How kanban can help you measure productivity

Digital kanban board
Using a digital kanban board to manage a software development project.
How to measure productivity accurately is an age-old question. It is easy to measure the productivity of factory workers. You just count the number of items each worker produces per hour or day. Unfortunately, it is not as clear-cut for knowledge workers.

Probably the most used metric to measure the productivity of knowledge workers is the number of hours spent on a task. Unfortunately, this breaks down in practice due to a number of factors:

  1. Time tracking is manual and error prone.
    How many of you use a stop-watch to track time? At the end of the day, you just <cough> guess, right?

  2. There is no easy way to track idle time.
    You don't do all the work yourself. Some of your time is spent waiting input from others or waiting others to take over when your part is finished.

  3. Multitasking makes it hard to track how much time spent on individual tasks.
    When you work on three tasks at the same time, do you really remember how much time you spend on each of them?

  4. Too much multitasking actually slows you down.
    There is a heavy cognitive load associated with switching tasks. The more tasks you work on, the longer it takes to finish them all.

Task details
Time tracking information for a task.

kanban is a system originally developed by Toyota to reduce waste, and it can help you solve these thorny problems. kanban is all about limiting Work In Progress (WIP). You can only work on a limited number of tasks simultaneously in each phase of your workflow. WIP limits:

Once you have limited WIP, you solve the problems about multitasking (#3 and #4).

To solve the problem of manual time tracking (#1), you need a way to automatically track time. A digital kanban board uses drag and drop to track the time a task spends in each phase of your workflow.

To solve the problem of idle time tracking (#2), you can mark tasks when you aren't working on them. You mark tasks as "blocked" (when you need input from someone else) or "ready" (when you are finished, but someone else needs to continue the work). The software is smart enough to subtract the idle time from the total time you spend on a task.

You now know how to measure the productivity of your team(s) down to individual level, and you can see bottlenecks in your workflow you wouldn't notice otherwise.

Related Article: Finding the right task size in kanban

© 2010-11 Aycan Gulez