll begin to realize that they have to control their intake better to maintain balance. At this point, work will start finishing faster, and the feeling of being overburdened reduces.

Example Kanban ML0-1 Per Person WIP Limits

4 – Conduct a Team Kanban meeting – In this meeting, the objective is to observe and track the status and flow of the work. Is work following our initial policies? Are there individuals that are over-loaded and need help? Are we managing our work-in-progress limits well? Is any work falling behind our expectations? If you’re already doing a daily standup, don’t add this as a new meeting. Instead, add this focus to your pre-existing standup.

When New Conversations Emerge Provide Solutions

With each stressor introduced, a new conversation will emerge. Your team will start talking about overloaded individuals. They’ll start talking about how they follow their workflow policies inconsistently. They’ll talk about per-person WIP limits, how it helped reduce overburdening and how there is still more to be done in this area. The notion of collaboration and a desire to solve these newfound problems starts to emerge. When this happens, it’s time for a leader to propose solutions that can be pulled by the team, unlike stressors, which are pushed.

5 – Define and Visualize Basic Policies – Suggest that they revisit their policies to only include what is critical and achievable right now, and identify aspirational policies that aren’t attainable based on what they’ve experienced.

Example Kanban ML0-1 Basic Policies Defined

6 – Establish Team WIP Limits – This will help them manage work coming in that is still causing overburdening for specific individuals and slowing down work already in progress.

Example Kanban ML0-1 Team Wip Limit

7 – Conduct Team Retrospective – now that they are looking for ways to improve their workflow collaboratively – it makes sense to suggest that they regularly reflect on how their work is flowing. Suggest that they focus their retrospectives on what challenges they are observing in the Kanban meetings and their workflow and encourage improvement ideas to be suggested by members.

8 – Conduct Team Replenishment Meetings – once they’ve realized that they are having some trouble maintaining their team WIP limit, it’s an excellent time to suggest introducing a replenishment meeting to decide what items to start next. Replenishment meetings help teams control the work coming in, further reduce their feeling of being overburdened and start increasing how fast work gets done.

What’s the outcome?

If you are successful in establishing these practices done well, then the team is now focused on managing their work. Transparency and collaboration have increased at the team level. They now focus on getting work done and improving how they get work done. A noticeable shift happens to managing the group’s workload vs. the individual’s workload. Overburdening is reduced significantly, and they start to achieve better results, faster delivery, better quality, and more enjoyable work-life. More importantly, they feel more in control.

This is just the first level – there is more.

Many more pragmatic steps from the Kanban Method can help your teams achieve even better results.

  • 100% increase in throughput (e.g. features per month for a software development team)
  • Up to 50% decrease in lead time (e.g. how long features take to deliver)
  • Increased customer satisfaction

These results are not wishes. They are not hopes or dreams. They are proven, case study after case study with the Kanban Method.

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