When was the last time you heard the word ‘productivity’ being used? It was probably very recently, for this has become one of the most common words used in business and throughout our daily lives.

But what is productivity? What does it mean and how do we know if we’re being productive? Most importantly, how can you avoid the perilous trap of getting so lost in the various methods of productivity that are placed in front of us these days that you end up getting less work done?

Let’s think about the number of apps out there that promise to help you complete your to-do list each day and get rid of the paperwork that litters your desk. There’s hundreds of them, and each one has its merits, but in reality, it’s far too easy to inadvertently spend more time than is necessary setting such tools up.

And that stops you from being productive!

The process of being productive should be simple, and the good news is there’s a brilliant principle that you can rely on to get the best out of yourself each day. It’s called ‘Kanban’, and we’ve taken pen to digital paper today to tell you all about it.

As you’ll discover, Kanban’s roots lie in manufacturing, but if you work in the world of video production, Kanban’s rules and use of boards (more on that later) are just as useful and can be applied directly to the work you undertake.

Welcome to our ultimate guide to Kanban! Let’s start by going right back to its origins and finding out who invented this brilliant method of productivity.

blackboard with canna style notes

A potted history of Kanban – Guide to Kanban

Kanban is actually Japanese for ‘signboard’, and refers directly to the journey an instructional card makes as it tracks the various stages of a production line. Imagine a board with several columns representing each manufacturing stage, and the card making its way from left to right as each stage is completed.

As noted, the origins of Kanban lie in manufacturing, but the source of inspiration for the principle is quite different, because it actually came from the world of supermarkets.

During the late 1940s, the team at car giant Toyota became obsessed with the way supermarkets were restocking their shelves. They were impressed by the way stock rarely if ever seemed to sell out, and discovered that staff were only restock items when they neared sell-out.

The result is a stock hoard that is based entirely on consumer demand, and which relies on the fact that consumers typically only buy groceries and life’s essentials when they need them.

This means that stock levels were based not on theoretical sales figures, but on the number of products each store was expecting to sell, albeit without any fear that future supply would be in any way hampered or made unavailable. This unbelievably simple technique enabled supermarkets to maximise stock and reduce overeats while ensuring that the business and its customers were never left out of pocket or without the product they needed.

Toyota loved this, and it prompted them to see how they could apply the same principles to their manufacturing process. This form of ‘just-in-time’ delivery seemed perfect for car manufacturing, and was clearly a way to achieve high levels of output consistently.

Thus, the Kanban methodology was born!

Kanban in the digital world – Guide to Kanban

You know that big board full of instructional cards? Well, that method is still entirely acceptable and relevant in today’s digital world. The principles of Kanban that have existed since its inception haven’t really changed, but the way they’re sometimes implemented are rather different, as you might expect.

This is largely down to the role technology now plays in the Kanban technique. There’s still nothing wrong with an old-fashioned board full of sticky notes (in fact, plenty of businesses still rely on this visceral method), but there are now a number of very compelling apps that make the Kanban principle portable, and available to a much bigger audience.

In fact, the way Kanban has been implemented by some software developers is devilishly game-like a rather addictive once you get into it.

Beyond the initial application of Kanban in manufacturing, the principle can now be found within management teams across a whole host of different industries and disciplines, from web designers & marketing managers, to copywriting and large scale project management.

So, how does Kanban work, exactly?

Most experts agree that the brain is capable of processing visual information at around 60,000 faster than it does text. And this might feel rather familiar, due to the fact we now live in a world that is full of text, whether it be on emails, websites or social media updates. It’s almost a dead cert that you find visuals far easier to identify with quickly and engage with.

This is how Kanban works. Imagine a white board with three columns on it labelled ‘To do’, ‘Doing’ and ‘Done’. Within each column, you’ll find a bunch of sticky notes that identify the tasks that reside within the stage they’re stuck beneath. It couldn’t be any simpler and plays on our human desire to look at visuals rather than read reams of text.

Below, we’ve put together an example of this in the wonderful Trello app, which is based on the Kanban methodology:

example of chanson board from the guide to kanban

As you’ll note, there’s still some text on there, but it’s pleasingly light and isn’t overwhelming in any way. One brief look at the board and you know at exactly which stage each task resides. And, if the tasks are assigned to specific people, you can immediately see where the responsibility lies without having to hunt for the detail.

Perhaps Kanban’s biggest benefit, however, is the fact that the boards it relies on provide an instantly recognisable way of organising a workflow. In our simple example above, you can see that jobs flow from a ‘to-do’ stage, and end up ‘completed’. This means a quick glance is all that’s required to check the status of any given task.

As you might expect, the Kanban principle is particularly well suited to teamwork (although there’s nothing wrong at all using it by yourself for your own productivity), and it’s a brilliant take on the traditional to-do list.

