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I'm currently running a project where a very simple Kanban setup (Backlog/Doing/Done) is working great for us—most of the time. But we're also highly dependent on a lot of other teams' output—easily 1/3 of our tasks are at least potentially blocked if those other teams don't provide their pieces. These other teams are a mix of freelancers, other groups in our company, other companies working on the same large contract, etc.

We have fairly good communication with those teams about the status of those tasks, but for various reasons, some of them don't use our tools, they don't want to, and we can't make them. (For one thing, a lot of them don't even work for our company.) We're very happy with a super-lightweight Trello setup, but I'm looking for a better way to tag tasks assigned to different people who do not have accounts in our tools.

In other words, I need to assign tasks to external groups or individuals, communicate with them on my own, and move the tasks around the process, without them needing to have accounts.

What's a lightweight way to do what I want?

  • Your question has been edited to avoid closure as a tool-recommendation question. Feel free to edit further if necessary! – Todd A. Jacobs Sep 3 '14 at 19:21
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TL;DR

[W]e're also highly dependent on a lot of other teams' output - easily 1/3 of our tasks are at least potentially blocked if those other teams don't provide their pieces.

Your underlying question is about how to deal with externalities with a Kanban system. The short answer is that you need multiple processes: one for pulling from vendors, and one for pulling work into the team's iterative cycle.

Think Processes, Not Tools

This isn't really a tool question, it's a process question. You're missing an input bucket that these people fill for your team to pull from.

In Kanban, work is pulled, never pushed. So, your process needs a way to fill the input queue with stories, artifacts, or whatever goods/services are coming from these outside teams so that your team can pull them as work-in-progress at the appropriate time.

Externalities Generally Require a Separate (But Related) Process

Think of it this way. In a manufacturing system, you build your widget with parts. When you run out of parts, the kanban card at the bottom of the parts box gets turned in to central supply, and a new box of parts (with another card at the bottom) is handed back.

This works fine, so far as it goes. However, the process by which kanban cards (which could be pre-filled purchase orders, for example) are used by central supply to restock the supply depot isn't defined for you, but you can leverage the system to ensure that the supply depot uses those artifacts to pull supply from vendors when needed, too.

In short, whether or not you use the same framework, these are really separate processes. Your vendors shouldn't be intrinsic to your team's process, but you should definitely define an extrinsic process for pulling work from the vendors in order to make that work available for your team to pull.

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It's great that you already have simple Kanban working for you, now probably it's time to look at it and do

Value Stream Mapping

Basically you visually outline whole process and how the work flows through the board.

What will be critical for you is to setup boundaries of the process. You correctly noticed that way external team organizes work is outside of your influence. It's ok. Don't try to change it yet.

In Kanban you shouldn't try to optimize the process before actually laying it down and starting flow of cards.

But this doesn't help you at all... there is good chance you already have/know it. So, now to the next step:

Negotiation of terms with upstream teams

Consider technique described by Anderson in Kanban and try to setup Queue replenish Meeting with stakeholders and potentially members of those upstream teams.

That way you will provide visibility in your value stream, will make process explicit and in future you might even get external team to be included in your Value Stream that would lead to pushing Value Stream boundaries further up the chain.

Only at this point you guys can decide what tool will be used for that. And please don't forget about ex-explicitly putting your Kanban Policies in written form and making them available for everyone to see.

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