How a chemical company improved R&D project performance

Software brings Kanban methods to project management

By Dimitar Karaivanov October 13, 2020
Courtesy: Kanbanize

The pigments and coatings industry is a regulation-heavy sector, defined by long innovation cycles and multiple development and testing stages before products are approved for commercial use. As shorter iterations and frequent experimentation can be costly, use of waterfall models and phase gate processes represent the traditional approach to projects in this field.

Schlenk is a leading manufacturer of metal powders, pigments, and foils. It focuses on markets for metal foils, coatings & plastics, printing & graphics, building materials & chemicals and other materials industries.

Figure 1: A management workspace coordinates work. Courtesy: Kanbanize

Figure 1: A management workspace coordinates work. Courtesy: Kanbanize

In the recent past, Schlenk began exploring ways to better manage and execute projects and thereby strengthen its business processes. Schlenk was already using stage-phase processes to structure and plan work, including internally developed formulas and sheets to support their operations.

The company’s resources include global production sites in Europe and the U.S., technical application & service departments in Germany, the U.S., China and South-East Asia, and a global sales and service network.

Identifying Kanban, a term typically applied to production manufacturing in factories, as a suitable project management approach, Schlenk looked for a tool that enabled a high level of transparency into projects and across teams, including identifying related work items and process bottlenecks.

Kanban is a term used in production manufacturing in factories. It turns out the methodology associated with Kanban use can also be applied profitably to other type processes.

Schlenk’s team considered a project with a consultancy company to automate its use of phase gate processes, including Gantt diagram functionality. However, based on their previous experience, it saw several downsides including methods deemed too bureaucratic, time consuming and costly.

Furthermore, using phase gate for efficient planning and execution of innovation projects, as well as planning and processing work in big batches posed several challenges. It failed to create a link between the different teams and project phases, sometimes leading to inefficient handoffs, limited transparency on related work or process blockers, and work often piling up and waiting between stages or departments.

Figure 2: Team boards broke down work in each project. Courtesy: Kanbanize

Figure 2: Team boards broke down work in each project. Courtesy: Kanbanize

It also required extensive planning of milestones and deadlines for project stages, but often lacked up-to-date information on project status or performance. This limited the ability to optimize the work process and improve efficiency over time.

Searching for project efficiencies

Forming a new team, Schlenk’s management explored alternative methods for the management of innovation projects. The goal was to get past the shortcomings of the traditional approach and to gain a competitive advantage.

Looking for ways to improve the cross-team coordination, increase project transparency, and unlock optimization potentials, they came upon the Kanban method. Schlenk identified it as an effective way to connect all project stakeholders and create an efficient workflow in their future projects.

Schlenk started by applying core principles and practices. They decided to skip the set-up of physical boards and work with digital boards from the start, so updates on project work and progress will be accessible from everywhere.

Using Kanban boards, Schlenk was able to reach a new level of transparency that allowed everyone to easily check what is in progress, who’s work depends on it and what comes next in the pipeline. Visualizing the workflow and all items processed uncovers process blockers and dependencies, for better understanding of the relevance of different tasks.

Looking at Kanban metrics such as cycle time, throughput and flow efficiency to evaluate the performance of a project or a team provided Schlenk with in-depth insights into its work processes. It also revealed when teams or projects were slowing down. That way, they aren’t merely checking if deadlines are met, but a continuous flow of work.

With actionable metrics and favoring incremental, evolutionary change, Kanban also opened the door for continuous process improvements.

Choosing Kanban as their tool for project management, Schlenk’s next step was to decide what Kanban-based project management software best matched their needs. After evaluating several professional Kanban tools on the market as to ease of implementation, level of workflow transparency created, and responsiveness of the provider they moved forward with Kanbanize.

End-to-end project flow

Being able to structure work in several hierarchical levels through the parent-child card linking option, Schlenk introduced Flight Levels to manage research projects. It could visualize the end-to-end flow of project work and interlinked the work from different project management levels and from various departments in one place.

