How Lawyers Can Use Kanban to Visualize Workflow
Busyness is one of the plagues of lawyerdom. How many times have you been asked whether you’re “busy” at your practice? It’s an absurd question when you think about it, because our clients don’t pay us to be busy — they pay us to be productive. Perhaps the much-maligned billable hour is partially to be blamed for our focus on how much time we use, rather than what we do with that time. Regardless, whether it’s litigation, legislative advocacy or transactional work, our clients care only if we produce something for them in the real world.
Fortunately, there is an entire discipline devoted to the art and science of producing things, and that’s the field of project management. That field has spawned a number of sophisticated approaches to managing the doing of things. One in particular I find especially helpful for cutting through the fog of busyness is Kanban.
How Kanban works
The core of Kanban is to produce a thumbnail visual representation of your work in progress. Tasks are represented on “cards” organized into columns. Here is the simplest version of what that might look like.
A particular client matter or task moves from left to right as you have the bandwidth to make it something you’re actively working on versus just having in the hopper. And there’s the first insight of Kanban: while there might be a lot of tasks you need accomplish, your bandwidth at a given moment is very limited. So rather than feeling the crushing weight of all “to-dos,” your board focuses attention on the items you have committed to be actively working on now.
But the classic Kanban board contains one more critical column: waiting. Let’s say you will be writing the most onerous summary judgment motion of your life. Before you can make progress, though, you need a crucial expert declaration. On your Kanban board, that card is placed in the waiting lane. This is the second insight of Kanban: visualizing your work in progress lets you immediately identify who or what is preventing progress in a given case — and the answer isn’t always you as the lawyer.
When my small firm started using Kanban, we implemented a board that looked something like the following. Notice the “waiting on client” column.
The card distribution looked something like what you see above. We found that by far, the speed of forward progress in cases was generally being limited by our clients. Now, that’s neither a good nor a bad thing. But it was an enormous weight off our shoulders to know that most clients were not waiting on us for action. Of course the “waiting on client” column cannot be ignored, but there’s a world of difference between sending a client a friendly reminder to return documents and knowing that you have five hours of drafting work in the queue.
Columns have been added for prospects (potential clients who have contacted the firm), delegated to contractor (case being worked on by contract paralegals or attorneys), filed (waiting on adjudication), and holding pattern (client has decided to pause case but plans to continue later).
In addition to my client Kanban board, I have a separate board that represents all other projects in progress. The columns on that board are:
- Ideas (seems like a worthy endeavor, but not firmly committed)
- To do (firmly committed to making this happen)
- To do this week (gets loaded up weekly from the “To do” column)
- Editorial calendar (weekly list of to-dos for social media and our website)
- To do today
Your columns will probably be different, depending on your practice area. The idea is to organize the board to answer the question: what is keeping this case or project from moving to completion?
The free online tool we use for Kanban is Trello — that’s what you see examples of above. John Grant, the leading authority on lawyerly use of Kanban, recommends starting with a sticky-note Kanban board, like the first example above. I agree with John that a physical board is a great way to get the feel of the system, but the cloud-based Trello board is absolutely indispensable for the decentralize office structure at my firm. Whichever method you prefer, why not give Kanban a try?