Get More Done and Have More Time with Japan's Kanban

As the CEO, you’ll likely also serve as marketing director and fundraising lead, then moonlight as janitor. Awareness of the backlog and the sheer number of things to do can be overwhelming, and juggling too many things in the pursuit of achieving the most for your team has backfired for many founders. Research has shown that we are only good at multitasking when we are doing repetitive tasks or when doing tasks that use two different parts of our brain. So how do we keep track of what’s important and communicate it across our team effectively?

For inspiration on efficiency, we look to the Far East: back in the 1940s Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, developed a new system for managing the team and products of the gigantic Japanese conglomerate. His secret: literally, a “billboard” - or kanban in Japanese - swept through Toyota, increasing productivity across the entire production and distribution network of Toyota, and soon spreading to companies like Ford and beyond. Gradually, this just-in-time development reached the software development world - and the world of startups. If you want to improve your productivity chops, Kanban is worth a try to visualize and prioritize your development plan and to keep your team agile.

Here are the best productivity hacks to wean out the distractions and help you achieve more with kanban:

Competing Tasks Can Be Distracting

The crux of the Kanban is matching the “work in progress” to your capacity, which allows you to focus and more importantly finish things off.

One can tweak and use it to optimize their day with the help of any task management tool.  Here is an example of using Kanban with Trello:

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In the above example, the goal is to not pick more than 3 tasks before finishing at least one! This does two things, at the end of the day one can see what they’ve accomplished, which by the way acts as a motivating feedback to the productivity cycle and second you stay focused.

Convinced by Trello and want to integrate it into your workflow? Try the neat little chrome extension Kanban WIP for Trello. As you work, the extension highlights the list if one is going over capacity. Capacity of the list can be indicated in the list title within square brackets, just to keep you honest and progressing.

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Besides the juggle, there is no shortage of distractions either. As you are reading this, how many tabs do you have open? How many IM’s are you on? And in the last 2 hours how many times have you either responded to an email or checked it?

How should one manage instant interruptions and 2-minute tasks while working through In Progress items?

Communication During Kanban

Set a clear expectation with people you work with regarding response time. For example:

  1. Emergencies - Phone call or dropping by in person

  2. Not an emergency, but needs immediate attention, with no response from 3 & 4 - Phone text

  3. Not an emergency, but needs immediate attention - Skype/Slack

  4. Can wait for 24 to 48 hours - Email

Now that you have that expectation, you can turn off the notification on the email and stop checking it as if your life depended on it. Whenever possible, push to have email preferred over phone call preferred over in-person meetings: emails will be of least disruption to your workflow, while an-in person meeting demands increased overhead like scheduling, finding a meeting spot, opening banter, and generally takes more time than is needed.

Consolidate Distractions - like Open Tabs!

It is unavoidable to look at multiple links when working on a particular problem. But as soon as you are done with that problem it is best to be done with all those open tabs for that task as it adds to the noise -- and slows your computer down!

OneTab is a great extension for Chrome or Firefox users, allowing you to close all unnecessary tabs and collapsing them in one tab for reference.

As you receive a communication, if there is a task that comes to you while you are doing another task, simply add them to the queue.

During your workday as you see too many tabs, hit OneTab to consolidate and stay focused.

A disciplined effort on finishing things and making sure you put things to the queue rather than starting to do too many things at once can make a huge difference to your day and the impact you have on your startup. I started using Kanban last November and it is really amazing how much more one can accomplish with this process.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

A lot of startup founders struggle to switch off and if you keep pushing yourself you will reach a point of diminishing returns.

“Entrepreneurs are expected to be obsessed with building their companies. But that obsession can be isolating and for some startup founders, lead to depression and thoughts of suicide — even when things are going well.” -BizJournal

One can be a much more successful entrepreneur the earlier they realize that things take time and ignoring other things around them besides their venture is going to be detrimental to the venture and their life.

Using kanban or other progress-tracking tools to increase your productivity at your startup? How has this improved your effectiveness or communication with your team? Let us know in the discussion!