Figure 3: Flight level structure. Courtesy: Kanbanize

Figure 3: Flight level structure. Courtesy: Kanbanize

The Flight Level model is a general-purpose model for organizational development from Klaus Leopold. It is an instrument of communication that reveals the effect of specific improvement steps at different levels and finds the most useful starting point within the organization to inaugurate improvements.

The Flight level metaphor relates to flight altitude. Flying high, you have a broader overview with fewer details; flying low, you see more details, but not the entire landscape.

Making use of the functionalities and automation of Kanbanize, Schlenk created an overview of their R&D process portfolio status in real-time. Users immediately see the big picture without losing sight of the details.

To visualize and keep track of its initiatives on a strategic level, Schlenk created a Portfolio Board that represented its pipeline and the highest flight level in the organization. Here users see visualizations of initiatives and related sub projects.

The next flight level was dedicated to coordination between the different teams (Engineering, Laboratory Work, Analytical Department, Application Technology, Sale, and Marketing). (See Figure 1) Here Schlenk created a Management workspace, to easily coordinate and manage work across the multiple teams contributing to one project.

Going further down to the operational level, a Kanban board was created for each team, and all boards connected to the Management board, to support a better overview. On the team boards, the teams broke down the work for each project into tasks they visualized and managed through their workflow (See Figure 2).

By using the children-parent card link, Schlenk interlinked tasks on the operational level up to the initiatives on the Portfolio board. In Kanbanize, the status of parent initiatives is calculated based on the number of children cards linked to them, and the status of these children cards. Applying this logic from the operational level onwards, the progress of the R&D initiative was updated automatically, based on the status updates of the tasks related to them.

Figure 4: Block-card function. Courtesy: Kanbanize

Figure 4: Block-card function. Courtesy: Kanbanize

Through the Fight-Level structure and the linking of work items, Schlenk’s Portfolio board became an automated real-time status report. This allowed a more probabilistic agile approach to planning and provided that big picture, without losing sight of details (See Figure 3).

With more than one team contributing to one project, optimizing the workflow beyond the team border was essential for improving the project performance. Through the described work breakdown and linking structure, Schlenk connected the work of different departments into one project flow and unlocked optimization potential on the coordination level, by improving cross-departmental synchronization and removing process bottlenecks.

With everyone using Kanbanize, different departments had a direct link between each other, and all project stakeholders had the full picture in front of their eyes. A particular benefit of the shared work environment was noted in the improved coordination between the Research and Analytics departments.

While previously, the Chemistry team had to ask and wait for a status update from their coworkers on how the processing of lab results was going, now Kanbanize automatically visualized any updates. When work items were ready for the next work stage, everyone immediately saw it, reducing waiting times and supporting a stable workflow on and above the team level.

Another feature that helped Schlenk optimize the workflow beyond the team border was the “block card” function. It allowed team members to visually signal to everyone that their workflow had stopped. (See Figure 4)

Gain visibility across projects

In Kanbanize, if one child card on the Team board is blocked, this is visualized on the parent initiative and on the dashboard of the workspace. This allows managers to quickly spot where the project progress is hindered and to identify urgent matters.

Figure 5: Cumulative flow data. Courtesy: Kanbanize

Figure 5: Cumulative flow data. Courtesy: Kanbanize

With Kanbanize Schlenk created a smoother flow of information, reduced waiting times between process steps, and gave users insights into how work flowed beyond the personal and team levels. Visual signaling of workflow blockages helped resolve bottlenecks faster and enabled a better flow of work, regardless of the departments the blockers occurred in.

Besides reducing waiting times between teams and supporting a stable flow of work, Schlenk also managed to reduce cycle times significantly and increase throughput, resulting in improved project performance.

Focusing on flow management and optimization, SCHLENK used the analytics of Kanbanize to identify optimization potentials in workflows that can lead to better project performance. Two diagrams they extensively used to identify optimization potentials in their workflow are the Cycle Time Scatter Plot and the Cumulative Flow Diagram.

