5 steps for a Digital agency to getting control over processes, Kanban-style

Competing with enterprises is the key problem all the small Digital players have to face

5 steps for a Digital agency to getting control over processes, Kanban-style

Competing with enterprises is the key problem all the small Digital players have to face. However, being a small fish gives several advantages such as rapid feedback and sensitivity to client inquiries and craving for perfect execution of all the business tasks. As the first projects get launched, hassle starts to begin, the amount of activities grows and the founders realize that organizational processes dramatically need to adapt to the current environment.

Before changing anything, it’s vitally important to make clear what the current system looks like at the moment. If the team doesn’t understand the real source of the problem it will resist every novelty. You can be a thousand times right in your actions but if your colleagues don’t understand the real cause and effect connections, everything may run unexpectedly.

Today we will take a single Digital marketing agency and learn how to describe processes in your company to see the real problems, how to change the process based on analytical data and make fewer mistakes.

A piece on agency issues

Agency manager Michael Sklyarenko reached out to us as he wanted to take control of the situation. Lack of established processes and a decrease in client satisfaction and constant switching between tasks and work at the weekend were the key reasons for low motivation and poor quality of work.

With the help of our PMP instructors and Kaiten workflow management system, we could adjust the processes and bring the mood of the team back to normal. Please find a step-by-step description of this transformation below.

Step One — Learn to see the work

To understand how the current process is set up one needs to make clear which tasks his team does and which rules should be followed for their completion. Kaiten is a board-based visualization system that fits the task perfectly. After the preparation work, a single glance is enough to get replies for the most sufficient questions, like:

  • What is being done at the moment and who is responsible?
  • Are there any issues or blocked tasks?
  • Which part of the process is overloaded?

We invited all the employees to the process and got boards like this as a result:

Example of visualization of knowledge work using Kaiten

In most cases, employees have a number of processes under their control, so they would need to create personal boards. These boards are an intermediary step and will help a lot in future workflow visualization.

Making an individual board is the first step towards success

By placing boards at a single screen not only do you get a quicker reply to the “what’s going on?” question but also start to better understand dependencies between tasks.

Start noticing the connections between tasks

Kaiten implementation was concurrent with onboarding of a new Account Manager to whom Director delegated Client projects he previously led.

Traffic Manager processes were easy to track and understand but Sales Reps activities appeared puzzling. The boards helped to clearly see what and how was going so we started to notice problem areas.

– Michael

Beware of paying too much attention to the design of the board. If in doubt, create rows “Queue”, “In progress” and “Done”. The actual steps are going to become obvious at the succeeding steps and you will easily modify your boards.

Step Two — dealing with prioritization

We divided the board horizontally into 3 tracks (in Kanban they are called swimlanes):

  • Urgent
  • Regular
  • Set date

The team placed their tasks on these tracks. At this stage, most of the tasks were placed in Urgent.

At the first attempt, everything seems urgent

A Traffic Manager who was handling a lot of clients was constantly overloaded with tasks. Obviously, all of them were urgent. Assignments were coming from all the agency people — Director, his PA, Account Manager and even directly from Clients. This stressed out the specialist and often business tasks of low importance were executed before the vital ones. We agreed that the media-buying specialist would be allowed to have only one urgent task and named the person responsible for prioritization.

– Michael

Urgent tasks

Why all the tasks were urgent? Probably it was a sense of urgency because of the hassle happening around as tasks were set by voice and email, also Clients could call over the phone. Try and take the psychological pressure off the employees so they could focus on performance. Most effort is usually spent on made-up stress that can result in the overall decrease in job quality.

To make the system work, you have to agree that Urgent tasks are ONLY those which incompletion (!) may lead to sufficient business loss/ damage to the reputation/decrease of incoming leads, etc. If you start thinking this way, it will become clear that Website down is an urgent task indeed but X typical tasks that you spend most of your time on are not urgent at all, for you could extend their deadlines from time to time and no disaster ever happened.

