A Coaching Kanban board

Chris McMahon mentioned my example of a coaching kanban board in the second of his series of posts against Kanban. That it comes across as simple and infantile in Chris’s example is my fault; I only really touched on the “signal” aspect of the kanban board in this conversation, and didn’t go into more detail. So, in this post, I hope to correct that.

Picture a scene. You’re one of five coaches, hired to help transform the IT department of Screwfix. As part of this effort, you’ve set up a lovely story board on which you put the things you’re working on. This is the kind of thing that we had on our boards (all stories in this post are just examples, I can’t remember the exact concerns):

Waiting In Progress Done
Run story workshop Coach team A Dreyfus models for Devs
Dreyfus models for BAs
Coach team B
Coach team C
Talk to systems team about environments

Each day, the coaching team met for a daily stand-up around this board. Our goal was to put our little avatars on the boards to show what we were working on, and move the stories (on post-its) to “done” when we had finished. After a couple of weeks, we realised – we weren’t actually using the board.

“The problem is,” Andy said, “half the things that we’re doing aren’t the kind of things we can move to ‘done’. They’re ongoing.”

“Right,” I agreed, “and half of them aren’t even on this board. There’s all kinds of things we’re doing with respect to the competition, coaching individuals, writing workshops, etc., and they’re not even up here. I wonder what we can do differently?”

At the time, I was hearing a lot of buzz around the word “Kanban”, and reading the Poppendieck’s “Lean Software Development”. It occurred to me that we might be able to use it to help us manage our coaching efforts.

So, I drew up a new board, and talked to our head coach, Chris, about it. “I’ve realised that I can cope with about three concerns at a time,” I said. “If you try to get me to worry about a fourth, I’ll promise to do it, and then something else will drop off the radar. It doesn’t matter how much I promise to do four things, realistically I’ll only get three done well at any time. So, I’m going to limit myself to 3.” I talked to the other coaches, and we found our own limits: 3 for each of the other coaches, and 1 for our part-time coach, Antony. So here’s what our new board looked like:

Backlog Liz (3) Coach team A Coach team B Competition
Dreyfus models for BAs Helen (3) Facilitating retros Coach team C
Run story workshop Andy (3) Getting acceptance tests working with team C Cont. Integration Teaching QAs to code
Coach new coaches Antony (1) Teaching QAs to code
Phase 3 competition
Coach team D
Sort out version control

“Why, Helen!” I exclaimed, grinning. “You’ve got a space there.” I took a new post-it and wrote, “GIVE ME WORK!” on it, then stuck it in Helen’s space.

“What? No!” Helen exclaimed. “I can’t possibly take on any more work!”

“Well, either your limit is wrong – it’s OK to only manage two things – or there’s something you’re working on that’s not up there. Team C’s quite big; is that taking up about twice as much time as normal?”

“Not really,” Helen said thoughtfully. “There’s something else I’m working on. Let me think a moment… Ah! Of course, I’m also running the Agile induction course.” She wrote a post-it to replace mine.

“That’s great,” Chris said. “Now I can see what you’re working on, and also what you’re not working on.” We had a chat about some of the items in our backlog, and talked about when we might be able to bring them into play.

The board was much more effective, helping us juggle our workload appropriately, until it came close to the time for me to leave. Suddenly, I found I had more work than I could possibly manage.

So I cornered Chris. “You know how I said if I ended up doing four things, something would drop off the radar?” I asked.


“Well, turns out it’s my lunch-hour. I’m exhausted; this isn’t sustainable. Can we sort something out?”

“Of course!” Chris said. So we got the coaches around the board to look at what we were all working on.

Chris looked at the various teams, competitions, workshops, technological strategies and other coaching concerns. “I don’t really care too much about these,” he said, removing about ten items from our (overly large) backlog. “And we don’t need to worry about Team B any more – I think they’ve got it. I’d really like you to run the other coaching workshops before you leave though, Liz.”

“Right,” I said, “then someone else needs to take over the TDD training.”

“I can’t,” Helen said, “I’m not technical. I’ve just finished the last Agile induction course, though, so I’ve got space to pick something else up. Andy’s been facilitating the retros; why don’t I take that instead, and then Andy could do the TDD training?”

“That works,” Andy replied. We swapped stories accordingly, moving them into their new places.

“Fantastic,” I smiled. “Anyone fancy some lunch?”

Having the visual aid helped us prioritise our efforts, as well as letting us share and organise our concerns. The most important aspect of this, for me, was the realistic recognition of our limits, which allowed Chris to direct our focus much more effectively. The Kanban board was just a tool for us, not a process or methodology in its own right. Nor did it replace conversation. It just facilitated it, and acted as a visual radiator. I found it useful, and I hope you enjoyed reading about it.

This entry was posted in coaching, kanban, lean. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Coaching Kanban board

  1. Andy Palmer says:

    That’ll never work. Let’s go for a coffee in the hub instead 🙂

  2. topsurf says:

    This is exactly what I love about using Personal Kanban both at home, at work and in my classroom, it’s constantly changing and I’m constantly tweaking it to make myself more productive. Great post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s