In a perfect world, all SMEs could afford an experienced project manager or training in project management for all team members. However, in most cases, SME employees are all doing their day-to-day job while managing different projects part-time.
It then comes to them to find tips and tricks on their own to manage their workload and projects, but dedicated literature can be intricate and inaccessible. The concept of project management in itself tends to be sophisticated and overwhelming between the different methodologies and processes. Most SME teams have to “make do” with what they have, without much of a system or tactics and with close to no tools.
The Project Management Institute when describing these issues stated that: “To make project management more user-friendly and applicable to SMEs, we need to find solutions that are the right size for the right project, i.e., simple, quick, relevant and practical.” (Meister, W. 2006)
This is why we decided to produce this guide to offer easy tips on how to manage your and your team's workflow. We believe that not all SMEs can benefit or afford complex project management solutions and software and that most need an accessible and practical way to balance task and team management.
So if you have outgrown systems involving only notes and precarious email forwards, and need a simple and intuitive way to facilitate yours and your teams’ work and project management, keep on reading.
So is there a project management solution for my small business?
As you have probably realized, in today's high-demand, complex business climate, you need something more sophisticated than merely emails and spreadsheets to keep track of your projects. Manual methods come with too many risks of human error and most importantly, don’t offer visibility across the team. In the end, they usually fail to provide the essentials for your SMEs projects and processes: flexibility and agility.
Moreover, the typical project planning method of pre-defining all steps, milestones, and deadlines ahead of a project doesn’t fit a SMEs’ dynamic nature. If something changes, your whole project is put back into question - and in a small business setting where roles and responsibilities are by default always evolving - "something" always changes.
Let's not disregard the fact that most traditional project management tools also come with substantial overhead costs for your price-sensitive budget. Price aside, you can’t afford to spend precious time understanding new platforms and getting into all the planning intricacies.
For that, your small business will not only need a solution that is affordable, easy to understand and use but one that also offers additional benefits catered to your needs. This calls for a solution that embraces the shifting nature of projects and processes, a solution that embraces Agile.
Instead of coming up with a big plan and hoping nothing unexpected happens, the Agile approach allows you to change a project's direction on the go.
Agile encompasses many overlapping methodologies, including Kanban, the system used in the Gmelius' Boards.
Gmelius Kanban Boards - The Kanban Boards offer an affordable, agile task management solution which balances project and team management. It gives you the chance to organize projects, to prioritize tasks and to keep your team on the same page; it is an advanced, intuitive and visual way to handle task management.
What is Kanban?
A Short Backstory on Kanban
We tend to think of Kanban as a new concept due to its recent popularity, but the kanban methodology of work and its industrial origins date back more than 50 years. It was in the late 1940s that Toyota engineer Taiichi Ohno, inspired by an unexpected source, the grocery store, began optimizing Toyota's engineering processes.
What is so unique about the grocery store? It's the way they handle their inventory management. Grocery stores stock just enough merchandise always to match consumer demand and consumption patterns, gaining efficiency in inventory management by decreasing the amount of excess stock they must hold at any given time.
When Toyota applied this system to its factory floors, the aim was to match their inventory levels with the actual consumption of materials at any stage of the production line. To communicate in real-time capacity levels on the factory floor (and subsequently to the warehouse and suppliers), workers would use a"kanban" - a card to signal inventory levels and needs and pass it between teams. Since the 1940s the signaling technology has of course highly evolved, but the heart of it still lays on this "just in time" (or JIT) manufacturing process.
In 2005, a new application of Kanban had formed thanks to the work of David J. Anderson, Jim Benson, Corey Ladas and others. It was inspired by both the Toyota Production System and the recent developments in management and statistics, resulting in low maintenance, high results project management method for all.
Push vs Pull
Traditional project management methodologies use the push principle - a project manager creates a master plan and tells everyone on the team what to do, which supposes the project manager always knows the whole plan ahead of time and who's the best for a task, but it’s not still the case.
In Kanban, tasks are assigned based on the principle that team members get to choose the tasks themselves. The person who feels the most equipped for the job will personally pluck it from the backlog. This way team members are empowered to own their work and become highly motivated to finish it. Once a task is completed, they won't sit idly waiting for instructions but jump on the next task they feel comfortable with.
Of course, you can establish general areas of expertise for each person to avoid stress and wasted time on tasks entirely out of one’s reach, but learning should be encouraged in small doses. The idea is to make sure each person’s time is spent on tasks they can complete quickly, without additional instructions.
A fundamental component of such a flexible strategy is that job titles can be overlooked, and everyone has to get their hands dirty - often the case in SMEs. You need team members to be prepared to break down walls and share responsibilities.
Kanban Methodology on Gmelius Boards: Delivered Benefits
Regardless of projects and management styles, the bottom line for any team remains the same and includes: transparency, flexibility, effective collaboration, customer satisfaction and the delivery of high-quality products and services.
