Agile Kanban for Research Work20 Jan 2016

Research work, however fascinating and enjoyable, can be tough to organize into a structured process. And lack of a process more often than not leads to decrease in motivation, waste and difficulty in reaching a sense of accomplishment. It's fair to say that work, that has been forged into an easy to follow workflow tends to be easier to grasp, manage and complete.

Agile Kanban for Research Work

Distribute focus and resources

Creating a process allows to divide focus between more than one project at a time - thanks to easy access to information on "where were we". Likewise, assigning team members, or teams to various ongoing projects is just as easy when all of the objectives and due dates are visualized in one place.

Plan & recap daily

It's useful to adopt the Daily Meeting, derived from a daily Stand-Up, typical for Scrum. During the meeting, team members brief each other on the 3 topics: what they've done lately, what will they be working on today and what are they having problems with. It's a quick and effective way of staying in the loop with the entire team.

Split subjects into items

It can be quite overwhelming to complete large tasks, or just go ahead with researching a huge subject. Building a step-by-step process makes research work more feasible and far less intimidating. Starting and stopping is then also much easier, as one look at the board brings you up to speed on what needs doing next. Should you run into trouble when trying to divide research work into pieces, a useful method is defining the decision making points as process step changes, thereby making the progress visible and measurable.

Manage the Research with Agile Kanban

Divide and follow

Once a process is outlined and work items devised, assigning work to particular team members is a piece of cake. It also enables you to keep track of responsibility and speeds up the process of following team members progress and results, which helps a lot when it comes to crediting the work. When done with an interactive task management tool, this is then also a perfect platform for leaving comments, sharing documents and setting due dates and changing priorities. An enormous benefit of implementing this approach is having the information flowing through the system, shared by the team and accessible to all any time - a vital aspect of all research work.

Limit WIP = limit confusion

As with any Kanban driven process, an inseparable aspect of the method is placing a limitation on how many items can be progressed at any time. This is fantastic news for research workers, who can easily be overwhelmed when faced with numerous items, ideas at one time. Limiting the WIP allows them to place all attention on one item.

Improve time management

With all work items divided and assigned, and thanks to availability of metrics of the progress, it's easy to keep the team engaged and manage any waiting time, either by slotting in items from another project or by reassigning resources to another team.

Analyse and reboot

Having the progress of work at an arms length - ready for review at any point - creates an opportunity to measure the overall progress rate and better foresee an end date, as well as to risk-assess. Agile Kanban also brings constant feedback flow when it comes to what aspects of work can be improved upon, who is doing great and who needs a little more incentive.
There are research areas in which speed is of the essence, therefore the quicker you know of a problem, the better. An opportunity to always be improving the way you work along with making the best use of your time are also 2 aspects of Agile Kanban that your research team is bound to love.

There seems to be no real reason why a Kanban board would not bring benefit to academic or science research work. You can try it any time with a physical board and sticky notes, or with a digital Kanban Tool. But please keep in mind, that in order for this to work, the board has got to be regularly updated. It does come naturally as you get used to viewing it, but as with any habit, takes time to build.
Have fun doing your research with Kanban!