Running marketing like lean software development

Kanban for Lean Marketing

The following article is a guest post by Monica Georgieff, marketing manager at Kanbanize, a company that provides Kanban software for lean management, describing her experience adopting this lean management method with her marketing team.

As I discussed in my book, Hacking Marketing, I believe there are tremendous opportunities for marketers to borrow and adapt management ideas like this from the software community to master the digital dynamics of their evolving profession.

You might be asking yourself — what do software development and marketing have in common?

In truth, there is a lot more common ground than you might think between the processes that occur in a software product development team and a marketing team. Consequently, the two can be structured similarly using the Principles of Lean, which have typically proven to lend themselves to the software development cycle.

Applying lean in marketing is an experiment in creating a more streamlined workflow than the creative team might have been used to before.

As the head of a marketing team, supporting the shipping of a SaaS product, I have become accustomed to trying out methods I see our developers use on my own team. Our case is even more unique, as our R&D team actually develops a tool that helps other product development teams apply the lean principles of Kanban to break down their work and track their process efficiency.

Naturally, the sales and marketing teams within our company also use the tool developed in-house, in order to test whether Kanban works not just for development teams, but for other professions as well.

Turns out — it not only works for marketing but it has improved our process threefold!

Our marketing team has been running on the framework used to apply lean principles called Kanban since the induction of its first member (yours truly). Any aspect of our workflow gets tracked on online Kanban boards, like the one presented below ,and work items get visualized as individual Kanban cards that adhere to certain rules endorsed by lean.

Visual Workflow of Marketing with Kanban and Lean

When something needs to get done, we make a card for it, assign the card to the relevant person, and add it right to the Kanban board in the Requested column.

As we begin processing a work item, we move its card to In Progress and then, eventually, to the Done column. We collect data from our entire process and visualize the number of cards in each part of our process in a cumulative flow diagram, popular in manufacturing and some facets of product development — instead of the more typical burndown chart used in agile methods like Scrum, which eliminates upcoming tasks instead of accumulating completed ones.

However, I shouldn’t be getting ahead of myself. Let me begin by going into some detail about why Kanban as a method happens to suit the marketing process — at least the marketing process for a SaaS tool like ours — and why it might be able to alleviate some typical problems that plague some marketing teams.

Pursuing a marketing metric for efficiency

Often, marketing places emphasis on metrics, but hardly ever on the metric of one’s own efficiency.

The central goal of the Kanban framework is to remove the waste from various parts of a unified process and make sure it does not get stalled. On a general level, this occurs through a series of experiments, imposed limits in some stages of the work process, and a consistent tracking and analysis of the effects of various actions on the Kanban board — which is a representation of a process map.

Hopefully, the result of the applying these principles is eliminating aspects of the process that make it difficult to achieve the highest quality in the shortest amount of time and improve to optimal efficiency. Lean refers to this as continuous improvement.

Having these principles in the back of our minds, finally made something click for our team — to be the best, we had to make sure we weren’t just productive, but also efficient. In other words, it doesn’t matter if each of us writes seven pieces of content a day, if they turn into pieces of inventory that no one gets to see.

We decided we would not create anything that did not bring value to our customers or clients. That’s when we started to measure the efficiency of our own process and remove unnecessary elements that were taking up time and energy they did not deserve.

Marketing never stops — luckily, Kanban is flow-based

Unlike other software development methods, most prominently Scrum, Kanban happens to be flow-based. This means that the team does not aim to complete work in committed intervals, which runs the risk of either overcommiting and rushing through the work or undercommiting and staying idle when they finish early.

Kanban is conducive to a marketing track because marketing never stops. Of course, one might still deal with some concrete deadlines from external sources, but in both cases, the aim is to create a consistent and predictable workflow of cards.

Our team set a weekly (every Monday) and monthly (first Monday of the next month) “deadline” to measure success and how much value we had put out for the period we had defined for ourselves.

Recently, we have been measuring external followed links to our website. In Kanban flow terms, we track how many links we have made around the web and aim to have more each month. However, we have not officially committed to a certain number of links each month, because we don’t choose to necessarily work in iterations (like Scrum teams would).

Our general team commitment is to maintain a stable environment to run the most efficient version of our particular value creating process.

Marketers are tempted to multitask

In the realm of project management, team leaders often overlook the power of limiting their team’s work in progress.

Kanban respects the benefits of imposing limits on how many work items the team is allowed to work on at the same time and makes it easy to implement them visibly, as WIP (work-in-progress) limits per column on your Kanban board.

At this point, our WIP limit on the In Progress column is as many members of the marketing team there are, which is commonly recommended and has worked well for us. This means that each member of the team cannot start on a second piece of work before finishing the one they have already taken from the queue.

