Kanban: The Visual System That Improves Workflow

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By Starlene Kane, Manager of Implementation Services, Change Healthcare and Jennifer Klein, Tech Writer, Education Team, Change Healthcare

If our brains can process a picture 60,000 times faster than words, why aren’t we all using a visual system to organize our work? The answer is—we should be, and it’s called kanban. A visual system introduced into manufacturing by Toyota as a way to limit work in progress on the line, kanban ensured no single part of the system was overloaded and greatly reduced defects.

It turns out kanban translates well into non-manufacturing situations, such as homecare offices. In fact, it helps knowledge workers in a multitude of ways:

  • Increases visibility into project status (your own or your team’s)
  • Eliminates the paralysis caused by feeling overwhelmed
  • Helps you prioritize your day
  • Helps you understand how you spent your time that day (or week)
  • Reduces the need to “switchtask”: stopping and starting various tasks in a vain attempt to multitask (humans actually cannot do two things at once effectively)

Kanban in the office

In its simplest form, kanban is a whiteboard or wall in an office or hallway showing project status (to-do, in progress and done). More sophisticated versions display multiple teams on the board, and electronic versions also are available.

But even the simplest version is a powerful tool, allowing you to:

  1. Limit work in progress. Projects get done faster and more efficiently when everyone focuses on them. The ideal number of projects in progress depends on your team and the type of work you’re doing, but it should be small. Excesses of partially finished work are wasteful, expensive and lengthen the lead time to get new products or services to market. When we go back to a project we began and then set aside, we have to re-familiarize ourselves with it, adding time and resources. Limiting work in progress helps us acknowledge that we can either pay attention to a few things with great effectiveness or pay attention to many things with little effectiveness. Note that if your group doesn’t limit work in progress, the kanban board becomes a glorified to-do list.
  2. Focus on flow. The kanban board helps you easily see project flow. By developing team-driven policies, you can optimize your systems to improve home care workflow. In time, you can collect the type of metrics that let you analyze flow and predict potential problems.
  3. Continuous improvement. Kanban helps teams naturally move into continuous improvement efforts, measuring their effectiveness by tracking flow, quality, throughput and lead times. The first step is identifying reasons for bottlenecks, including a time-management issue, a skill deficit (things get to a certain point and don’t get done) or a person whose work is so labor intensive that they slow the process.

It’s important to note that kanban does not replace a team’s existing project methodology; it’s used in conjunction. Often, kanban boards are part of a daily stand-up meeting (a conference call plus kanban software for virtual teams) with the team reviewing vital statistics and which tasks should get done that day. During the meeting, team members commit to certain tasks, discuss potential hurdles and come up with possible workarounds.

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