Even though Kanban methodology was invented to control a production chain in manufacturing, it was well adopted by software development teams to manage projects. Due to Kanban principles, software development teams can visualize a large number of items and tasks and understand the full scope of a software project. At the same time, team members can focus on the most important issues to be solved first. In the last decade, Kanban is returning to its roots – mechanical engineers are taking over practices from software developers and bringing Kanban back to manufacturing companies through the office doors.
Why Kanban engineering teams is a good choice and how they benefit from it to deliver better results? Let’s look at how this Agile approach helps engineers solve the 5 most common project management issues and 2 real-world cases of adopting Kanban for engineering teams.
Kanban for Engineering Teams
The processes within engineering teams and companies are complicated and dynamic. Creating, testing, and pushing out new products requires great talent and a lot of work. So how can throwing Kanban into the mix help?
You may be apprehensive at first, after all, working within an engineering environment is quite different from an assembly line that Kanban was first created for. However, there is still a great need for clarity and ease of handling various projects and tasks. And this is exactly what Kanban offers.
Using Kanban for project management
By visualizing tasks and allowing team members to choose what work should be done next, Kanban gives its teams a way of working that is entirely up to them. While at the same time it asks the teams to focus on the items that create the most value and limits the amount of work that can be done at a time. This has proved to be a great way of optimizing processes in various industries. But as it turns out, using Kanban for engineering teams also tackles common management issues. Here are the 5 you can avoid using Kanban.
1. Understanding and Managing Scope
One of the biggest issues for many engineering teams comes when we talk about scope. Usually, there are several projects running at a time with hundreds of tasks that must be relayed to the team and managed. Without a good system in place, this quickly creates confusion and teams can lose both – focus and motivation to produce the best results.
With Kanban thrown into this mix, things become a lot clearer. Using the main tool of this approach – a Kanban board, teams can quickly understand everything that is happening within each project. The board visualizes all tasks according to the project and their current state, making it easy to follow what is happening.
Engineering task management
In a Kanban board, you will see the completion stage for each task – Planned, In Progress, or Done. (These steps can be modified to accurately represent your process) Thus, you will always know what is planned for the project and how the team is getting there. Using Kanban for engineering teams allows you to see all the tasks according to their stage of completion and also helps you manage the scope and prioritize what is the most important right now.
Here is an example of an advanced Kanban board visualizing several projects with specific process steps to relaying the scope of work.
2. Adapting to Changes
Adapting to the changing circumstances is another important aspect most engineering teams deal with. Changing industry standards, new technology, and varying customer requirements happen constantly. Thus, a good way of dealing with these changes is key.
Kanban in this case is great. Unlike Scrum, it does not ask the team to deliver results every 1-4 weeks. While it still organizes work in iterations and delivers additional value to the product incrementally, the duration of these iterations is entirely up to the team. In fact, this duration can even differ from one iteration to the next.
When using Kanban for engineering teams it is entirely up to them to decide when an iteration is over. And they don’t have to force themselves to work within a certain timeframe. However, since planning is done on-demand as circumstances change, they can easily say an iteration is over and plan a new one. Thus, making adapting to changes a lot easier and smoother.
3. Understanding Specifications
Details are important for any team, but they could not be more important when it comes to engineering and creating new products. Misunderstanding of specifications is a common issue when managing an engineering team. And while Kanban itself does not really address this problem, using an online Kanban board like Teamhood will greatly assist you in this matter.
Simply add all the important information related to projects and tasks to the task details. This will always be live and visible to all your team members. Making sure important specs do not get lost in an e-mail somewhere. You can detail your task cards with anything from simple assignments and dues dates, to attaching and discussing important specifications and details required for a new product.
4. Managing Resources
Another common issue when it comes to engineering teams is managing the team members. They are all highly skilled and highly intellectual individuals that often have a specific way they like to perform their tasks. And this means there are different ways of approach to get the best out of each.
Kanban can be a great mediator in this case, as it asks the team members themselves to pick and choose which tasks they are going to perform. Meaning there is no hand-down from management and the team is in control of what is being produced as well as how the work is being done. The team has a goal to deliver and it is up to them to plan and deliver tasks that complete this goal.
