How Kanban Can Help Combat Burnout

 “This Kanban thing is interesting, but it won’t work well for our team. We aren’t software engineers.” –me 

As I sat in a hotel room one night six years ago in the waning days of a weeklong team offsite, I was trying frantically to find a reasonably priced option to fly home a day early. There was a major snowstorm barreling down on the northeast and I really didn’t want to get stuck in a spiral of delays and canceled flights. It had already been a productive, albeit exhausting week, and leaving early would mean I missed a team training session on Kanban. I had read about and tried Kanban before, so I knew what there was to know.

I was wrong about a lot that day. As it turned out, I was unable to change my flight and I attended the training that day. Kanban would go on to not only transform how our team executed leading to faster delivery and increased quality, but fundamentally change the way that I thought and approached burnout within the team.

I ask you to consider the tangible benefits I have seen first hand and explore Kanban in an open minded fashion as a solution, or at least a mitigation, to some of your challenges with employee burnout.

A Growing Problem

According to the Chartered Institute of Information Security’s 2021 Security Profession Report, 51% of respondents said that the stress of the job was the primary reason they were kept up at night. Their second highest reason was lack of career progression and opportunities for growth and development.

Think about the most organized and reliable person you know. Maybe they balance multiple responsibilities, like responding to tickets and working on multiple major strategic initiatives all while responding to Slack messages, emails, and helping cross functional teams. They’re everywhere at all times.

The Perpetual Backlog

“I am really looking forward to the company holiday on Friday. But now I have to fit five days of meetings and tasks into four.”

We are wired early on in our careers to associate this type of behavior, or this person, with success. On the surface, they’re crushing it, but behind the scenes, they are adding more items to their personal task list and their perpetually growing backlog has no end in sight. It compounds day over day and week over week. Tasks not completed last week become this week’s problem. We may even find ourselves working a few nights to meet an approaching deadline, but the backlog never goes down and the vicious cycle repeats.

Many of us are working from home now and if you’re anything like me, you can’t remember the last time you put real pants on. A few more hours, a couple late nights, or a weekend here or there can’t hurt that much, right?

Spoiler alert: It hurts.

Inability to Disconnect

“What a long week. I am happy it is Friday, but I feel like I got nothing done this week.”

The problem is only getting worse. It becomes hard to celebrate our wins when we go from one task to another and remain hyper focused on the growing size of our backlogs. As the backlog grows, things continue to deteriorate as it becomes harder and harder to turn our brains off when we’re supposedly recharging.

While we might not be sitting down at a computer typing away, our mind is still fixated on work problems and everything that we have to do. Truly disconnecting doesn’t happen and forget about trying to take a mental health day. It isn’t worth all the extra work that it leads to, or so it feels.

Lack of Variety and Job Satisfaction

“I like being relied on and the go-to person across my company.”

We have built a reputation for ourselves. But not only is our backlog growing faster than we’re getting work done, but we aren’t getting the same variety of new problems we once had. We are fire fighting, pulled into projects where we might be a subject matter expert, and working on similar tasks over and over again. This may make us feel productive and maybe we’re even getting some limited satisfaction from being the “go-to” person for a particular topic, but we’re missing fresh new challenges that we long for to keep our career progressing.

Creating a Better Balance

There is no magic bullet to wipe away burnout. In my opinion, it’s largely rooted in the culture of how your organization or your team operate as well as some bad habits we have picked up along our careers. Making meaningful change may require leadership buy-in, but will require everyone working together to drive incremental and continuous change.

I’ve always seen Kanban as a plant. We might be equipped with watering or sunlight guidance, but we have to continuously make minor adjustments as our environment changes to ensure our Kanban plant keeps growing. Here, I’ll illustrate how some of the Kanban principles can be used to adapt your team to the changing environment in a way that helps promote healthier growth of the individuals on your team.

One Backlog to Rule Them All

This first principle of Kanban is to visualize workflow. Kanban doesn’t prescribe any particular workflow but says you should create a visual representation of your team’s workflow. This doesn’t need to be complicated, it can be easy as a “to do”, “doing”, and “done” column. Always remember to start with the process you have today– we can always update it later.

With this visual workflow representation, create cards for all of your tasks and align them to the proper stage. As a general rule, I’ve always used the two hour benchmark: any task you expect to take two or more hours should be a card. Again, you can always adjust this anyway you see fit, but start with some general rule.

Immediately, everyone’s individual backlogs become one team backlog. Queue the scene from Christmas Vacation where the light is shining down on the Griswold family Christmas tree, but here it is the backlog. The team can now collectively prioritize the backlog and only focus on always working on the most important item. This means that some tasks buried in people’s backlogs might not be at the top of the list. That’s okay! Managing one large backlog collectively helps the entire team get a complete and accurate picture to help with prioritization.