Think of it as a car tunnel — even when it is completely jammed, cars still find free space to give way to the emergency. Have you ever seen a traffic jam full of emergency vehicles?

Set Date tasks

Set date doesn’t mean the day the employee sets for himself when placing the task. It’s a certain type of work with a strict deadline caused by external factors:

  1. An agreement defining the date of risk completion is present
  2. There is a business need for doing the task until a specific date

We would recommend keeping such tasks on a separate card to start doing the needed work beforehand and make sure to finish it on time. In our case, we couldn’t launch a Christmas marketing campaign just because it got lost on the list of regular tasks.

Speaking of them…

Regular tasks

If the task isn’t urgent or “set date”, it means it’s a typical one. Most business tasks belong to this type. Also, Low priority tasks are present, but we won’t recommend adding this swimlane to the board if other lanes are already full.

Work in progress limit

Every manager would want to get the full return on the team, but many forget that knowledge workers can’t work taking for the limit forever. Their productivity falls dramatically if they have too many tasks.

Having dealt with priorities, we proposed the recommended quality of simultaneously performed tasks. With the new approach, we managed to reduce tension, increased employee happiness and raised efficiency as a result.

– Michael

As you will need to find the balance between the number of active tasks and their completion speed, try to agree with the team to limit the number of tasks in progress to 10 this month and 5 the next month (numbers are used as an example). Thus you will discover process peculiarities that will allow reaching cruising speed.

Step Three — It’s time to take processes under control

When was the last time you gathered with your team and asked yourselves the following questions like:

  • How do we work with the task queue?
  • How do we work on urgent tasks?
  • How do we escalate the issues if we can’t solve them on our own?

The root of bureaucracy evil lies in creating rules that are far from real life and do not adapt to the changing structure and culture of the company. But business won’t work without rules. Try to perceive them as a set of limitations that set the basic rules of the game.

When we visualized our processes on Kaiten, the business owner found out that around a third of all the tasks in progress were set without prior discussion. For example, an employee decided to accept a task directly from the client, though the client hasn’t paid the invoice yet. Finally, we decided to structure the rules of task creation to have full control over the flow of tasks, both incoming and in progress.

- Michael

Blockers in Kanban help understand why a task can’t be completed

Check the two rules that helped solve the problem depicted above:

  • All the new tasks are set through the manager
  • All the incoming inquiries are processed according to agreed rules no matter the source

You will notice new processes and change the configuration of the boards to display the real workflow. Ask sample questions that will help you form better boards:

  • At which stage the card (task) is at the moment? If it worth displaying this stage in the board not to clarify the stage in the future?
  • Are there other tasks similar to these? Which stages do they go through? Is all the chain visualized or we need to add more?

Kaiten Spaces let us see the business and what’s going in full view. We visualized the workflows of all the workers, be it a traffic manager or a web developer or a sales representative. For the manager, we created a pipeline with several rows describing stages of work with an incoming inquiry: Clarification (of requirements) to Pitching to Payment to Setting tasks to Acceptance of delivery to Post-analysis.

– Michael

We often see companies complaining about the underqualified staff and the complexity of recruiting overall. With the help of the new approach, we discovered that setting the processes properly can dramatically increase the quality of work and make employees happier.

After all, just believe in your people! This will make your work easier.

With transparent processes, you will have more replies to the questions on task status and the real occupation of the team members.

Step Four — Launch effective communications

One can’t organize a working process without any communication. How can we make it productive? Let’s take one of our boards and follow the given scenario:

  1. First, we discuss Urgent tasks
  • We make clear if the task is really urgent (i.e. meets the listed criteria).
  • We agree when will we start work on the task (now or we will have to wait for the other task to complete/the responsible employee to set free).

2. Then, we discuss Set date tasks.

  • We define the tasks that need to be started asap to meet the deadline.
  • If there’s a risk to fail the date we place the task as an Urgent one. If the actual risk is slight we place it as a Regular task.

