By Paul Saunders
In 2015, after working as a corporate lawyer for seven years at Stewart McKelvey in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I agreed to devote 100% of my time to the newly created position of Practice Innovation Partner. My role is to develop and implement innovative technologies and systems for the firm and its clients, to increase efficiency, profitability, and client value. One of the first things I did in this new role was to pilot-test several classic Agile techniques at our firm, starting with Kanban.
Kanban is a management tool that originated in Lean manufacturing. The term loosely translates to “signboard” or “billboard” in Japanese. As law firms focus on increasing efficiency, reducing their costs, and becoming more responsive to clients, it seems logical to adapt this technique to work closely with clients in charting the stages of each case or transaction and to track progress.
Kanban is a highly flexible tool for planning and scheduling tasks that creates a visual representation of project teamwork to facilitate transparency, accountability, and collaboration. Knowledge work, such as software development and law practice, isn’t inherently visual. Progress often becomes buried in countless emails, status reports, and complex tracking spreadsheets. It is difficult to identify opportunities for improvement and to gauge progress when there is no single place where progress is tracked. Kanban makes this non-visual work visual.
In its simplest form, Kanban relies on a physical or virtual whiteboard with three columns: to do, doing, and done. All tasks that make up the project are represented by cards or post-it notes on a board. The title of each task, when it’s due, who is responsible, and any other pertinent details are written on each card. Cards advance from left to right on the board to track progress and coordinate work.
The beauty of the approach is its flexibility. Rather than having to periodically overhaul detailed project plans and realign tasks when change inevitably occurs, team members can simply re-organize the cards on the board. The approach also better ensures clarity in who is working on what when and creates accountability for results since members are expected to regularly report back on progress on the tasks they are assigned. It also shines a significant light on bottlenecks and can thus motivate teams to remove barriers that impede progress. The board can be organized by a junior partner or an associate, which produces the added benefit of avoiding some of the awkwardness of “managing your manager” by increasing collaboration and transparency.
Another critical aspect of Kanban is its ability to limit the amount of inventory or work in progress. Capacity restrictions are sometimes placed on team members so that they can only be assigned a limited number of tasks or volumes of work in order to permit them to focus on completing tasks rather than being overburdened through multi-tasking.
Kanban boards can also be highly customized by expanding the various columns for different purposes in a specific context. For example, to coordinate a portfolio of related projects or matters, a law firm practice group may want to expand the “doing” column to include different phases of work. In litigation these columns could include: matter intake, pleadings, production and disclosure, discovery, pretrial, trial, appeal, billing, and matter closing. In a corporate transaction, the phases could be: letter of intent, principal agreement and schedules, conditions, pre-closing, closing, reporting, undertakings, billing, and matter closure.
One of our first pilot tests of Kanban was managed by Patti Mitchell, a litigation partner practicing in insurance defense at our office in Halifax and the lead lawyer for a major insurance client there. She worked closely with the law firm’s client service team to use Kanban techniques to organize and streamline assignments in a multitude of cases and to move the matters through the standard phases of insurance litigation more quickly. The firm used Kanban techniques in conjunction with Agile Scrum concepts, in which issues are quickly identified at brief and regular stand-up meetings among all staff. (These will be described in a followup post in this blog next month.)
“The insurance defense practice,” Mitchell explained, “was identified as an area of practice that would benefit from Kanban because it tends to be work with consistent volume and repetitive processes, but the matters were not moving as quickly as they could and we wanted to improve that aspect of service delivery for our clients.”
In addition, Mitchell noted, the firm chose to use Kanban with this client as a pilot project because its contractual requirements for service delivery were quite strict and the firm wanted to “see if we could improve upon deliverables.” The results were exactly what they had hoped for:
With Kanban, visual representation of the matters and stages of litigation allows us to see the volume of work and where processes are getting held up. It allows us to modify traditional processes that bog us down and remove barriers to meeting timelines. For example, we were able to develop a system of more quickly producing pleadings and delivery of documents for the client.
More substantively, we are now able to ensure that all matters are properly staffed and to assign additional resources more quickly when issues are identified in the weekly stand-up meetings. The process fosters a sense of teamwork and personal responsibility that results in improved service for the clients. Spin-off benefits also include the development of new and more consistent precedents and task coding for billing purposes. That makes preparation for discovery and billings more efficient.
Like the underlying work itself, the tools used to manage that work must also be flexible. Since Kanban boards are so versatile, a team should start with an approach that makes sense at the outset. The goal should then be to learn from the experience, see what works and what doesn’t work with the tool, and incrementally evolve the approach over time based on feedback from the team.
In addition to using Kanban in its classic sense with physical whiteboards and post-it notes, we are also currently experimenting with “virtual Kanban.” The firm has a cloud-based system to track assignments, which a number of lawyers have on their phone as an app. The next step is to expand the use of digital or virtual Kanban so that clients can use it as well to track the progress of a matter. That will require a security audit before the firm can put it in place, and the firm plans to start small. Whether the virtual approach works well or not, we expect that our use of Kanban will grow substantially over the next few years.
This post was adapted from the fourth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide which will be published next week.