Gmelius Boards and the Kanban methodology can precisely help you achieve these by delivering the following game-changing benefits.
Benefit #1: Transparency
Once your team starts using Kanban, the first regarded benefit will be transparency in your workflow. Transparency will mean better choices about the day-to-day work and more adaptability and resilience.
How will that be possible?
First, Boards will help you visualize your workflow.
It is not surprising at all, given the origin of the word, that the core of the Kanban system is about visualization. Kanban does not dictate a specific workflow; it only requires that it has to be reported in a way that is easily visualized.
With Kanban, visualization serves two purposes: to make the need for action visible and to help teams make good choices. Once you visually map your to-dos, you can understand how your workflow currently functions and aspire to improve it by making all the necessary adjustments.
The most intuitive and familiar way to visualize your workflow is with the use of card walls or “Kanban boards” which includes task cards ordered in columns. Each column on the wall represents steps in your workflow.
Kanban Board within your inbox: The use of the Kanban framework within Gmelius’ Kanban Boards means you can create and organise your tasks with visual task cards, you can set up customizable task lists (columns), give tasks due dates, priority tags and adapt your task flow to unforeseen events with the use of intuitive drag and drop gestures to quickly move task cards from one column to the other.
Being integrated right into your inbox means you don’t have to handle multiple platforms and allow better management of email related tasks. With Gmelius' Kanban Boards, you can turn emails into task cards to include them directly in your workflow.
Kanban Boards: A first kanban board has a four-step (four columns) workflow: To Do, In Progress, Done and Review. Again, Kanban does not prescribe a set workflow; there is no right workflow or only one specific way to categorize your to-dos. Your workflow should always be presented according to your team's size, structure, objectives, and in a way that will fit the unique process of your team.
Kanban cards: The primary purpose of representing work as a card on the kanban board is to allow you and your team to track the progress of your work through each completion steps in a highly visual manner. This continually ensures increased focus, adaptability, full traceability, and fast identification of “progress blockers.”
Thanks to boards and cards all the task-related information is continuously available at a glance. Once you and your team gets used to it, the board will let you know immediately when things are not progressing as they should and when corrective actions are needed.
You can make your workflow even more efficient and transparent to your team if all the process policies within your workflow are clearly and concisely defined from the start.
To give you a sense of what policy you should set, it's good to start with simple ones that come from current work scenarios and are defined accordingly. Can you think of repetitive situations your team faces daily?
Here are some examples:
- Your development team finished coding a new feature. What do you need to do to make it ready for release and minimize the possibility of rework?
- Someone in customer service comes rushing over with a “critical” request from a customer. What’s your policy for prioritizing customer care tickets?
- Unplanned work is piling up. Who gets to add new work to your board?
By thinking through these scenarios, you get a sense of the policies needed to add more transparency to your team's workflow. Not to worry, you don’t need to create a strict and overly complicated document to cover any eventuality, this is not what Kanban is about.
Instead, you should make sure the whole team is on the same page as to how a project progresses and how you communicate about it.
For example, a policy-outcome could be as generic as:
- When taking on a new piece of work, team members need to inform all the stakeholders involved if it is likely to have an impact on any existing work.
In most cases, policies describe the quality expected of work items as they enter or leave a column. A common policy you can have is a precise definition of done for each step in your workflow, meaning that before a task can be considered as ready to pull forward to the next lane, it has to meet specific criteria.
Here is an example of a lane policy. Work items can be pulled into this lane when they meet the following criteria:
- Deployed and tested within the testing environment
- Approved and Signed off by CTO and Marketing Department
- Deployed by operations team
Benefit #2: Balance & Smoothness
You don't need to train your team to learn complicated new processes or adopt new roles to manage your projects. Kanban is often referred to as the ''start of what you do now” method. You don’t dish everything and change it all, you start with your current workload and work to make it more balanced and its execution smoother. This new perspective involves changing the way your work-in-progress is managed.
Working with Kanban boards will help you Limit your Work in Progress (WIP).
What does this mean?
Tasks in progress are completed in order of priority. The number of tasks in your work-in-progress column is therefore limited (no bottlenecks), and new work is pulled in from the to-do column (backlog) only when there is available capacity, i.e., when current tasks are completed.
This ensures a balanced and steady workload.
How do I know which tasks to prioritize?
Not all tasks are created equal; some tasks deliver benefits as soon as they are completed regardless of their due date. These are the tasks which are best to get out of the way first.
At the beginning of your project planning, these tasks are the ones with high business value that generate revenue and customer satisfaction. However, as your project unfolds, show-stopping bugs in your process or project will need to be assigned highest priority.
You can prevent some of those show-stopping bugs by looking at your customer helpdesk or feedback log; there must be some things you keep hearing over and over - these things should also make their way at the top of your backlog!
Usually, the prioritization responsibility falls on the shoulders of the project manager (here can be the board’s manager), they are in charge of assigning urgency to tasks.
