How agencies can use Kanban to manage client work

How agencies can use Kanban to manage client work

As an agency, you’re faced with the chaos of multiple clients, quick turnaround times and changing priorities. The practice of Kanban can help you manage the chaos!

Kanban overview

Kanban is a process that came from the Japanese manufacturing industry in the 1940s. It’s best known for its car manufacturing process at Toyota, and the company’s ability to keep work flowing through the system and eliminating bottlenecks.

The word “Kanban” literally translates to “billboard” in Japanese. In Kanban practice today, this is referred to as “visualizing the work.”

Kanban in recent years has been used in customer service centers, help desks, software development and even for personal organization such as planning a wedding or a move.

Today, advertising and digital agencies have found Kanban extremely helpful for managing work between multiple clients.

Visualizing work

To get started with Kanban, the first step is to visualize your work. You can use a poster, a whiteboard, sticky notes or an online tool (my personal favorite is Trello).

Start with drawing columns to show how work typically happens at your agency. The board should be in sequential order from left to right.

Next, you’ll track how many tasks are in each of these columns at a given time. This board should be representative of all client work that the team is currently working on.

Track the number of tasks in each column for about two weeks, or until you have a good representation of your typical workflow.

In the example above, the team learned that their bottleneck is getting work reviewed and that’s slowing down getting work out the door.

For your clients, there is no value to them if work is stuck in your process, so getting them usable work quickly enhances your value as their agency partner.

Optimizing flow

Once you’ve discovered where your bottlenecks are happening, the team needs to optimize the workflow. This will probably take a lot of experimentation (hey, that’s what agile is all about) until the team finds a good flow.

In the case of work getting stuck in the review process, collaboratively talk about what the current review process is and why it’s holding the team back.

Maybe it’s falling on one person’s shoulders and that responsibility needs to be spread out to multiple people.

Perhaps there’s a gap in communication about when work is ready to be reviewed. It could be as simple as tapping the reviewer on the shoulder and saying, “I’m ready for you!”

Limiting work in progress

The agile team’s work is like your kitchen sink – you can only stuff so much food into the drain before it backs up!

To remedy this, Kanban practitioners have implemented WIP limits, or how much Work In Progress the team can handle before work backs up.

There is no correct number for WIP limits. Once again, it is up to the team to experiment and figure out what that ideal number is for them.

For example, you may have only one graphic designer on your team, so that person often becomes the bottleneck. If she has only one design to do, she is often sitting idle waiting for the client. If she has two or three, she can pretty easily bounce between them and feel pretty productive. However, she has found that four or more in progress at once gets chaotic and nothing gets done. In this case, the team would probably want to set a WIP limit of three in the design column.

The team should then determine WIP limits for every column in their Kanban board.

Continual refinement

Once the optimal flow and WIP limits are set, don’t treat them as legal documents. The dynamic of the team members and what they work on changes over time, so continually revisit and refine your process.

By implementing Kanban, agencies will find many benefits such as transparency around the work everyone is doing and being able to get work to clients faster by eliminating bottlenecks.

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