Lean for Knowledge Work

Buried in Work?

If you’re a knowledge worker or managing knowledge workers, chances are you are buried in work. Do you ever feel this way? And that – daily – you’re sinking ever deeper?

Maybe You’re Buried in Unplanned Work!

The amount of unplanned work often exceeds planned work, and the result is:

  • Unsatisfying
  • Exhausting, and
  • Ultimately not sustainable

You’re caught on the ‘overcommitted and underperforming’ merry-go-round of endless firefighting.


Management literature widely uses the metaphor of fighting fires. It typically refers to the allocation of important resources toward solving unanticipated problems or “fires”.

  • When the point where work volume exceeds capacity is reached, people tend to shift into a firefighting mode.
  • They attack symptoms and provide quick fixes.

They do this rather than identify the actual root causes of their fires, and implementing lasting solutions that can create a fire-free zone.

Knowledge Work Is Invisible

There’s a reason people fall into fire-fighting. It’s because you can’t see knowledge work. It’s invisible. While in manufacturing and some service industries, co-workers and managers see widgets on an assembly line or customers in a queue, in knowledge work this flow is mostly invisible. And because it is, nobody knows when there is too much Work in Process (WIP).

  • This lack of understanding leads to workers taking on too much even when they are already overloaded.
  • Also, invisibility means no one has an idea what the knowledge worker’s capacity is.
  • That means the organization routinely over assigns

Bring in Fire Marshal Kanban

If you want to take back control of your process, employ Fire Marshal Kanban. Kanban is a mechanism that makes your workflow visual and restricts the number of tasks underway (WIP).

  • Your lead times will decrease.
  • It allows people to improve processes themselves, and to do so at their own speed.

While there is no shortage of management frameworks, tools, and methods, Kanban has proven to be the most effective method for managing knowledge work.

  • The Kanban concept comes from Lean manufacturing.
  • It is a signaling device that gives authorization and instructions for the production or withdrawal (conveyance) of items in a pull system.
  • The term is Japanese for “sign” or “signboard.”

Knowledge workers can effectively leverage Kanban to gain the same quality and efficiency improvements that manufacturers enjoy.

The Kanban Method

The Kanban method uses three core principles to create an emergent set of Lean behaviors in organizations.

  1. Visualize:

You have to understand what it takes to get an item from request to completion. The goal of Kanban is to make positive change in order to optimize the flow of work through the system. Only after understanding how the workflow currently functions can you aspire to improve it by making the correct adjustments. The most common way to visualize your workflow is to use “card walls” with cards and columns. Each column on the wall represents steps in your workflow.

Kanban Board

If you look around you will find that the physical board is not the only choice. There are plenty of electronic tools on the market.

Virtual Kanban Board

  • Both solutions have their advantages and both have their flaws. Physical Kanban boards have visibility and presence. They encourage face-to-face communication, enhance stand-up experiences, and they serve as a constant reminder of team goals and achievements.
  • Digital boards are accessible from anywhere, making remote collaboration a breeze. Digital boards are great for distributed teams and maintenance of charts, and they link directly to the associated tickets.
  1. Limit WIP

After visualizing WIP, the next step is to start balancing the amount of WIP against the available processing capability. It may even seem counterintuitive to those who believe that the more work you put into the system, the more you get out. While that is true up to a point, after that point the system becomes turbulent and firefighting starts.

Simply put, you can’t do more work than you can handle.

  1. Manage flow

The whole point of implementing the Kanban method is to create positive change. Before you can create that change, however, you have to know what to change. You figure that out by looking at how value is currently flowing through the system, analyzing problem areas in which value flow is stalled, and then defining, and finally implementing, changes.

You then repeat the cycle to see what effect your changes had on the system because you need to know if the changes you made had a positive or negative impact on the things you were attempting to improve.

You are never finished. It is a never-ending journey.

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