These limits were decided at the beginning of our work together to keep us from getting overburdened and prevent us from the temptation of multitasking. When we add a new member to the team, we raise the WIP limit by 1 to make room for his or her work items. The Requested and Done columns do not require limit as they do not represent work that is In Progress and cannot create bottlenecks by themselves.

Why Kanban stand-ups are an antitode to “marketing meetings”

I have heard it said that marketing meetings in large corporations can go as long as several days until decisions start being made. Following the Kanban method, we host a daily stand-up meeting in the morning at an awkward time (for us it’s 10:08am) so no one forgets and everyone is on time.

It’s a short 15 minute affair, during which everyone is in front of a large plasma screen that we use to project our marketing Kanban board. It’s very important that everyone is standing, not sitting, in order to keep everyone on their toes and quick about it, instead of letting the meeting drag.

Everyone takes a couple of minutes to identify the visualized tasks from yesterday and the cards representing what they would like to accomplish today. It’s a good way to consistently sync about progress and find out whether someone is struggling. This sort of discipline has helped us share, stay on track and deal with issues which could escalate if not addressed promptly.

Kanban pushes marketing to take more initiative

Since its beginnings in the factories of Toyota, the Kanban method has been associated with the pulling of work instead of work getting pushed onto the team from management, HQ, or wherever.

In the context of a Kanban board, it simply means that team members take on cards when they’re ready to start them, instead of getting tasks pushed upon them when they might not have capacity. It’s a great way to self-regulate, self-organize, and show initiative.

Our marketing team underwent a tiny renaissance by incrementally getting used to the pull approach of taking on work — no one was left without something to do, no one felt like they were getting too much thrown on their shoulders, and morale improved because each member was responsible for the tasks they had chosen to undertake at a given moment.

Cumulative Flow Diagrams as a way to measure efficiency

I’m a great believer in physical Kanban boards, pinned right to the wall, color-coded, and right in front of your eyes at all times.

However, there are some things a digital Kanban board can automate, that a physical board can’t help but keep manual. A key example is data collection.

My team works on an online board that gets updated in real time — this is the case with all online tools for Kanban. We keep an eye on the current data by making a manual or digital Cumulative Flow Diagram, a Kanban favorite that shows us how many items are in each stage of the workflow (Requested, In Progress, Done) over time.

Kanban Cumulative Flow Diagram for Lean Marketing

Our dedication to efficiency has also led us to focus on measuring the ratio between the actual value-adding time — during which a team member actively works towards completing a task — and the entire lead time required to complete a process.

This helps us generate a percent we call Process Efficiency / 100. We use it to check how efficient the processing of a group of tasks or all the cards on a board has been.

Over the course of our adoption of Kanban, the efficiency of our processing of the cards on our marketing board has been increasing over time. Our aim was to get to 50% efficiency, because we knew we could not eliminate all the wait times inherent in our process entirely — but we’ve actuallymanaged to get from 20% to 60% efficiency, as tracked by our efficiency widget, within the first year.

Will you try Kanban with your marketing team? It’s worth it.

Thank you, Monica!

For more insights into succeeding with agile and lean marketing methods, attend MarTech Europe in London, 1-2 November. Ulrike Eder, the chief commercial officer of drie Secure Systems, will be one of more than 25 expert speakers at the conference, and he’ll be presenting on Agile Practices for Marketing Teams — Putting Theory into Action. “Beta” discount rate expires September 30.

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3 thoughts on “Running marketing like lean software development”

  1. Interesting that we now have a tool that seeks to remove the opportunity that comes from the random event, the interesting anomaly, the creativity that comes form ‘thinking’ about a problem.
    I am all in favour of systematising the processes by which we get stuff done, but there is a tipping point, a point after which we compromise the ability to innovate. Unless there is a supporting culture and system that forces the process improvement, as the is in the TPS systems, we just end up with the same stuff over and over. In some circumstances, this is exactly what we want, and in some it is the opposite of what we want.
    Beware of tools that systematise marketing thinking as distinct from the processes of applying and leveraging that thinking.

  2. Just want to address the comment above for a moment.
    Kanban is actually one of the methods that allows teams (of any kind) to thrive on innovation and flexibility unlike other more rigid formats. Bringing data or structure into the equation of a marketing process isn’t limiting at all. In fact, it’s freeing, because it shows you which experiments have a high chance of being positive game changers and which might not be worth pursuing.

    Thanks for taking the time to read my article and for you feedback!

  3. Very interesting post 🙂

    I do find it amusing that every industry type feels the need to put their “industry” in front of the word Agile.
    “We’re doing AgencyAgile” or “Oh we tried Agile and it didn’t work so we’re now doing a DigitalAgile transformation”

    I laugh (in a kind way) because the way I see it, nothing in each of these “Agile” implementations is special, specific or different. It’s just Agile. The whole point in an agile framework is that….well………it enhances agility.

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