At Gatineau Ottawa Agile Tour 2012 I met a lot of great people (if you weren’t there you missed a GREAT event!). One question I was asked was “would Kanban work for volunteers”.  The participant who asked runs a horse boarding facility and she needs to find a way to manage the people doing chores.  My answer is an enthusiastic “YES”!

I didn’t get an opportunity to explore the question deeply, but as someone who spends a lot of time volunteering (and leading them) I’m going to make some assumptions.  There are many challenges in getting volunteers to do chores, and keeping them focused on meeting their goals. One of the biggest challenges in assigning chores/duties is people have different levels of willingness to do different tasks.  So why not turn the decisions over to the people who have to do them.

In looking at why I believe Kanban would work for managing a group of volunteers I see numerous parts to the answer.  The first and most important is you can instill a sense of ownership in the people who carry them out.  They are paying money to keep their horse at your barn, so I believe by giving them ownership you can help them feel they’re helping to given their horse a better place to live.

So how would I apply it in this situation?  There’s a number of things jumping to mind but here are the top ones:

  • Keep it simple!   I would start with a board as simple as backlog, work in progress and complete.  From there do the measure & monitor steps and evolve the board over time
  • Make it visible!   I’m assuming there’s likely a lot of repetitive tasks in the case of a horse barn, so you may want to look at creating a board with a magnetic whiteboard & sheet magnets.   I’ve seen some cool stuff done with these simple tools.
  • Post the policies!  Given you’re going to have people coming & going at different times of the day you won’t always see them.  So follow the first two points above and make them visible, and keep them simple!   No long lists of rules … just keep it simple.
  • In the case of the horse barn, I think I’d set a WIP limit of 1 card per person per visit.  Unlike the ways I’ve applied Kanban with teams your team will be unlikely to come together often.   So rather than trying to rally the team set your WIP limit based on visits.
  • Monitor, measure and most important … improve!   Specifically I’m thinking you likely have different chores needing to be done each week.   Keep track of progress, throughput, cycle-time, etc.  Also keep track of what’s getting done (or not).   If some of the chores aren’t getting done on a regular basis, start the process of working with the volunteers to figure out why.  More important get the volunteers to help you adjust the kanban board in some way to make it happen

There are things which could derail your efforts.  Some of the things jumping to mind include:

  • Cards being too big to accomplish in 1 visit.  You need to find that fine balance which means people won’t mind taking on a task each visit.  Make them too small and you won’t get the work done in a week.  Make them too big and people will start rejecting your system.
  • People don’t get involved.  Think about how you’re going to get them engaged with such a simple system for getting chores done.  If you get them involved they sufficiently I’d be willing to bet they will even help you improve how things are done.  That after all is one of the key reasons to use Kanban!
  • Not enacting an improvement program. It’s going to be tough when the team doesn’t get together, but a key success factor is the ability to evolve & improve.
  • Making the board too complex.  It’s easy to fall in this trap and when it happens I’ve seen the board start to fall apart.  In the most extreme example I’ve seen the problem got so bad there were actually post-its on the board which had changed colour (ie. they faded from being in the sun so long).

So my advice … go for it!   I think kanban can be used in many ways to manage very different groups of people.

Want to read another example?  My boys weren’t exactly volunteers, but the idea is similar when we used kanban to prepare for a 50th Anniversary party for my parents!

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