The Skinny On Agile Game Design – Part 2: I Think I Kanban

In this article we’ll create a basic Kanban board that can be used for game design or just about any other kind of project. But first…

What is Kanban?

Kanban is a bit of a complex term. It is both an approach to development, in our case, game development, and it is also literally means “visual card” in japanese.

A Kanban board is a visual representation of your design workflow that uses cards or stickies to represent individual features (and sometimes tasks) to be completed. Cards are affixed to and flow across the board as work progresses. Let’s take a look at a simple example.

Our basic board looks a lot like a classic to-do list but there are two distinct features that set Kanban apart and make it tick; the “In Work” column and its accompanying Work In Progress (WIP) limit. All that you have to know now is that these bits are quite important. What they mean and their place in the system is covered later.

Creating and Using a Kanban Board

Step 1: Create Your Own Board
Go ahead and create your own board. Steal – err – copy the example but of course without the cards. Your board’s construction can be as simple as a set of columns on a sheet of paper or even better, columns on a wall made with tape.

Step 2: Add Items To Your Board
With board construction wrapped up, prime the system by adding items to the “To Do” column. They can come straight from your current to-do list.

Step 3: Start Using It
Select the items that you want to work on and pull them into the “In Work” column. When an item is wrapped up move it on into the “Done” column. Nice, quick, and easy.

But First We Gotta Talk (About Work In Progress Limits)

At this point you may be asking, What prevents me from pulling all of the items over to “In Work”? The answer is, one little but essential thing, the Work In Progress (WIP) limit. On the example board, In Work’s limit is 3. This explicitly means that at any given time only 3 items may be in that column.

Why are WIP limits important?
Coupled with at least one step between To Do and Done, WIP limits help prevent item traffic jams. Think of them working together as a valve for maximizing creative flow.

Who sets the Work In Progress limit?
You do, or in the case of a team environment, the entire team does. The beautiful part is that this number can be tweaked to better fit your workflow. The key is to do so only with careful thought. It should never be done on the fly or on a whim. Here’s why…

Don’t change them on the fly
Ad-hoc manipulation of WIP limits breaks the system. It simply turns the whole thing into extra meaningless work (waste) which is the antithesis of what we want. The voice of experience says to start low and carefully work your way up to a WIP sweet spot. But remember, improvement never stops. So, If at some point in the future a lower limit would make things better then go ahead and make the change.

From flow a myriad of other good things emerge.

Benefits of Kanban

With use, you will find:

  • Improved focus: Because you’re not distracted by the vague sense of how much needs done you can instead hone in on what you’re actually working on.
  • Improved prioritization: Because you are limited to focusing on a few items at a time you develop a keener eye for pulling items that will lead to improved flow.
  • Better risk analysis: Because you actively select items to pull into action you tend to give better thought to what you’re doing and its place within the project. You become freer to analyze and ask questions like, What can prevent this item from being delivered? Can I really hit the deadline?
  • Quicker turnaround times: You tend to complete items in a shorter amount of time because both you and the system become more efficient.
  • More value: Best of all, since you get better at what you do the opportunity presents itself to pack more value into what you’re creating.
  • Everyone on the same page: If you work with others then Kanban can make it easy to share the status of an item. All they have to do is look. This translates into less wasteful communication about status and more about the things that really matter, e.g. impediments, and improvement.

The Essentials of Kanban (How It Works)

You may be wondering why we waited all this time to talk about how Kanban works. Wouldn’t it be easier to know about this stuff ahead of time? Not really. Without seeing and walking through an example these things really don’t mean a whole lot.

The folks over at Crisp.se have done such an incredible job distilling how Kanban works that I’m not even going to try topping it:

  1. Visualize the workflow
    • Split the work into pieces, write each item on a card and put on the wall.
    • Use named columns to illustrate where each item is in the workflow.
  2. Limit WIP (work in progress) – assign explicit limits to how many items may be in progress at each workflow state.
  3. Measure the lead time (average time to complete one item, sometimes called “cycle time”), optimize the process to make lead time as small and predictable as possible.

Whoa, wait? What’s that last thing? Measure the lead time? Is this the first we’ve seen anything about that? No, it’s quicker turnaround times from the Benefits of Kanban section.

Measuring How Long It Takes

The simplest way to get started measuring is to jot the start date on an item when it goes onto your board. When the item is completed mark the finish date right along side. If you really want to get sophisticated then the dates can be entered into a spreadsheet or database. It really depends on your level of technical expertise though it’s probably a good idea to start as low-tech as possible. But no matter how you measure it is an excellent way to:

  • Learn how long it takes to do something.
  • Know how much you are capable of doing in a given period of time.
  • Identify where bottlenecks are in your process.

Wrap-up

Remember, you don’t have to be perfect right out of the gate. The key is to gear yourself for continual improvement. Soon you’ll be beating your own expectations.

In the next article we’ll cover breaking the single “In Work” column out into multiple columns to better reflect a game design specific workflow. The current Firefight! workflow and Kanban board will be used as an example.

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4 thoughts on “The Skinny On Agile Game Design – Part 2: I Think I Kanban

  1. Very nice article, I employ the Kanban board myself and find it very useful to give the rest of the company a good visual heads up on where the running projects.

    1. Thanks, Kosala. I really like how easily you can scale Kanban for individual workflows. Though perhaps the best bit about it, for me at least, is that it’s a great tool to build knowledge about what you do.

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