Using Kanban boards to support IT operations

Kanban is often used in software development environments, but there aren’t as yet many organizations using it to help manage IT operations. I find that surprising, because the benefits it can bring are very large, and it is incredibly easy to do.

I have been talking to a number of IT organizations recently about how they use Kanban to support their IT operations, as part of a project to create templates for use with an Enterprise Kanban product.

What is Kanban?

If you’re not familiar with Kanban then the basic principle is easy. It is a way of visualizing and managing your work that helps you to do two things; focus on flow, and limit work in progress (WIP). If you don’t know why a focus on flow is important then please read my recent blog The 3 ways aren’t just for DevOps.

A typical Kanban board consists of cards that represent activities, and vertical columns that represent the status of an activity. In the simplest case you could have a physical whiteboard that looks like this.

2016 07 19 Using Kanban boards to support IT operations IMAGE2As each activity is started it is moved to the “In progress” column, and then when it is finished it is moved to the “Done” column. EVERY card starts in the Not Started column, and then moves to the right as it makes progress. This board shows that we have already got some Post-it notes and a whiteboard, and are now learning about Kanban. Later we will look at some Kanban tools and start to use Kanban.

Benefits of Kanban

In a typical IT operations environment there are teams with names like “Storage team”, “Windows team” or “Network team” who do many different kinds of work. They may manage escalated incidents and problems; plan, review, assess and deploy changes; support development projects; configure, deploy and manage tools and many other activities. It is common for each of these activities to have its own prioritized queue, but often there is no easy way to see and prioritize all of the team’s work.

If the team starts too many activities at the same time, then people may end up trying to work on multiple things, which generally results in poor efficiency, and in some things being started but never finished. If you limit the WIP to the number of things you can actually do at the same time, then you will work more efficiently and get more work done. This can be summarised in the simple phrase “Stop starting and start finishing”, in other words only start the amount of work that you can finish, and let other things wait until you can do them properly.

In order to manage WIP like this you need to have all of the team’s work visible in one place. Separate queues for different types of work makes it very hard to do this. A Kanban board can be used to help the team see and manage this WIP.

Potential benefits of using a Kanban board to manage the work of an IT operations team include:

  • Improved flow, with more work being completed in the same time because the amount of WIP can be restricted
  • Activities prioritised with greater accuracy because all the work of the team is made visible to all team members in a single place
  • IT staff prompted to maintain a clear focus on those things that create most value to their customers, because the end-to-end flow of activity is now visible, helping everyone to see how their work contributes to the overall value stream

Kanban boards can also be used to help facilitate collaboration between teams, by ensuring that each team’s work is visible to everyone. For example, major incidents inevitably generate multiple streams of activity relating to devising workarounds, investigating root causes, communicating with stakeholders etc. If all these activities are managed separately, co-ordination of effort becomes more difficult and valuable time – as well as reserves of good will – may well be lost facilitating communication or coping with the consequences of failed communication.  If, however, an organisation uses a single well-maintained Kanban board that is visible to all stakeholders, then this can help to improve collaboration and avoid wasted effort. The Kanban board provides a focal point for teams to swarm around, resulting in faster resolution and reduced cost of downtime. It can also help to ensure that timely and accurate information is provided to stakeholders, reducing the amount of miscommunication and helping to improve customer satisfaction.

What work should you track on a Kanban board

Ideally each team should track everything they do on a Kanban board, but in practice it’s probably sensible to only include work that will involve significant time or effort. For example, a team that only manages very high volumes of incidents, each one requiring only a few minutes’ work, would probably not gain much benefit from laboriously tracking every progression from pending to done. However, a typical IT operations team would almost certainly benefit from tracking their incidents, problems, changes, service requests, project activities, report creation, routine manual activities, and anything else that takes more than a few minutes of work.

What tools can you use to create your Kanban board?

If all of your team members are located in a single place, then a large Whiteboard can be a perfect Kanban tool. It’s ideal for times when you want to discuss and prioritise your work, as everyone can swarm around the board and this facilitates collaboration and sharing.

If you have a distributed team, with people working from home or from more than one office, then you need to consider using a software Kanban tool. There are many products available on the market. Some products are designed to scale well, supporting features such as parent-child relationships between cards on different boards, use of graphics and icons on the cards, or use of swim lanes to segregate and organize activities. Other products target high volumes and low cost. You should think about how you want to use Kanban boards and compare the various options available.

Just search for Kanban software using your favourite internet search engine to see the wide selection available.

Summary

Kanban boards are traditionally used in IT development teams, but they can be just as useful for IT operations. You should consider using them to help you manage flow, limit work in progress, and prioritise your work.

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