The Power Of Kanban

EP 15

We are looking for ways to better structure and organise our work during long-term improvement projects. The Kanban approach to team rapid action planning can provide enhanced clarity, motivation and transparency about what needs to be done and where things are up to. Simon shares the core components of the Kanban approach and provides guidance on how educational teams can harness the benefits of this simple and effective tool.


I’m always looking for practical and useful ideas from outside of education and then working hard with our partner systems and schools to thoughtfully adapt those approaches to work in our unique educational contexts. And one of the approaches that I’ve been really inspired by from outside of education around planning is the Kanban approach to rapid action planning. Kanban, which is a Japanese term that translates something close to card signal or visual signal, is an agile approach to project management and workflow that emerged often in software development and other technology companies, but has now found its way into many, many sectors, including in education. The Kanban approach is built around a board, which can be both analogue set up on a window or a whiteboard or digital using a range of different digital tools that are available. But the board is set up around three core columns.

The first column is to do the middle column is doing, and the third column is done. The goal here is to first build up a backlog of the all the various tasks and things that you know need to get done within this project. Now, at first I might say that when I do this or I work with teams doing this, it can spike our anxiety a little bit. There’s something really tough about coming to confront all the various things that have been running around our minds, but having them in one place, in one to do backlog can then start to calm the mind because we don’t have to deal with so many intrusive thoughts as our brain intrudes us and says, Hey, don’t forget about this. I find myself emailing myself at night, Hey, don’t forget about this in the morning. Or, um, having a thought and quickly grabbing a post-it note and sticking it somewhere near one of my computers.

You know, the Kanban approach says, try to get all of those key tasks in one place, in one backlog, and calm your mind that you’ve actually captured all the things that need to be done in this project. Well, the second column is about doing, and the Kanban approach puts a particular focus on limiting the amount of work we do concurrently. The technical term for this is a whip limit. W I P A work in progress limit. And here the key learning is that we need to, of course, progress work, but humans and human teams, whilst we’re very good at getting things done, if we try to do too many things in parallel rather than in sequence, we can often overload our own planning circuits. So the Kanban approach says, be very careful about moving just two, three, or four things from the backlog into the doing column.

This can help you and the team focus on the few things that matter most. Now, as we complete one of those key actions, we can then move it across to the done column. This gives a wonderful experience of flowing tasks from the to-do to the doing and into the done, and helps us have a visual assurance that things are progressing, that they are moving from the needing to be done all the way through to the done, and it can keep everyone on the same page. So the Cuban approach is a really powerful way. If you are working as a team on a complex project that’s gonna go on for multiple terms or indeed multiple years, and you want to be able to have an agile and adaptive approach to tracking what needs to be done, focusing the team on the few things that’ll be focused on during the coming month or the current improvement cycle, and then having a way of visually celebrating and acknowledging the progress that has been made.

I see teams setting up Kanban boards for the work. They’re leading on literacy improvement or numeracy. I see teams setting up a Kanban board for a long-term curriculum implementation project. I see them setting up Cuban boards for Indeed projects on well-being and behaviour and community engagement. It’s one of those tools that can be used for any domain area or project because it’s about structuring the way we as teams work together. So what do you think, have you had any experience with a Kanban approach to rapid action planning? Have you used it for a while and maybe it dropped away? Perhaps you’ve used it on your own and not yet had a chance to bring it to a team? Well, I’m sure there’s many in our community who haven’t really had a chance to engage with the core concepts at all. For me, we use Kanban in our own teams.

I use Con Kanban in all of the teams that I coach. It’s a wonderful way to visualise your work, make it tangible and experience a flow from things that need to be done all the way through to having visual assurance that things have been done. So why don’t you explore a little bit more and find a way to experiment with a K bun board, whether you want to do a simple one with some post-it notes and write it up on a whiteboard or a board. For others, you might want to use software like a Trello board or in Microsoft, they have project planning templates that follow the Kanban approach. Maybe if you’re a Google user, you could use jam board. Indeed, all platforms now have some type of project management approach that would allow you to set up a simple Kanban board to do doing, done one of the best ways to calm the mind about all the things that need to be done to focus the team on the few things we’re doing right now, and then to experience the success and the feeling of accomplishment from the small progress you achieve by moving each of the things across to the done column.

Our work and educational change is often long-term, complex, and messy, and a Kanban board is a wonderful way of structuring that complexity. Well, thanks for joining me. I hope you’re getting a huge amount of value out of these ideas. One last request before you go. I genuinely appreciate it if you could subscribe, rate, and review this show. It’s one of the easiest ways for us to get these ideas into the hands of even more educational leaders.

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