Saying “no” is hard. Saying “no” to a very important task is even harder. But we are often faced with making tough decisions while deciding which critical task we need to do first. But we have to say “no.” One collective prioritized backlog helps inform this decision and enable people to say “no” or at the very least, “not now.” This is also where the manager can lean in to help, reset expectations with stakeholders, and provide more cover to the team. 

Stop Wasting Time with Multitasking

Our friend science tells us that multitasking is ineffective. In fact, we humans don’t really multitask quite as much as we think we do– we are really constantly context switching. Each additional task that we try to balance adds significant wasted time. Our brains need to remember where we left off and where we need to pick up. For example, an individual working on two tasks may see up to 20% of their time wasted on context switching whereas an individual working on four tasks may see up to 60% of their time wasted on context switching. I generalized numbers here, but you don’t need to take my word for it– there are countless studies on the topic!

Now that you have shifted our focus to a team backlog and the team is collectively prioritizing the most important tasks, you have to start ensuring that the team isn’t over extending themselves and wasting time context switching. Set a “work in progress” limit on your doing column. There are metrics that help you derive an optimal limit, but keep this simple at first. I would recommend starting with a limit that is 2x your team size. Observe the outputs and adjust accordingly.

The true “ah-ha” moment comes when you reduce your work in progress limit while you’re tracking the time it takes from the moment you start working on a task to the moment you finish. I’ll never forget the time I reduced our team “work in progress” limit by just 1 item and we almost immediately saw a 7 day reduction in the time it took us to complete tasks.

Don’t be Satisfied with the Status Quo

Whether you see immediate improvements or still find yourself struggling, do not be satisfied with the status quo. In true festivus form, launch a monthly “airing of the grievances” survey to collect the good, the bad, and the ugly from your Kanban process. As a team, prioritize the most important problems, devise a solution together, and give it a try. If you try something that doesn’t work, there is no harm– back it out and try something new.

Whenever possible, hold yourself accountable for aligning to Kanban. It might be challenging at first, but in the long run you’ll thank me. Keep your changes small and incremental. If you change too much at one point, it will be hard to understand what worked and what didn’t. It is also easy to overwhelm yourself with too much change at one point.

Pulling it Together, Pun Intended

Implementing these changes felt unnatural at first and we struggled guardrailing ourselves with “work in progress” limits. But very quickly we realized that many of the tasks we thought were important, were not. In many cases, we had more flexibility than initially thought to set new timelines and deadlines that would start immediately easing our stress and we quickly felt a huge sense of relief.

Visualizing the work provides both the management team and each individual on the team with a new sense of clarity on what everyone is working on. Managers can lean in to provide better guidance on prioritization while members of the team may fill in gaps that we didn’t previously see. We can also provide the team with more protection from over committing while keeping the most important tasks at the top of the list.

As we began focusing on the most important task, we identified opportunities to cross train our people enabling new and exciting learning opportunities. Not only did this help with career development and increased job satisfaction, but it also helped us eliminate key person risk that was rampant through the team.

With the load spread out and more team members cross trained, those key people felt even more relief. They may still be a subject matter expert, but they have backup from the team. No longer do they feel like they can’t take a long weekend or an extended vacation in fear of letting the organization or the team down.

We also began fundamentally shifting the conversation we had with stakeholders, particularly at the management level. Now, we had a real notion of capacity. Sure, at times, we exceed this capacity for major incidents but those begin to become the exception not the norm. For us to start a new task, another task must exit our system. If a new task has to jump to the top of the priority list, we now must reset expectations with stakeholders rather than perpetually increasing our capacity beyond its limits.

Metrics can play a great role in setting these expectations. As a data driven person myself, I thoroughly enjoyed using our capacity and throughput metrics to set realistic expectations with stakeholders on delivery. As an added bonus, I used monte carlo simulations with confidence intervals to make predictions. They turned out to be quite accurate. Wow! The real “icing on the cake” for me, however, was being able to quantify the impact that emergency and “skip the backlog and do this next” work had not only on the team, but our stakeholders. This may sound fancy and complicated, but there are several free and reasonably priced Kanban tools out there that do all of this for you.

We became unwilling to force everyone to work more and more hours, so when our capacity was not high enough we knew something had to give. Either we had to invest time in optimizing bottlenecks or workflows that would in turn make us more efficient, we had to invest in new tools that would reduce manual workload, or we needed to consider hiring additional people.

It sounds counter intuitive, but by doing a little less work at one time and allowing people to remain focused on the most important items and clearing their minds, we got more done with higher quality while taking real tangible and meaningful strides toward combating burnout.

It is easy to read this and tell yourself that you have no choice and you cannot make these adjustments. You may even have some great excuses ready to go. As leaders, we owe it not only to our people but to our organizations to do something about this problem. Wouldn’t it be better to try for yourself, than lose talented resources and have even more to do than you already have now?

  • Mike Middleton

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