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Communication Kanban for More Effective Communication and Better Management

March 2, 2016

On projects and in our daily life, we are faced with the decisions of when to communicate to a specific person and how much to communicate to them. We can apply the concept of a Kanban board to help approach these decisions, communicate more effectively and be better project managers.

A Kanban board describes the big-bucket, discrete steps work goes through until it is done. For example, a software development project may have steps like To-Do, In Progress, Testing, Done. Work is written on a note card. The work can be specific stories in Agile or work packages in Waterfall. The work is then moved through the discrete steps on the board as it progresses through various stages towards completion. The work can move forward and backward. For example, it can fail Testing and be sent back to In Progress. But the work can never be in two stages at the same time. The process is serial.

At any point in time we can look at a Kanban board and see how much work is in each bucket. We can see how much there is still to do, how much is actively being worked on, how much is being tested and how much is done. As a result, a Kanban board provides a quick, visual representation of whether work is flowing through the process or whether there are bottlenecks. We can also see exactly where the bottlenecks are in a process. They are at whichever bucket has the most cards in it. When cards pile up in a bucket it means the people working that step are backed-up. Maybe the equipment they use is broken or maybe a particular piece of work is taking longer than anticipated. They may not have the training necessary to work on that card or there may not be enough people or resources to work on the amount of work being pushed to that bucket.

There are a number of reasons cards can pile up. But once cards pile up, each additional card only adds to the bottleneck. What’s more, the larger the pile up, the less likely it is to clear up. Each card reduces the speed at which any single card can be processed in that bucket. It reduces the overall efficiency and effectiveness of that step in the process. Quality goes down and throughput is reduced. Cards are likely to get dropped, pushed aside for higher priority cards, or forgotten – because the work doesn’t stop.

We can use the concept of a Kanban board to think about when to communicate to someone and how much to communicate to them. Before applying the concept, let’s define these decisions a bit further.

The decision “when to communicate” is straightforward. It means what point in time is the best time to communicate to this person in order for the communication to be effective.

The decision “how much to communicate” means how many pieces of information should we convey in any communication in order for the communication to be effective. For example, let’s say I have several pieces of information to convey, such as a project is delayed, two people are taking vacation next month and that the VPN is being flaky. I can choose to convey all that information at once. Alternatively, I can choose to convey only one piece of information now, wait a day, convey another two pieces, wait a day and, if the information is relevant, convey the final piece of information then. It may very well be that that final piece of information is no longer relevant and therefore we can drop it, reducing the total amount of information needed to be conveyed. For example, one of the people may have changed their vacation plans and is no longer taking vacation next month or the VPN may have become more stable.

(As a side note, we make decisions on how much to communicate when designing presentations or writing sentences. We can choose to try to communicate a lot of information on one slide of a presentation or in one sentence. Or, we can limit how much we communicate with each slide or sentence.)

The choices we make on when to communicate and how much information to convey impact the effectiveness of our communication.

Applying the concept of a Kanban board we can think of each person has having a distinct internal process through which communication flows. For example, in Reinventing Communication I leverage OODA to describe the process through which communication flows internally and translates into individual behavior. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Using an OODA model, communication is received by an individual, processed, a decision made in relation to that information and then the individual takes an action. That is, they choose to behave in a particular way.

(As an aside, OODA nicely links together information and action. But we can certainly use other models to describe the internal flow and maintain the value of applying the Kanban board concept to helping us decide when and how much to communicate.)

We can conceptually map the steps of OODA onto a Kanban board with each step or bucket being one of the four steps of the OODA model. One column for Observe, another for Orient, another for Decide and the final column for Act. Now, unlike a visualized Kanban board, it is quite difficult to have 100% visibility into the flow of information inside any individual. However, we can watch for signs from an individual of how much information they are ready to receive. For example, are they open to conversations or cutting off conversations? Is there body language open and attentive or closed off and eager to move onto something else?

We can also keep a watchful eye on the environment in which someone operates to get a sense of how much information they have in process and how many decisions they are facing at any point in time. For example, you may have sat in three meetings with someone or have been cc’d on emails to them and know they’ve received a ton of information that impacts their projects. They are processing a lot of information and have several decisions to make and potential actions to take.

We can use this awareness to decide when is a good time to communicate with them and about what. It may make sense to wait for them to finish processing most of what they’ve already received before adding another piece of information, another card, as it were, to their processing queue. Being aware of each person’s internal Kanban board can help us decide when to communicate and how much to communicate at any point in time. Remember, effective communication is based on the receiver, on the person we are trying to communicate to, and not on when it is convenient for us to communicate.

Given that any process has a limited number of cards it can effectively cycle through at any point in time (i.e. a limited amount of information, when talking about communication) only a limited amount of information can be conveyed to a person at any given point in time to be effectively processed. Providing too much information leads to a bottleneck. There is information overload, reduced effectiveness of each next piece of information and a higher likelihood that any particular piece of information will dropped, pushed aside or processed incorrectly – resulting in an undesired decision or an undesired behavior.

We can further extend the application of the Kanban concept by introducing the idea of Work In Progress or WIP. WIP is the number of cards in process and not complete. We can keep tabs of how much WIP a particular process can hold at any point in time and find the optimal number of cards for that process. We can do the same for each person with whom we communicate. We can pay attention to the people with whom we communicate and develop of sense of their individual throughput, their optimal WIP, as it were. We can be aware of how much communication WIP they can process and how much they currently have moving through the process. This can help us decide when to communicate with each person and how much information to convey at any point in time. Doing so will make us better communicators and, at the end of the day, have more successful projects.

Looking at it from the other side, we are not only senders of information but also receive information throughout the day. Our minds automatically control the amount of communication WIP we are working on at any point in time. But we can increase our effectiveness as managers by consciously managing our internal WIP. We can move off autopilot and consciously and intentionally decide which pieces of information to deal with, what decisions to make and what actions to take. Further, we can free up capacity in our internal process by delegating tasks and delegating decisions, honestly leaving a decision up to someone else and not thinking about it. These are often hallmarks of the most effective managers. They are excellent at delegating and have other people they can lean on for decisions. These factors give managers the capacity to focus on the right decisions, properly process the available information and take appropriate actions. Managing our own internal communication WIP, and finding ways to increasing our throughput, can make us more effective managers.

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