It is always a win if we can safely deliver an urgency-driven work ahead of a date-driven work. Too many teams suffer needlessly by making all their work rigidly date-bound without taking into account what adds value to their processes and projects. This way deadlines become irrelevant commitments and productivity plummets.
How can I set tasks’ priority in my workflow?
With Gmelius Kanban Boards you can quickly prioritize what needs to be done in what order. By using the priority tag to signal a task’s importance, you will make the task card to stand out every time you open a Board - when things have a big red High Priority tag on them, they tend to be dealt with sooner rather than later.
This priority labelling provides a clear idea of the amount and urgency of work in the pipeline so that it can be reasonably managed at any given time.
PRO TIP: The limit in your WIP isn't an arbitrary choice. Kanban gives you the flexibility to try and see the limitations of your team's capacity. This will give your team more flexible planning options, faster output, and more precise focus.
Let's be clear, Gmelius Boards and the Kanban methodology are highly adaptive to your processes and projects. If you need to have time-bound logic to your task management, Gmelius offers you a time board pre-set.
Moreover, some tasks, either you opt for a time board or another pre-set template, need to be assigned a due (completion) date.
Gmelius Boards offer you the option to do so with Google Calendar integration provision included, either directly in your task card or by assigning a due date, once you turn an email into a task.
To see advancements in more details on your boards, you have to manage your flow smartly by breaking down large work items down into smaller chunks. Gmelius’ Boards offer you the possibility to add subtasks to any big task in your WIP lane.
Once, your team’s workload is balanced and its flow detailed, your attention can be focused on completing tasks or identifying any interruptions in your flow. You can look at your boards, analyze problem areas where work is stalled and start implementing changes. This is an ongoing process; once an issue is solved, work can resume until a new one is identified. The ultimate aim is to accomplish tasks or resolve issues each step of the way to ensure constant progress and flow smoothness.
Benefit #3: Better Collaboration
Your small business today is more and more likely to rely on remote teams, freelancers, and contract workers. They contribute critical skills to your team as a whole while offering the advantage of limited overhead costs. However, it is essential for such workers to collaborate and connect with their co-workers as well as to manage their work in the best possible way for the team.
So how can a team collaborate efficiently in this non-traditional work setting? Using Kanban boards with real-time collaboration features will help your team work and improve together.
A successful collaboration is an important goal the whole team should strive toward. It can only exist when the whole is somehow much higher than the sum of parts, and for that, you need excellent communication and natural interaction between the parties involved.
You can’t expect for a team to be “by nature” spectacularly productive, you need to provide tools and clear practices to facilitate collaboration. What is important in any collaboration is that everyone knows what they are expected to do, what has been done and how they can help each other if needed be.
Gmelius Boards offer real-time collaboration to enable your team to engage in high-quality interactions.
This allows you to work together on the management of different projects and multiple tasks right inside your respective inbox and without delays thanks to real-time technology.
Collaborating on emails is also facilitated as they can be shared through a collective board without the need of forwarding them on, you and your team can work together on each other’s emails and tasks without endless conversation threads and with no risk of reply-all incidents.
Boards can be used with a time board logic or not, for times when you wish to keep track of tasks without necessarily assigning them a due date. This type of board can be great for a collective project plan.
Keeping track of your teams' performance and workflow's efficiency.
The completed tasks column (hidden by default but easily activated with the slide bar at the top of your board) is always an easy way for all team member to review and keep track of all the team’s achievements.
Moreover, Gmelius offers you a quick and intuitive way to get a more concrete grasp on all activities across your boards. By clicking on the bell icon at the top left corner of your Boards interface you have a detailed color-actioned report on tasks creation, completion, and movements across stages and columns along with information on the team member who performed said action.
Benefit #4: Customer Satisfaction
What are my customers' needs? How do I anticipate them? Those are some of the most commonly asked questions within a business setting. Kanban boards give you the framework to manage your workflow by anticipating and continuously adapting to your customer needs.
With your Kanban boards, your projects are clear and accommodating, they are not arbitrary set and give you the freedom to be tailored to impromptu changes in the customer demand or in the market. When changes do happen, the risk for you to lose time and money is minimized by the fact that your team’s resources have been allocated in an flexible way.
Don't forget that the most important role played in any project is that of the customer! Customers are the reason why your business exists. If you want a successful and profitable business, then the focus is always on what your customers’ needs!
Small teams can find particular success with the Kanban approach, in part, because they can implement it quickly and cost efficiently. They don’t even need to have a dedicated physical space to visualise their work, all of it can be located inside their inbox.
The Gmelius Kanban Boards were created as part of the Gmelius’ mission to develop and offer a unique software solution that seamlessly integrates into existing email clients and transforms the inbox of companies into advanced and complete communication platforms. Gmelius helps teams increase their productivity, protect their privacy and collaborate efficiently right inside their inbox.