3. We discuss Regular tasks.

  • We go through the board from the right to the left!
  • We define the smallest steps that are needed for the task to move to the next stage.
  • We observe the space of there is a blocker that prevents from moving to the next step; if there is a responsible person who can remove the blocker; if he knows that his action is required.
  • If the task requires more than a day’s work, it should be decomposed and broken into an action plan steps.

Why should you move from the right to the left when discussing Regular tasks? Just stop commencing tasks. Start to complete them!

You should end a meeting when all the participants have understood which actions they have to perform until the next meeting. There is no point discussing priorities of the tasks which you won’t start anytime soon, as the environment may change not even once. And you would just waste time.

But if you have come to tasks in progress and you are ready to accept new tasks, first you need to reply to these questions, for each new task:

  1. Does the team equally understand the definition of the task and acceptance criteria? Talk them through and better put them down.
  2. Have we put enough effort into clarifying the requirements for the tasks? Do we need to ask the client for the definition of the task and acceptance criteria?

If there are 100 tasks in your backlog, there’s no need to discuss them all. Focus on those you can complete on short notice. Do not try to do the planning before you have finetuned the basic processes. Only after this, you will be able to confidently plan your activities first in short and later in long term periods.

A problem occurred with defining the business value for every task. Employees enjoyed working with Kaiten boards so much they started using it as a diary. This violated business transparency and made the card’s value inobvious. At that moment, we agreed to create and describe cards using the INVEST system.

– Michael

You can set separate short meetings inside each board. You will notice that firstly the duration of these meetings will drop and later frequency will decrease as most of the replies to the questions will be on the board and your colleagues would be able to inquire the needed information when they needed without waiting for the full-scale team discussion.

INVEST system for task creation

I — Independent — Task should be self-contained, in a way that there is no inherent dependency on another task.

N — Negotiable — There is an opportunity to discuss the ways of completion and modification of the task

V — Valuable — Delivers explicit value

E — Estimable — There is an opportunity to estimate the size of the task in scope and time

S — Small — The task should not make the process more complex and bring to prioritization and planning

T — Testable — The task has acceptance criteria defined

Step Five — Learn to develop and scale up the business

By getting a clear picture of the current processes and the opportunity to get rid of blockers, the company can speed up task execution.

For business growth, it is vital to understand both which client inquiries make the most profit and those that consume a lot of time without delivering any value.

The sales system looked like this: clients came through the website or advertising and cold calls. On the board “Cold calls” we ran experiments, created a card structured like “segment, type of target audience, location, call script version”. Then we called the prospects, analyzed the conversion rate, pointed out our mistakes and defined what should be enhanced if it is worth working with this “data set” or we would need to take another segment/script/manager. Those prospects who got interested in our service, were moved to “Incoming” and interviewed by our representatives to clarify the requirements and later convert into order.

P.S. “Incoming” row accepts not only the prospects generated by cold calling but inquiries from the website and the current clients as well. We decompose the list regularly.

– Michael

Thus the company could switch the focus from the current tasks to experiments that led to understanding acquisition channels better.

When the payment was successfully received, we started to mark the cost of the task/card. The tasks were then decomposed into cards on the Production stage and we could explicitly connect cards of the upper level (clients, inquiries) to Production level cards. This let us do the prioritization work better and perform more efficiently while looking at the real business goals.

– Michael

The final visualization of agency processes

In a month, our team decided to create three working spaces: “Clients”, “Commercial” and “Production”

A set of boards that allows the Manager to see what’s going on at a single glance

Commercial and Production are extended into separate spaces, where the manager can see the detailed overview of the work done with upper tasks broken into technical subtasks.

As a result, we could not only adjust the processes but have a complete picture of the business in one informational space.

If you are willing to empower your processes by getting transparency and increasing productivity, we will gladly assist.

Just reach us at https://en.kaiten.io