Chemical company uses Kanban to manage projects and strengthen processes.
SCHLENK, LOCATED IN Roth, Bayern, Germany, is an international enterprise and manufacturer of metal powders, pigments, and foils. With production sites in Europe and the U.S.; technical application and service departments in Germany, the U.S., China, and Southeast Asia; and a global sales and service network, the company has an international clientele. Industry focuses include metal foils, coatings and plastics, printing and graphics, building materials, chemicals, and materials.
To achieve sustainable results in a competitive market, the company recently began exploring new ways to effectively manage and execute projects and to strengthen its business processes. Identifying Kanban as a suitable project-management approach, they looked for a tool that would help them achieve a high level of transparency in their projects and across their teams and also add visibility to related work items and process bottlenecks.
To start Kanban implementation, the company began to apply its core principles and practices. They decided to omit the set-up of physical boards and work with digital boards from the beginning, so the information on project work and progress was accessible from everywhere.
Beginning with visualizing the work of all teams on Kanban boards, they were able to reach a new level of transparency that allowed everyone to easily check what was currently in progress, whose work depends on it, and what is coming next in the pipeline. Visualizing the workflow and all items that are being processed also made it possible to unmask process blockers and dependencies, which created a better understanding of the relevance of different tasks.
Looking at Kanban metrics (including such items as Cycle Time, Throughput, and Flow Efficiency) to evaluate the performance of a project or a team provided an in-depth insight into work processes. It also indicated when teams or projects were slowing down. Providing actionable metrics and favoring incremental, evolutionary change, Kanban also opened the door for continuous process improvements.
After evaluating several of the professional Kanban tools on the market, they decided to move forward with Kanbanize, a software for agile project management, produced by Kanbanize, Sophia, Bulgaria, with a U.S office in Boulder, CO (kanbanize.com).
Being able to structure work in several hierarchical levels through the parent-child card-linking option, the company introduced Flight Levels to manage research projects. They visualized the end-to-end flow of project work and interlinked the work from different project-management levels and various departments in one place.
The Flight Level model is a general-purpose tool for organizational development from Klaus Leopold. It’s a communication instrument that reveals the effect of specific improvement steps at different levels and finds the most useful starting point within the organization to begin improvements. The Flight Level metaphor relates to flight altitude, so that flying high, you have a broader overview with fewer details; flying low, you can see more details, but no longer the entire landscape.
Making use of the functionalities and automation of Kanbanize, Schlenk created an overview of their R&D process portfolio status in real-time, allowing them to see the big picture without losing sight of the details. To visualize and keep track of their initiatives on a strategic level, they created a Portfolio Board that represented their pipeline and also the highest flight level in the organization. Here they visualized their initiatives and the related sub projects.
The next flight level was coordination between the different teams (Engineering, Laboratory Work, Analytical Department, Application Technology, Sales, and Marketing). A Management workspace was created to coordinate and manage work across multiple teams contributing to one project. A Kanban board was created for each team, and all boards were connected to the Management Board, to support a better overview.
By using the children-parent card link, the company interlinked tasks on the operational level to the initiatives on the Portfolio Board. In Kanbanize, the status of parent initiatives is calculated based on the number of children cards linked to them, and the status of these children cards. Applying this logic from the operational level onward, the progress of the R&D initiative was automatically updated, based on the status updates of the tasks related to them.
Through the Fight-Level structure and the linking of work items, the Portfolio Board became an automated real-time status report. This allowed a more probabilistic agile approach to planning and to see the big picture without losing sight of the details.
With more than one team contributing to one project, optimizing workflow beyond the team border was essential for improving project performance. Through the described work breakdown and linking structure, the company managed to connect the work of different departments into one project flow and to unlock optimization potential on the coordination level by improving cross-departmental synchronization and removing process bottlenecks.
With everyone using Kanbanize, the different departments had a direct link to each other, and all project stakeholders had the full picture. A particular benefit of the shared work environment was noted in the improved coordination between the Research and Analytics departments.
Another feature that helped optimize workflow beyond the team border was the “block card” function. It allowed team members to visually signal to everyone that their workflow was currently stopped. In Kanbanize, if one child card on the team board is blocked, this is indicated on the parent initiative and on the dashboard of the workspace. This allows managers to quickly spot where the project progress is currently hindered and to identify urgent matters.
Kanbanize created a smoother flow of information, reduced the waiting times between process steps, and put perspective on how work flows beyond the personal and team levels. The visual signaling of workflow blockages helped resolve bottlenecks faster and enabled a better flow of work, regardless of the departments where the blockers occurred.
Using the Analytics
With the analytics module in their hands, teams also used the data to gain a better overview of their performance. The ability to extract information about time spent on different tasks allowed the Analytical department to use Kanbanize reports to communicate to upper management.
Focusing on cycle time, throughput, and flow led to continuous-improvement efforts and work processes becoming more and more efficient over time. As a result,tasks were processed quicker, more work items exited the system, and a stable work process at the project level was achieved, resulting in an overall improvement of the project performance.
Seeing the benefits Kanbanize delivered for their teams, Schlenk went a step further and invited a supplier to collaborate on their Kanban boards. By integrating the external company in the workflow, they improved coordination and communication.
With Kanbanize, Schlenk created a multi-layered project-management infrastructure, allowing stakeholders to see the big picture and have the relevant operational details in hand. Applying flight levels and linking tasks to projects and projects to initiatives, the company built and optimized a workflow beyond the team level, and improved overall project performance.