Looking at the Cycle Time Scatter Plot diagram, they analyzed the outliers to identify what caused delays in the specific tasks and to define optimization steps, based on their findings. This way, they could systematically tackle process bottlenecks and remove blockers from their system.

Monitoring their Cumulative Flow diagram (CFD), they analyzed process stability of the process and overall cycle time trend to see if more work is coming in than exiting the system (See Figure 5).

It was noticed one team was processing most of its work shortly before a review meeting. In the time between review meetings, work was not flowing smoothly, leading to an increase in cycle time, which again dropped before the next review meeting. As a result, the switch was made to smaller and more regular meetings to stabilize the workflow and reduce the team’s cycle time.

This is a prime example of how the Kanban principle, “Start with what you do now,” helps companies improve performance with evolutionary processes optimization steps (See Figure 6).

Figure 6: Optimization steps. Courtesy: Kanbanize

Figure 6: Optimization steps. Courtesy: Kanbanize

Despite structuring deliverables in larger batches, due to the nature of work in the chemical industry, applying Kanban techniques and metrics helped SCHLENK’s teams achieve a smoother workflow.

Another process optimization that led to shorter cycle times and improved project performance was the introduction of WIP limits.

Limiting the number of task items that a team is currently working on is a key practice for Kanban. In one case, it helped Schlenk to reduce the cycle time of one team from 110 days to 44 days (at the 85% percentile). Allowing fewer tasks to enter the system simultaneously speeded up their execution and led to an increase in the throughput (See Figure 7).

How the teams use it

With the analytics module in their hands, teams also used the data to gain a better overview of performance. The ability to extract information on how much time they spend on different task types allowed the Analytical department to use Kanbanize when reporting to upper management. The need for data collection and time spent preparing documents is reduced.

Figure 7: Throughput improvements. Courtesy: Kanbanize

Figure 7: Throughput improvements. Courtesy: Kanbanize

Focusing on cycle time, throughput and flow led to continuous improvement efforts. Work processes became more efficient over time. Tasks were processed quicker, more work items exited the system and a stable work process on a project level was achieved, resulting in an overall improvement of the project performance (See Figure 8).

A few months after the initial introduction of the tool, Schlenk sent a survey to its users, asking for feedback. Some of the benefits of Kanban and Kanbanize they named were:

  • Excellent overview of workload
  • Easy top-down synchronization of priorities
  • Just in time information
  • Just in time recognition of bottlenecks
  • Excellent idea management (backlog)
  • Optimization of workflow
  • Easy transfer of work between part time workers.

Respondents said they were able to visualize work. Kanbanize gave them an overview of their colleagues’ tasks, so they felt more informed about work items that they depended on.

Figure 8: Project performance improvements. Courtesy: Kanbanize

Figure 8: Project performance improvements. Courtesy: Kanbanize

Associates even encouraged others to use Kanbanize more actively. Even better, users said that, compared to other tools, where benefits seem to be only for the management, here every user recognized benefits in their work. This led to high acceptance and wide usage of the tool.

Seeing the benefits Kanbanize brings for their teams, Schlenk went a step further and invited a supplier to collaborate on their Kanban boards. By integrating the external company in their workflow, they managed to improve the coordination and communication and to streamline the exchange of relevant information.

Next, Schlenk plans to further expand the use of the tool and to also invite a customer to collaborate in their workflow.

Dimitar Karaivanov
Author Bio: Dimitar Karaivanov, CEO and Co-founder of Kanbanize, is a lean-thinker and a Kanban practitioner with a solid background in the areas of software development and process improvement. His expertise was gained through more than 15 years of career development at companies like Johnson Controls, SAP and Software AG. He has proven that Kanban can be used for product development and not just change management activities. Dimitar is a keynote speaker and author of ‘Lean Software Development with Kanban’. He is an active member of the Lean / Kanban community and supporter of initiatives, which aim to promote it.