How to increase your productivity by 200%

Its 2012, we need agile tools and workflows to cover the needs of our lean operations. We need actionable metrics, track everything and manage top talents without getting in their ways… Projectmanagement is dead. Long live Projectmanagement…

When you grow your team, you will very soon reach the point where the “intuitive” methods of assigning tasks and planning projects will fail. At this point you want to consider replacing E-Mail, Skype and Direct Communication with proper tools & workflows to manage your teams tasks and workload. Today i am going to outline the path we took, and how we ended up with Trello saving everyones time and nerves. We kind of moved from zero to Kanban in regards to project management. Maybe you are in a different situation and need to reduce or improve the existing project management. Any way, i hope this article will help & inspire you to try something different than MS project 😉

What you need to get started

  • A Whiteboard, Flipchart, area on the wall or the like
  • Some Post-Its
  • Pen and Paper
  • A little bit of time and trust.

Capture the current reality

No matter what you think is the best method or tool, do not just jump in and implement it. First you want to capture the current reality. You want to know whats going on before you change it. It can be quite revealing if you just ask everyone to write down a list of things they are planning to do, or think they are supposed to do next. Revealing in a way that shows you how little you know about what actually is going on, no matter how much you think you are in control. Don’t use tools for that. I really recommend to stick with pen & paper in these kind of situations. It does not set limits. Talk to the people about their lists and try to understand how everyone manages their tasks prior to the next steps.

Visualize what you do

At this point you are equipped with a very complete overview of todo items for every person. You should have a feeling about how tasks get assigned to people. Maybe you already identified or understood some problems. To visualize, understand and later optimize the processes you can use a Kanban board. Kanban gives you the flexibility needed to represent existing workflows and adjust alongside with the optimization. Kanban btw. is a visual process management system (aka Kanban Board), and also a whole method for evolutionary optimization ( ). For you, kanban can be as simple or complex as you need it to be. Although for the most people in your organization the introduction of Kanban will mean only minor changes, you need to understand and prepare a bit more. Kanban is an evolutionary system as opposed to revolutionary methods of changing an organizations processes. For you it means that you can start with Kanban, without changing anything in the first step. All you do is, you start to vizualize (parts of) what everyone is doing on a simple whiteboard, called the Kanban Board. In its simplest form it its made of 3 columns, each with a number of Stories / Tasks or whatever on Post-Its.

Trello Kanban Board

Sometimes this already is enough for you to get started, sometimes you need to put some more thoughts into designing your first board to reflect your processes. You can add as many columns as you need. Try to fill the board with the previously captured tasks. Find out whats currently beeing worked on, and move the tickets accordingly. If you feel comfortable with the result, start with the first minor “changes” and introduce Kanban to the rest of your team. I recommend to start with some very basic rules to get things started:

Push vs Pull

One characteristic that everyone liked immediately after they understood it, was “Push vs Pull”. Tasks are not pushed to someone, as in “Skype: Please add a newsletter Box to our Homepage!!”. Instead people “pull” their task from the Todo column to doing, whenever they are ready to work on something new. For us this simple shift alone had a big impact on productivity. It removes many of the common distractions and gives team members a lot more flexibility & autonomy. No one is allowed to directly assign tasks anymore.

Move Tickets instantly

Whenever something changes (like someone finishes a task), move the tickets on the board to represent the new situation. The physical representation of tasks on a whiteboard, really makes it easier to understand and internalize the whole method. Its strange but it feels quite good to physically move a Task from doing to done. Tickets only move from left to the right.

Standup Meetings

Meet with everyone on the team in front of the board regularly, and quickly let everyone explain what they are working on, what problems they are facing. Discuss questions about the Board and Kanban itself. Implement Rules as described in the next section.

Kaizen, Rules & Wip Limits

Kaizen is japanese for “improvement”. I dont want to get too much into the details of the Kanban method but thats basicly what it is about. You want to slowly start making incremental improvements to your processes. The newly installed kanban board gives you the tools you need to visualize and optimize in small and easy to follow steps. From week to week you can discuss, introduce or remove rules for the Board. WiP Limits for example are very useful. They limit the “Work in Progress” by defining a maximum number of tasks for certain columns. Lets say you also have a “testing” column for features that are ready but not yet tested. Lets also assume that people like developing new features more than testing them. As a result you fail to ship features although they are almost ready. Lets change that by introducing a WiP Limit of 5 to the Testing Column.

