New Work agency-style: How we manage tasks

Can you talk about digitalisation with authenticity when your colleagues write down their tasks on a pad of paper? Well, to each his/her own, but there are better ways to manage tasks - and not only that. Especially in marketing agencies that not only have many different projects, but also a bunch of different clients, the workload and tasks can quickly become confusing. If you also have to track the hours spent working on individual projects, it gets really annoying. We have found a great solution which we have used and loved for the last couple of years: Digital Kanban. 

Project management with Kanban instead of customer thinking

I could explain to you that Kanban means card in Japanese and was invented and introduced by Taiichi Ohno in 1947 as part of the Just-In-Time system at Toyota. Simplified, this means: You first collect all the tasks for all customers that need to be done in a week - it doesn't matter who is in charge of which customer. It's all about the workload. In the non-remote version and to begin with, you write the tasks on post-its and sort them by priority. Sounds confusing? Promise, it will become clear by the end of this article.

Here's what you need to know about Kanban to understand it. Kanban is based on 4 principles:

  • Start with what you have
  • Encourage leadership at all levels
  • Respect the current process
  • Improve step by step

These two sources are recommended:

The book: KANBAN in Practice - From Team Focus to Value Creation by Klaus Leopold

The video from Boris Gogler Counsulting:

The 6 Kanban practices

It is important to involve the whole team from beginning to end. Organization is a team effort and not solely a management process. That's why, before we introduced Kanban, we attended a Kanban workshop with the whole agency, tailored exactly to our needs. For 8 hours with a whiteboard and lots of post-its! We didn't dwell on the theory of it for too long. Using the six Kanban practices, we defined our Kanban process.

1. Make work visible

Work is made visible by writing it on Post-Its. Each Post-It is a task. For us it was important to be able to sort them by customer projects. That's why we put the client code in the top left corner and the task in the middle. In the bottom right corner, when someone takes the task, the name of the person is added. This person is then the owner of the task.

2. Control the flow

The task will go through different phases until it is completed. The Kanban model follows structure:

  • Open: Open tasks
  • Committed: Assigned tasks for the day
  • Work in progress: Tasks in progress
  • Done: Completed tasks

For us, this order didn't quite fit, so we added a step that is important for agencies: "In approval". This is where the tasks go if they are currently with the client for approval or if we are waiting for input.

3. Limit work-in-progress

The goal of Kanban is to focus on one task and not to start 12 different tasks at the same time and not finish them. Multitasking should be avoided. Thus, no more than two tasks per person should be work-in-progress. Preferably only one. Because let's be honest: when was the last time you did two things exactly at the same time?

4. Set rules

These rules have worked great for us: 

  • Only plan for one week
  • All tasks are sorted by priority
  • Only tackle priority 2 tasks when all priority 1 tasks are done
  • On Monday, all tasks for the week are planned
  • Every morning at 10:00 a.m. we go through the tasks together in the Daily Catch-up

5. Implement feedback

Project management according to Kanban only works if you follow through and optimize it again and again. Yes, again and again. Because projects change, the team grows or shrinks, people work more from home, etc.. Kanban has to adapt accordingly. For the first year, we held a feedback meeting with the whole team once a month. And we tried and optimized a lot of things. Even today, after more than three years of working with Kanban, we are still fine-tuning our process. We no longer meet once a month, but still every two to three months.

6. Make improvements together

After the feedback meetings, we brainstorm together how we can optimize the various points. For example, how to keep the daily stand-ups to a maximum of 15 minutes, even when the team is growing. Or how to best keep track of large projects. We test the ideas for optimization - if it works, great! If it doesn't, we toss them again.

Bye Post-Its, Hello monday

The whole Post-It system also works digitally: with the start of the pandemic, we switched to the tool. This allows us to structure our weeks digitally through Kanban. 

On Mondays, we have a Queue Replenishment Meeting - QRM for short - at 11:00 a.m., where we enter all the tasks for the week in  the tool Monday. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday we go through the tasks according to priority. Usually we work on the priority 1 tasks until Wednesday and then we can tackle the priority 2 and 3 tasks on Thursdays and Fridays. Important: Nobody grabs a high priority if the absolutely important tasks are not yet done. Regardless of whether it's your own client or not. Teamwork means that everyone is involved. This means that when looking at Monday, we know exactly what's coming up that week and where tasks are most urgent. If someone has too many tasks with absolute priority, we divide these tasks amongst  the team. Tasks that are not so critical are pushed back. This way we avoid overtime and can react quickly to spontaneous requests - and if we don't have the capacity at the moment, we can also cancel them. New tasks are first evaluated and scheduled according to priority. We always have an overview of our projects and can easily step in if someone drops out. 

In the Kanban view, each employee can see his or her personal Kanban board. This is then a ToDo list, so to speak.


Kanban for agencies - tips from Startup Communication

With this article, I hope that agency managers will dare to think differently. Agencies can also function without time tracking and rigid account thinking. We have been proving this for more than three years and we are not the only agency that no longer keeps track of working hours! Here are a few final tips on Kanban from me and the SC crew:

  • Start with the "folding ships" experiment - provides the ultimate AHA effect and is described in the Kanban book.
  • Involve your team from the beginning.
  • Adapt the process to your needs
  • Make sure you start with Post-Its on the wall
  • Keep the daily stand-ups and time them at the beginning of each day.
  • Allow criticism and feedback from everyone
  • No detailed discussions about tasks during Kanban meetings
  • Optimize continuously