IT Directors Go Retro in Virginia

Technology workers in two Virginia agencies are using an old-school organizational method to improve workflow and efficiency.
by | December 18, 2012
 

As IT budgets get squeezed in many government agencies, decision-makers are faced with completing tasks with less people on staff. Projects can take longer and frustration may rise between IT personnel and agency customers.

But IT teams in two Virginia state departments have found a decidedly retro project management tool to streamline operations known as Kanban. Developed by Toyota Motor Corporation in the late 1940s, the product delivery system relies on a detailed whiteboard flow chart called a “Kanban Board” that arranges a department’s work processes like an assembly line.

Kanban has led to workflow efficiency improvements for both the Virginia Department of Corrections Technology Services Agency and the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) Information Services agency.

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IT staff at the corrections agency started using Kanban earlier this year and quickly found success. The group lowered the time it takes to generate custom reports for the department from 45 to 19 days. The DMV’s IT agency jumped on the Kanban bandwagon this past spring, and although it hasn’t compiled any metrics yet, there has seen an increase on the amount of projects that get finished ahead of schedule when applying the method to its document management and imaging system.

Virginia isn’t the only state looking at ways to improve workflow and complete complex tasks with fewer workers. According to a survey by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), strategies that can mitigate IT budget cuts are one of top 10 priorities for state CIOs in 2013.

How It Works

Instead of taking on multiple aspects of projects at once, workers using Kanban complete specific pieces of a task before taking on another one. Each workflow category established within Kanban gets a limit on how many items can be placed in it, so workers aren’t overwhelmed. Once a person completes an item, they pull another from the queue and continue the process.

The Kanban board illustrates what everyone on the team is working on at one particular time using sticky notes and colored markers. By clearly defining the process and making it viewable to everyone, team members and agency customers have a better understanding of where a particular project is in the pipeline and more importantly, why.

Kanban users meet at the board on a daily or weekly basis to review where a project is, and make adjustments to the workflow as necessary.

Rick Davis, chief technology officer for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said prior to adopting Kanban, a lot of angst existed between his team and department personnel that were requesting custom reports. From user complaints that report creation took too long, to technology developers juggling conflicting deadlines and priorities, tension was high.

But after meeting with Impact Makers, a consulting group based in Richmond, Va., and hearing a presentation about Kanban, Davis decided to invest $15,000 to train more than a dozen people on how to use the system.

Given budgetary challenges, the amount may seem to some as a significant expense for training a dozen employees, but Davis felt it was well worth it, given the results.

“What I love about Kanban is I feel like we have communication where we didn’t have communication before,” Davis said. “We’re all on the same page and all working as a team, understanding where the challenges are, where we have blocks and what we have to do to overcome those blocks.”

Both agencies found the visual aspect of Kanban to be a key component of the management tool. Dave Burhop, CIO and deputy commissioner of the Virginia DMV, said the first and immediate benefit of Kanban was getting projects on the board for all to see. By illustrating who was working on particular items and what factors were impeding project delivery, it quickly cleared up confusion among both IT team members and business users.

In addition, the system also put the onus on the business users to address project conflicts head-on, and hammer out priorities, instead of leaving the IT team members in the position of having to figure it out themselves. Burhop added that his team is less stressed and somewhat more empowered because roles are clearly defined, building unity among colleagues.

Davis agreed. He recalled that prior to Kanban he would be the one that would have to sort out priorities. With the new organizational system in place, he has the business users take a look at the Kanban board so they are clear about what projects and task sit in front of their requests. Then those users can see the backlog and decide what gets worked on and in what order.

“This aspect sometimes puts the light directly on the business user in terms of responsibility and involvement, so there you have your resistance a little bit,” Burhop said. “It used to be IT calling the shots on everything and we kind of liked that because you have 100 percent responsibility whether it failed or it was a success. [Kanban] actually spreads the responsibility out more.”

Implementation

If installing a new organization and work flow process into an agency sounds intimidating or not realistic, think again. Davis and Burhop said Kanban is designed to work with your existing processes without having to do any sort of reengineering.

According to Burhop, the major concern workers had was that Kanban would add more work responsibilities. It took a little convincing that some extra attention to detail now would lead to a more streamlined workflow going forward. He explained that the idea was to implement the system incrementally so that everyone could see the change for themselves.

Kanban allows users to visualize a project’s workflow rather than just theorizing about it and how the change will work. Burhop added that the Kanban board makes it easier for employees to see an issue develop, pull back, make some changes, and keep going.

Right now, both agencies are each using Kanban for one specific project type. But Davis said he’s looking to expand the program in the future. “We want to sharpen our skills with this one in particular and really understand what we are doing and how we need to streamline and improve it,” Davis explained. “And then we’ll move Kanban on to other things.”

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