Delegating with a Kanban

A partner in the tax practice of a law firm asked me, “How can I keep better track of the work the associates are doing? And how can I stay on top of the work I’ve delegated to them?”

Tracking work that others are doing is a common problem, particularly in a high-priced law firm, where the clients want answers to their questions at the most inopportune times — like the middle of dinner, or just after you’ve settled into watching Toy Story 1 & 2 with your kids. To be fair, if you’re charging them $800 per hour, you should be ready to answer those questions. However, hounding your team to get you that information — especially when they’re watching Toy Story with their kids — is a sure way to get your firm de-listed from the “100 Best Places To Work.”

So what can you do?

Inspired by Lee Fried at Group Health Cooperative, and by Jim Benson over at Personal Kanban, I realized that the kanban is an ideal answer. (For those readers who don’t know what a kanban is, for the purposes of this post, just think of it as a white board or bulletin board that’s visible in the work area.)

Put each person’s name down the left side of the kanban and create a row for each of them. Put the task they’re assigned in the next column, and the expected completion date next to that. If you want to be fancy, you can even include some symbol that indicates about how far along they are in completing the work. Have another column that holds a simple red/green signal that indicates they’re on track or they’ve fallen behind. And that’s it.

What you’ve created is a simple visual management tool that allows you to quickly see how each person is doing. Here’s an example of what it might look like:

Sample delegation kanban

In this screenshot, I’ve adopted Jim’s approach (and terminology) by breaking work into three buckets: “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done.” This added information helps provide context for where you are in a larger project.

There’s nothing earth-shaking about this approach, but I think it falls into the sweet spot between something that’s too small for full-blown project management software, and something that’s to big for a one-person task list. Having it prominently posted ensures that the work doesn’t disappear into a computer file. And the red/green status bar enables someone to signal for help without having to schedule a formal meeting.

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3 Responses

  1. John Hunter says:

    Agile Zen is pretty nice software that might interest people interested in this post. It is a bit more that what you have here but something that works pretty well for the scope you are talking about or with a few more moving parts.

  2. Tom says:

    I don’t think the partner should be managing work or activity in the first place – some would term this micro-management. The partner should be managing the ’system’. Let the experts (let’s call them employees) manage the activity afterall they are experts in what they do aren’t they? The partner should be at the Gemba ’seeing’ the customer demand and understanding it’s form, not sat in a side office looking at pretty charts and concocting strategy or KPIs. The partner has to realise that they work for the employees and his/her role is to understand customer demand and remove obstacles that might prevent great people from doing a great job. Bin the Kanban – Go to the Gemba!

  3. Dan says:

    John – thanks for the lead on Agile Zen software. I’ll check it out.

    Tom – I have to disagree with your assessment for several reasons. First, junior associates don’t necessarily have the experience to do the work on their own. They need help understanding how to do the work in an efficient manner. And since lawyers bill by the hour, from the customer’s point of view, it is value added effort for the senior partner to advise the junior associate. It’s similar to a line leader spending time with new front line employees helping them with their job on an assembly line.

    Second, the gemba for the lawyer is the office – when the partner goes to see the associate because the latter is having trouble, then he’s in the gemba where he belongs – not holed up in a fancy office away from the work (even though all the offices are probably fancy!).

    Third, the “pretty chart” in this case is simply a visual representation of the workflow that each associate is handling. In that regard it’s a useful tool for understanding how everyone is doing. You could probably make a pretty good argument that all the lawyers on a team should be sitting in a single room working together, but my hunch is that that’s unlikely to happen while you and I are still young….

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