It means thatthere can not be more than 5 Tickets in the Testing column. So no one can pull any more Tickets into the Testing column. Its like a little traffic jam that will eventually also fill up the doing column with their own limit. Thats when people will start to realize that there is a Problem: Someone has to test the Features to allow everything else to flow again. Maybe some developers will help out with the testing instead of developing more and more features. Kanban is very good at identifying these kind of problems. If you dig further into Kanban you will find more of these usefull tools that help you optimize your processes.

Use Trello to replace your physical Boards

Real Kanban boards are great. Dont skip them. They force people to literally “get in touch” with their work and also each other. They are a place to gather and discuss. They are visible for everyone and remind you of sticking with the method. Going digital makes you loose many of these advantages. To get everyone on board and to refine everything i would always use a “real” board. I’d even consider switching back to one if we face major changes of the board. However at some point we wanted to try out a virtual Board. Theres already a lot of specialized Software available, most of it focussed on development teams. But nothing really made me want to make the switch, until i found Trello.comfrom the fine people over at Fogcreek Software. Let them describe what it is themselfes:

Some people saw Trello and said, “oh, it’s Kanban boards. For developing software the agile way.” Yeah, it’s that, but it’s also for planning a wedding, for making a list of potential vacation spots to share with your family, for keeping track of applicants to open job positions, and for a billion other things. In fact Trello is for anything where you want to maintain a list of lists with a group of people.

Joel Spolsky –

We have switched all our boards over to trello, and its just great. Now everyone can keep track of everything from anywhere. We can pass tickets around between the boards of different departments. Each Ticket can host its own discussion and keeps track of the whole history of changes. Its possible to attach images, make todo lists etc all on the back of a tickets. We use Trello now for all of our project management needs, and i dont want to look back…

What do you think about Trello and Kanban? Are we all Hipsters now and should reconsider MS Project instead? What problems are you facing with the introduction of Kanban in you organization? Let me know in the comments now!

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17 Responses to Project management on speed with Kanban & Trello

  1. Bob sagt:

    I think Symphonical ( has a much better „digital wall“ than Trello. It’s more user friendly and nicer looking too.

  2. Lucian Urcan sagt:

    Hi. Thanks for sharing this information. I am interested in this topic and I have a question.

    On the „Push vs. Pull“ paragraph you mentioned the following : „Instead people “pull” their task from the Todo column to doing, whenever they are ready to work on something new. […]No one is allowed to directly assign tasks anymore“.

    In this case, what happens when you have to control the priorities? Also, what happens with the tasks that no-one really wants to take? If no one is allowed to assign these tasks, isn’t there a risk that they remain on the „to do“ list for too long?

  3. Paul sagt:

    For me this boils down to the questions 1) how do you fill or feed the „Todo“ Column, and 2) do you want to set rules regarding the Pulls. A variety of scenarios is possible and fully depends on your use case.

    1) when we started we were aiming at a weekly cycle for updating the Todo Column (Except for Quick Fixes and Bugs). We have another Column called „incoming / Ideas“ that hosts everything not yet prioritized. Every week we would decide what needs to be done from this column and pull it into the „Todo“ Column. This could also be a Product Manager / Owner deciding it solely, depending on the style of your organization.

    this way you already have one layer of prioritization.

    2) You can work with rules. e.g. „You always have to take the first Ticket / Task from the list“, with some exceptions to cover up mismatches. Most of the time people will agree that the „cherry picking“ approach might not be the best and come up with such a rule or another creative solution.

  4. Julian sagt:

    Thanks for sharing! Very good read.

  5. Lucian Urcan sagt:

    @Paul :

    I understand. The rule „you always have to take the first Ticket / Task from the list“ is a good one, but there’s one thing to keep in mind.

    Certain tasks require certain skills. Which not everyone from the team may have. In this case, if one of the developers finishes his current tasks and goes to the Kanban table, he’ll follow the rule and look at the top of the tasks list. But the task he’s seeing there at the top might require a skill he doesn’t currently have.

    In this case, he will be in the situation of choosing another task from the list (which matches his skills), and leave the first task for another developer, who will have the required skill. This will be another rule. And if we keep adding them, this approach (with using the Kanban board) will be less and less „developer-friendly“.

    What do you think?

  6. Paul sagt:

    @Lucian: Why do you think more rules will be will be „less developer friendly“ in general?

    As David Anderson points out: “Many of results of Kanban are counterintuitive. What appears to be very mechanical approach – limit WIP and pull work – actually has profound effects on people and how they interact with one another.”

  7. Lucian Urcan sagt:

    @Paul: In my opinion, the beautiful part of the approach using Kanban is exactly it’s simplicity.

    Of course, it also gives you the possibility of visualizing the complete project situation in seconds, but there are other PM tools which are offering you this. What makes Kanban so great is exactly it’s simplicity.

