improveIf you’ve been reading the “Taming the Chaos for Managers” series thus far, you’ve read about the key concepts of visualizing work, making policies explicit and limiting your work-in-progress. You’ve also learned about helpful ideas such as scheduling focus time and identifying different classes of work. What have you done with that information so far? Take a moment to reflect what you’ve learned from trying to implement these concepts. If you haven’t been able to, ask yourself “why not?”

Today I’m writing about reflecting on the past and improving the future. If you participated in the exercise from the first paragraph, congratulate yourself because you’ve already started the journey. However, unlike most journeys, this one has no final destination. You may find nice vacation spots where you sit and hangout for a while, but be wary of hanging out too long lest you be left behind.

If you wonder how important it is to continuously improve and innovate, ask Blockbusters. There is no staying still. You’re either improving or falling behind. If you think you’re the keeper of the status quo, you’re doing yourself and your company a disservice.

Fortunately, improvement doesn’t have to be one large epic journey that requires a year’s worth of planning. Embrace the fact that you don’t know the big solution that will make everything perfect. Scientists don’t do experiments that have a massive number of variables. If they did that, they’d never know what caused a particular outcome to take place. So, how can you think like a scientist at work? First, gather data. Then begin a series of incremental experiments. This is the spirit of Kaizen: “Big results come from many small change accumulated over time.” (Kaizen Institute)

Starting to identify improvement points

When you get started down the Kaizen path, first you’re just going to gather some data. Don’t worry about what the results are. Your goal is to get the data and then you can reflect on how to improve the data points you’re seeing. I’m going to tell you about some lean metrics: why you measure them, how you measure them, and some things you can do next with what you find.


As discussed previously, the first thing to get a handle on when your work is chaotic is how much work you have going on at any one time.  Work-in-progress metrics give you this data.

How to measure: You can record your work-in-progress at regular intervals in a couple of ways. If you have a tool that provides Lean metrics, it may provide a cumulative flow diagram. If you don’t have an electronic tool, you can create your own cumulative flow diagram, or you can simply tally the number of cards you have in progress on your board at a consistent point (or points) each week. A cumulative flow diagram looks like an unintelligible blog of colors at first glance, but when you start to decrypt it, it can tell you a lot in that one glance. Read more…

How to use the data: Look to see how much work in progress you had when you felt calm versus when you felt stressed. When you had more work-in-progress, did anything suffer? Did it make you take longer to deliver on your commitments? We want to use this WIP measurement to correlate desirable or undesirable conditions. If you notice that your WIP needs to be higher or lower, know why you think so (aka, form a hypothesis), then try it out (conduct the experiment) and review the results.

For a fun time playing around with WIP limits, play getKanban web edition! Try out different ways of processing work and see what works and what doesn’t. Then try things out at work!

Cycle Time

Cycle time is how long it takes you to complete a piece of work from the time you commit to it to the time you finish it. Your goal isn’t to finish cards on the board as quickly as possible. It is to deliver value as quickly as possible with good quality.

How to measure: If you have an electronic tool that provides Lean metrics, a cycle time chart (often called a control chart) is often provided. This will show you average cycle time, plus one or two standard deviations. If you have to measure manually, try putting a dot on the card each day. For each column on your board, use a different color dot. At the end, you can tell how many days your card took and how long it spent in each column or workflow step. (For extra credit, you can also create a control chart in excel.)

How to use the data: You can look at cycle time across all of your work. If there is a wide range of variation, look at cycle time metrics within each class of work. Determine if the times are acceptable. If they are not, you need to look at the cards that took “too long” and see if you can determine the things that contributed to the long cycle times. It could be too much work-in-progress at the time, it could be that your items in a certain area keep getting blocked, etc. You need to come up with something you’d like to try to change and design your next experiment.


Blockers keep you from finishing the work that you commit to in a timely manner. If you follow the rule of not starting cards you know you can’t finish, blockers are unexpected conditions that keep you from finishing committed work.

How to measure: On physical cards, put a special sticker or other mark denoting that it is blocked. Make sure to track how many days it was blocked and put a big X on the sticker or mark when it is unblocked. Each week, capture how many blockers you had and how much time you were delayed by them. In an electronic tool, there will be a way to mark a card as blocked and you should be able to run a report on blockers in a certain time frame.

How to use the data: You want to find out if patterns are emerging. It is not worth your time to attack every blocker, but you need to tackle repeat offenders. Also, you want to identify high-cost blockers. Perhaps they don’t happen all that often, but when they do, the cost is extremely high.

What next?

So, I’ve given you a few standard ways of looking at how things are going and what can be improved. There will never be a lack of things that can be made better so you’ll have to choose how you spend your efforts wisely. Just realize that you can’t fix everything at once. Identify the things with the highest value and work on those.  Note that I said “work.” Include these items on your board. Nothing in life is free and improvement is work. Visualize and track these items like you’d track anything else.

There are loads of people online, and likely locally in your area, to help you if you need someone to dive in and help you with your specific situation. If you ever get stuck, go back to basics. Make sure you can see the work, analyze it, theorize improvements and take small steps forward.

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