Last Wednesday, Optimal was honored to accept the 2014 Small Business Innovation Award at the Chamber Trifecta event with almost 600 fellow business professionals in attendance. When I accepted the award, I acknowledged that “what” we do is innovative, but I am most proud of “how” we do it. That’s the innovation the outside world never gets to see. Here is a glimpse of that.

Optimal Digital Marketing with Innovation Award

How do we scale?
As the business began to scale, we started running into information issues. Just the sheer quantity of things that needed to be done was overwhelming and almost paralyzing. Where do you even start? I did a quick search and we have 1,028 tasks on just one of our teams alone! As Jim Collins puts it, “If you have more than three priorities, then you don’t have any.”

If you have more than three priorities, then you don’t have any. – Jim Collins

This problem is not unique to us. I feel that every single modern worker (or knowledge worker) deals with this. Clarity and peace of mind is possible when you can answer the very basic question of, “Am I working on the most important thing right now?”

Enter Kanban
Imagine a world where you never had more than 3 things on your task list. Sounds like bliss, right? Well, it can happen, and that is just what we did.

Kanban is used in situations where there is zero room for error. It’s found in surgery departments to your local Starbucks. The concept was created and popularized by Toyota. Kanban is Japanese for “visual card,” but it goes much deeper than that. The core idea is that you have a large board and cards to put tasks on. The visual below should help.

kanban board

This is where all the tasks go. What needs to be done now or ever, just throw them in here. Be specific. Each task should be concrete and doable in 2-4 hours. This list is on the left because it’s not actually up on the board.

The project manager’s job is to sift through the icebox and pull out the most important items to add to this list. This list should have only a certain amount of tasks at any one point. We keep it to about 20 tasks. The priority of the tasks is represented by the order in which they appear.

This is where the worker bees live. They don’t need to worry about managing that gigantic list in the icebox. They don’t even need to worry about what needs to be done next. They just go to the backlog and grab something to work on. They can only work on a fixed number of tasks at a time. We limit it to two. This makes it so that you have to complete something. Getting something 80% done is not a deliverable, after all.

 Getting something 80% done is not a deliverable, after all.

This whole concept is called the “pull system.” No one assigns anything to anyone, and (for the most part) you don’t need to worry about due dates. Workers know what needs to be done. When they have the resources to work on something, they just grab the next thing in the queue.

This eliminates all the mental gymnastics of figuring out what to work on next. One person on the team’s full time role is just to make sure ideas go into the icebox and eventually (when appropriate) to the backlog so the team can work on them.

Not every task can be done by one person. Often times you need someone else to review your work. You then move the task over to that person’s review section. Here again is another limit, you can only have so many items in review at any one point. When they start to stack up, you need to stop whatever you’re doing so you can clear up that jam. It’s a continual focus on completing a task in one circuit. Instead of a bunch of tasks partially done, it’s a few tasks completely done. It’s all about focus.

There is a certain visceral sense of accomplishment when you move a card from doing to done. We are wired for this and our body rewards us with a shot of dopamine. It’s addictive and it’s how you get on a roll. We clear this section at the end of the day.

Follow up-
This is an optional item. It is off to the right as it’s not on the board. We use this to pull certain tasks aside to test the effectiveness of them and learn from them, if we can.

How to implement this on your team
We have two components to this. First, we have a physical board that looks just like the visual above. The cards are printed and laminated (see below; feel free to download and customize!). We have magnets on the back of the cards so we can easily move them across the board.

The second component is a mirror image of this in our project management software (Asana). We work out of here, and it would not be fair to our remote team members if they could not see the board. It is a bit of work to maintain two systems, but we feel it is worth it.

If you want to go with a digital tool that REALLY lends itself to a visual board, check out Trello.

kanban card

Download the PDF file or Download the Omnigraffle file

Just the beginning

We are just scratching the surface here, but this should give you the basic framework to apply it to your own use case.

I once heard a quote that running a company is like creating a good board game. You need to create structure and healthy rules for the players and team. This allows players/teams to be efficient, have clarity, and do great things.

It’s innovations like this that nobody gets to see, but I enjoy the most. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.