    The thing is that adding too many rules is eliminating the simplicity of this method and makes it too similar with the old-school ones. This is what I meant by „less developer friendly“.

    Considering the fact that multiple developers would have multiple development skills, I would use Kanban separately, for each of them. So if three developers are working on the same project, there would be three mini-Kanban boards for each of them. This way, their tasks are separated from the very beginning, by the Project Manager (who already knows their skills) and they will take this as a fact, not as a rule – because they won’t have to choose the tasks (the tasks will already be chosen for them). Of course, this is just an idea.

    • Paul sagt:

      @Lucian: We also spread things across different Boards when reasonable. Regarding the assignment of Tasks this is still possble and we use the buildin Trello „assign card“ feature to do just so.

  8. B-K sagt:

    @Lucian Why couldn’t the developer without the skills choose the task and either pair with someone who already has the skills or at least ask questions of that person? As a dev, I prefer to choose my own tasks rather than have them assigned to me by my manager. Choosing my own tasks gives me the opportunity to work on projects/technologies that I wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to work on. It also allows me to add some variety to my tasks rather than working on the same things again and again just because „I have the right skills“.

  9. Jim sagt:

    Interesting thoughts. Trello seems limited for Kanban use in that you cant enforce WIP limits though. Interested in how others have resolved this?

    We run a number of projects at any one time and a physical board gives us a clear overview of activity across all projects. Again trello doesn;t seem to give this functionality.

    Trello as a tool I like but can’t justify using it with the above limitations.


    • Paul sagt:

      Hey Jim,
      i also prefer physical boards over trello whenever possible. With a distributed Team however the advantages outweight the problems for me. Regarding WIP Limits i would just enforce them like you would on a real board. You can Put a card on top of each list that says „WIP-LIMIT: 5“. I dont think there is a need to enforce the limit technically, just like you can not prevent someone from pulling too many cards over on a real board.
      Regarding the Top Level Overview i agree that it gets a bit messy with many boards sometimes. If you have anything on ONE board, however i like to use colored labels to distinguish different projects.

  10. Doug sagt:

    I’m curious how you implemented „pull vs push“ with trello. How does someone know the card is ready to be pulled? Did you use labels for that?

    • Paul sagt:

      Pull vs Push refers more to Kanban, the underlying system. But here is how we do it: we have a column / list „incoming / ideas“. This could also be the Backlog. Everything that is moved to the „Todo“ Column then, is ready to be pulled. So for us its just a matter of the card beeing in a certain Column / List.

  11. JohnnyChang sagt:

    Hi Paul:

    How do you manage the bugs that come out during a milestone? Sometimes(if not always) the amount could be very large. If we create cards for each, the list could be very long; if we add checklist in the corresponding feature cards, the checklist would be very long and hard to follow the progress; if we limit them, developers couldn’t have the whole picture of this project; and if we use another tools or board, stakeholders need to switch a lot.

    This may not be a critical problem, but actually it’s pretty inconvenient.

    • Paul sagt:

      I think it largely depends on your overall „quality culture“ and the processes you use. Here are some general ideas how to deal with bugs:
      – Create a special channel for emergency Fixes (can be a label for trello boards)
      – Note Bugs on the corresponding card itself
      – Put a bug card into the backlog
      – Add a special Column „WIP Bugs“ where testers add bugs they find in just coded features.
      Given that „the amount could be very large“ in your case, i would suggest you try the last option. Keeping Cards in the Testing or Doing column until the bugs are fixed, could add another level of engagement since things wont move forward until the bugs are fixed (if you use WIP limits, which you should). Talking about a very large amount of bugs still might suggest using a dedicated bug tracker anyways…

  12. […] Trello is a web-based project management application that allows you to organize your workloads into boards. Trello uses a paradigm for managing projects known as Kanban, which improves project organization. […]

  13. Rafael sagt:

    Hi there Paul!

    It’s a very interesting the way you use trello.
    I’ve been using trello for some months now, and found it very attractive specially for tasks that requires more than one person to solve it, or when we need some help from other person and we can just @mention the name of the person.

    Before using trello I’ve used kanbanflow for a while, I don`t if you ever heard about it.

    Kanbanflow is really easy to use, and is built for the same purpose. But there is some features like WIP limits for the columns, and Pomodoro time tracking built in, things that I really miss on trello.
    I Hope that the guys on fogcreek soon will create these kind of features in a near future.

    Anyway, I was struggling myself trying to decide between KF or trello, and now I’ve finally decided to go on with trello because I found some features like activity feed and @mention that improves team awareness and communication.

    Check out if you want to take a look..


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