Improve your legal ops first, then improve your software.

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If you’ve been following this site, you know that I’ve already blogged Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 from my forthcoming book, Kanban for Lawyers. The next chapter (below) is more of an interlude, but it hits on an important point. Too many lawyers (and people in general) look at technology as some sort of magic wand that will fix all ills. Sure there is some intuitive and transformative technology out there. But even with the best tech tools, most technologists will admit that the real improvements come from the process changes that the technology inspires.

And if the technology isn’t one of those truly magical things like the iPhone or Gmail where process improvements are almost intuitive (even if you don’t use them, these things were transformative when they launched), then focusing on adapting your workflows is even more important. Even though legal tech has made huge strides, as Seyfarth Shaw’s Ken Grady said recently, law has yet to see our “killer app.”

Rather than making a big investment in technology then, most legal teams would do better to model some improvements in the physical world before mapping those changes to the virtual one. In Jason Freid’s and David Hansson’s excellent book REWORK, they point out that removing layers of abstraction is often the key to major breakthroughs (see p. 97). This is especially true with process change.

So break out a pack of sticky notes and clear space on your wall or white board. Then spend some time bodily interacting with your work and your process. You’ll be amazed at what you discover when you do.

Kanban for Lawyers Chapter 2.5: A Word About Software

By this point you’ve probably started thinking “I bet there is some great software tool I could use to automate this!” Your Google or App Store search history may already contain some version of the term “kanban app.”

This is natural, I get it. It is a good thought actually. And yes, there are some great programs out there for building and maintaining Kanban systems.

But you’re not ready.

Soon we will be able to consider software, but first you need to know why making an investment in researching, buying, implementing, and maintaining a software tool is the best possible use of your resources right now. And right now, it is not.

You just built your first Kanban board with an incredibly low investment. Now this board hasn’t helped you deliver greater value to your customers (yet), and it hasn’t enabled you to capture some of that value in the form of revenue (yet), but it has given you something that is even more important to your long-term success: knowledge.

This Minimum Viable Product you’ve created, along with the retrospective you just conducted, has taught you something. And it promises to teach you much, much more without a whole lot of additional investment. But if you go off and install an app, your relative investment in this thing will skyrocket. You’ll have to pay some money, spend some time learning the tool, and you’ll risk being sucked down the rabbit hole of endless configuration and modification.

I’m glad you’re excited and I understand your desire to get this Kanban thing up and running as quickly as possible. But moving quickly isn’t the point: The point is learning. Learning how to see your workflow. Learning about your tasks and your products (yes, you have products) and how to describe your work. Learning how to recognize value and how to avoid waste. These things will come, and they will come more quickly than you expect. But software will force you into some programmer’s view of how you should work, and that will inhibit your learning. At best it will delay your progress, and at worst it will stall your efforts completely. And then all your investment will have been for naught.

There is something irreplaceable about learning in a physical environment. A big part of what we’re trying to do is get you to truly see your workflow in the broadest sense, and I doubt you have a screen that can rival your wall for size and scope and taking it all in. Even if you do (and someday we probably will), there is something tactile and kinesthetic about bodily interacting with the stickies and columns on your board. Once you learn to see, and feel, and experience your workflow in a physical way, then you will be in a position to translate that experience to a virtual tool.

You may even decide to start using software at that point, but you may not. I know of people and teams who have been using Kanban for years without making that choice. If and when you do come to that decision, however, I want it to be from a position of strength. Strength comes from confidence, and confidence comes from knowledge and experience.

Building strength, however, requires training, and effective training must follow a plan. Right now your training plan involves channeling your inner Rocky Balboa to move physical objects through the world, not some mechanistic Ivan Drago interacting with newfangled machines. It may seem rustic, maybe a little quaint, but I guarantee you there is no better way to train.

So please, set aside your software aspirations for now, and let’s get stronger.


Photo Credit: Angela, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

© 2015, John E. Grant

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