However, to make sure no team member is overworked or commits to too many tasks at once. Kanban asks the team to also set a limit on how many tasks can be in progress at a time. Making sure each of the team members is staying productive and not stalling the process. While the management can track their efforts in a workload management view.
5. Cross-Team and Cross-Department collaboration
Lastly, Kanban is a great help when an engineering team needs to coordinate work with other teams or departments. And that is most of them. Other departments like sales, marketing, manufacturing need to know what is happening in engineering to effectively plan their processes.
By using Kanban for engineering teams this can be achieved a lot easier. All they have to do is grant access to their board to the other departments and they are already in the loop on what is happening. Making it easy, for example, to plan the beginning of production and marketing campaigns.
This can be pushed even further if other departments start using Kanban boards as well. Within a tool like Teamhood, teams can create and move tasks across several boards. Making it easy to drop a finished engineering item into the manufacturing board. Which eases collaboration and clarity of the process and allows to plan the project outcome more accurately.
Kanban for Engineering Teams Use Cases
Curious to know how the Kanban application works in reality? According to the state of engineering project management report, 52 % of engineering companies use dedicated project management tools. Here are two Teamhood clients that chose Kanban to optimize their processes.
ITW Fasteners is a US-based company with engineering teams and production sites all over the world. They design and produce fasteners and other functional components for the automotive industry. A German engineering team from ITW fasteners came to Eylean looking for help visualizing and keeping track of tasks as well as managing multiple projects at once. They quickly found that a Kanban board was able to fit all these requirements.
It all started with simple project management. By creating a custom task board, tailored to their process, they were able to take better control of multiple projects and bring clarity into their processes. Having all tasks monitored on the board, they were also able to easily generate weekly engineering reports, notifying other teams of their progress. A Kanban board proved to be a great way of overviewing running jobs, statuses, responsibilities, actions, due dates, and alerts. In fact, the approach proved to be so successful, that the sales team soon followed.
Implementing IATF Standards
Quality aspects in the automotive industry are extremely important, perhaps not less than in pharmacy and medicine, as they are directly related to safety on the road. Leading manufacturers like BMW, VW group, and others have agreed on International Automotive Task Force (IATF) standards – that define quality control requirements for automotive components. It covers not just the quality of products but includes quality control procedures in their manufacturing, engineering, and design processes. Additional procedures make the engineering projects even more complex since it requires additional coordination with quality control teams in various stages of the project. But not that complex when a digital Kanban platform is in use. ITW together with Eylean adopted their platform to be compliant with IATF standards making it easier to track KPIs, automating auditing, log revisions, and other processes. Here are more details about IATF compliance for the automotive industry.
Alfa Laval is a global manufacturer of heat exchangers, separators, pumps, and valves. It has 42 production sites all over the world, and their Kanban journey began in the Automation department. The team decided it was time to update their process and started implementing Agile.
After changing the vision and creating a new mindset for the employees, the company moved to review how their teams work. They applied the Kanban approach by letting the team members choose the tasks they are going to perform. However, the application was then taken even further. Instead of having set teams choosing their work, they decided to create teams around each specific project.
To make this happen, the management defined the work that had to be done with specific goals and competencies and then let the team members pick and choose where they wanted to work. With a few rounds of back and forth, teams were formed based on specific goals to be achieved. And once those goals were completed, new teams for new goals would be formed. Thus, using a Kanban task selection principle to let the team members work on projects they are most motivated and excited about.
Using Kanban for engineering teams can be a great help to optimize the process and task clarity. Various ceremonies and the way of organizing work can also help with solving common management issues within such teams. However, as with any new method, it should not be applied blindly. Kanban should be used to add to the engineering processes, instead of just changing them for the sake of change.
Just like any Agile approach, Kanban is about the mindset change first and the ceremonies later. So, make sure you seek agility and not simply perform Kanban ceremonies. Engineering teams will not be happy by just delivering small pieces of work all the time. Instead, they need to know the vision and where the project is going to feel motivated and deliver the best results. Kanban can be great for this as it allows enough flexibility and structure for the team to reach the best results.
Passionate content marketer looking to bring better solutions to the project management space.
2020 - Present Marketing specialist at Teamhood.
2014 - 2020 Marketing manager for Eylean.