If you’ve read this blog before or poked around our website a bit, you know that our continuous improvement software solution includes digital Kanban boards. For that reason, you may think it is odd that we’ve written a post that includes discussion about the downside of the very tool we provide.
But Kanban software is like about everything else in life; you weigh the advantages and disadvantages and go with the approach that comes in on top. Then you try to minimize the problems as much as possible.
We think the benefits of electronic Kanban boards far outweigh the challenges, but we think it’s right to lay both on the table.
We could make a long list of advantages, but we’ll focus on the most important.
Kanban boards that live in the cloud are available to all employees 24x7, no matter where they happen to be. Physical boards are limited by both time (office hours) and space (the location). The problem is that workforces are becoming more distributed with lots of folks working from home some or part of the time. Remote or traveling employees become disconnected from the improvement work being managed on the board. What’s more, great ideas for improvement don’t always come during working hours. With a digital board, employees can log in or use an app to submit innovative ideas whenever inspiration strikes.
Physical boards do a good job of helping people visualize work moving from idea to completion, but they don’t bring any context to what is happening. Where are all of the supporting documents and other assets that may have been created as part of the work? Who is responsible for the next step? What are the goals of the project and expected business impact? Only a digital Kanban board can supply all of these answers and give team members the background information and framework for effective forward progress.
If no one visits or changes your physical huddle board, what’s the board going to do about that? Nothing, of course, it’s an inanimate object. Kanban software, on the other hand, provides active management. It notifies people when tasks are due, and flags stalled progress for managers. That alone makes it far more effective at getting results. It also makes it easier for leaders to track the work of multiple teams across departments or physical locations.
Speaking of context, beyond the information related to the current project, it is useful to have information about past improvement work and the ability to track results long into the future. Physical boards provide neither. Once a project is completed, it is removed from the board and is no longer readily available. Teams might track the immediate results, but what about after six months or a year? If there is no reminder of it, folks might not remember to check in on continuing impact. Digital boards make this easy and also provide search capabilities so that people can research past projects to see what works the best.
Physical Kanban boards are fragile. It isn’t difficult to imagine a Post-it note falling off or being misplaced. Also, the last thing you need if there is a disaster in your building like a fire that sets off the sprinklers, is to lose all of the information on your board. And what about visitors? Do you really want clients, partners, and others who visit your building to see what you are working on? Does the fact that the board is not secure prevent the team from working on sensitive projects or serious problems? Of course, none of this is a worry with Kanban software. You control who has access and data never disappears by accident.
We said at the outset that there are a few challenges that apply to digital boards vs. physical ones. We think they can easily be addressed to get all the good stuff we just mentioned.
Some people argue that without the need for people to congregate around a physical board, personal interaction is lost, and people become isolated. It is true that just because you should be able to collaborate from anywhere, it isn't always the best move. Digital Kanban boards are great for day-to-day improvement work, but when there is complex new information or an emotional subject, it is still a good idea to get some in-person time if possible.
One way to prevent desk lock is to maintain your practice of scheduled meetings or daily huddles, using the boards to stay connected between those meetings and ensure that everyone arrives at the meeting fully updated so that you can better spend your time strategizing.'
Small Display Size
If you do get the team together in person, gathering around a laptop can be a bit of a problem. People like paper Kanban boards because they are large and easily seen during a huddle meeting. This difficulty is easy to overcome, though, by installing large monitors in the place where your paper boards used to hang. They'll update in real time and you'll have the same "water cooler effect," with easy access for people walking by and huddles.
No Forced Prioritization
A physical board can only hold so many cards. This forces teams to make decisions about what will be tracked based (hopefully) on the items with the highest priority. Digital boards, of course, have no such limitation and can hold as many ideas as the team submits. This is both a blessing and a curse, as you don’t want your solution becoming an idea dump. Smart teams work together to come up with guidelines for adding an opportunity for improvement, and they have a quick and efficient screening process to determine when to act on a suggestion.
So yes, there are some things that physical Kanban boards have going for them, but digital boards have far and away more benefits regarding adoption, effectiveness, and reporting. Our clients who make the switch are always glad they did.