Kanban’s 4 key principles – Guide to Kanban

You can’t get to where you need to be next without first knowing where you are currently – that’s the principle Kanban relies on. And, with that in mind, like anything productivity-related, Kanban benefits from a number of rules to keep things consistent and on track.

Toyota’s version of Kanban from the 1940s is still evident in modern incarnations, and that’s largely because they all share the same four rules to keep things in check:

1) The visual model. By making the constituent elements of projects visible in sticky note form and placing them under relevant headings on a board, the status of every job is always immediately obvious and non-contradictory.

2) Work in progress limits. This is the method by which the number of currently active jobs in each stage of the process are limited to create a realistic work pipeline. Imagine a board with too many tasks stuffed in the ‘to-do’ column; they’d be completely overwhelming and probably wouldn’t be tackled at all.

3) Flow. Kanban is brilliant at enabling team leaders to assess the effectiveness of the flow of work. This enables accurate completion times for projects to be drawn up and far less chance of letting anyone down.

4) Continuous improvement. One of the best things about Kanban is that it encourages businesses to improve constantly. The throughput of work becomes so clear that it’s near impossible to not spot holes in processes or when roadblocks occur. The idea of continuous improvemen is connected to the Kaizen philosophy, which also comes from manufacturing.

How your business can get started with Kanban – Guide to chanson

Quite often, getting started with new productivity techniques can be a bit of a pain, due to the amount of setting up you have to do (there’s categories, tags, project types and more to be created, after all).

productivity kanban board

With Kanban, it’s rather different. In fact, you can get going almost instantly, with just the following two things:

1) a board, complete with relevant headings for each stage of the process

2) a bunch of sticky notes containing the to-do items you need to complete

So, let’s thing about how to set that all-important board up. In the examples below, we’ve picked out four common walks of life where Kanban can be a huge benefit:

1) Home. There’s no reason to use Kanban purely for work purposes – it can be used at home just as effectively.

2) Sales. Keeping on top of your sales pipeline as a manager or sales executive can be incredibly challenging, but Kanban will help you nurture leads from prospects to confirmed orders far easier.

3) Blogging. Bloggers and copywriters can use the Kanban principle to plan future blog content and ensure the progress of those in production is immediately available whenever an update is required by other people involved in the project.

4) Software development. Kanban plays a key role in modern software development teams, because it enables those that value the benefits of the scrum methodology to manage complex projects far more easily.

Popular Kanban tools

We highlighted earlier the huge number of tools that can help businesses get started and make the most of the Kanban principle.

The challenge lies in finding the best one for your particular way of working, and to give you a head start, we’ve got three of what we believe to be the best Kanban tools out there.

Trello. The screenshots you can see throughout this guide have been created with Trello, which is a brilliant take on Kanban and one which most people will get to grips with very quickly indeed. Perhaps most importantly, Trello makes the process of completing tasks incredibly addictive; simply use your mouse or finger too effortlessly move job cards from one stage to the next!

Cardflow. Wireframing and storyboarding are two things at which Kanban excels, and Cardflow’s awesome iPad app is fun to use and makes visual guidance for projects a cinch to create. You can download Cardflow here.

The old fashioned method. It’s worth reiterating that you don’t have to go down the tech route for Kanban to be effective. If you’ve got a bunch of pens, post-it notes and a big white board, that’s all you need to get started!

But is Kanban right for my company?

Put simply – yes! And this is because Kanban makes the process of doing pretty much anything incredibly simple.

Above, we’ve seen the benefits of the Kanban principle in software development, sales and even at home, but it can also be used for moving house, when you’re studying during the arduous process of planning a new business.

There’s a few questions you might ask yourself regularly that indicate you should probably invest some time in Kanban at your business:

– “I don’t know which stage Project X is at…”

– “Can anyone tell me when this job will be completed?”

– “Who’s working on what?”

– “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing next – can anyone tell me?”

– “What have I achieved this week?”

These aren’t unusual questions, and if you’re asking yourself them regularly, Kanban is almost certainly for your business! It’ll answer all of the questions above comprehensively and immediately.

Kanban final thoughts

We hope our guide to Kanban has tempted you to add this brilliant method of productivity to both your work and home life. Most importantly, we’ll hopefully have convinced you to finally ditch the myriad of post-it notes and random scraps of paper that currently make up your project management technique.

One of the best things about Kanban is the ability it has to help you identify inefficiencies within your current workflows and processes. They’re not always easy to accept or resolve, but without Kanban, you’d probably never spot them. And the best news? You only have to address them once to set yourself on the path towards constant improvement.

Just remember the golden rule of Kanban: set yourself WIP limits and make sure everyone sticks to them. It might seem limiting at first, but the more you’re realistic about what can be achieved, the quicker goals will be reached and the more happy the team will be.

There’s no better time than now to get started with Kanban, so grab our guide above, gather the team and discover how productive you can all really be!