Interview with Chris Hefley (Leankit)
Leankit is a simple, visual process management and collaboration tool.
I interviewed Chris Hefley, Leankit CEO and co-founder to find out more. This is the hundred and fiftieth in a series of DW startup interviews. Big thank you to Chris!
Describe Leankit in under 50 words.
LeanKit is a visual project management system. It provides visibility into the status and pace of work that traditional project management systems can’t deliver. It’s simple and easy to use, so people doing the work actually do use it. And it provides greatly improved visibility and analysis to management.
Describe yourself in one sentence.
I’m a software developer turned entrepreneur, with a passion for improving the way that work gets done and thereby improving people’s lives at work.
What is the meaning of Kanban?
Kanban is an adaptation of a concept from the world of “just-in-time” manufacturing, now being applied to knowledge work. In Japanese it means “visual card”, and it provides a way to visualize the work and workflow, and the mechanism to limit the amount of work-in-progress. The idea is to stop starting more work, and start finishing work. The fewer things you have in process at one time, the faster each gets done.
If you can make the progress and priorities highly visible to all stakeholders, you can greatly improve throughput while making sure the highest priority work gets the focus it deserves. It also helps keep teams working at their most effective pace by not overloading the team with more work than they can handle, forcing them to be constantly re-prioritizing their work, and slowing progress down to a crawl.
How did you meet co-founders Stephen Franklin, Daniel Norton, and Jon Terry? What roles do you each take?
We all met working together at hospital giant HCA Healthcare, headquartered here in Nashville. Jon was the project manager and Stephen, Daniel and I were developers on a major project there that lasted a couple of years. After we went on to other teams and some to other jobs, we all kept in touch and had lunch together once every couple of months. After a couple of years of this, we decided it was time to “get the band back together”. We got together knowing we wanted to work together before we really had an idea of what our company would do. We polled the group for ideas and LeanKit was born.
Stephen is our Chief Technology Officer, Daniel is VP of Product Development, Jon is Chief Operating Officer, and I’m the CEO. Our senior management team also includes Denise Grey as Chief Marketing Officer, Len Safford as Chief Financial Officer, and Kemp Maxwell as Director of Business Development.
Where are you based?
We’re located in Franklin, Tennessee, about 30 minutes south of Nashville. Nashville is a great hub for technology, companies, with many of the country’s largest healthcare, entertainment, and manufacturing companies headquartered here, as well as dozens of universities. Franklin is home to a big part of the technology industry here, as well as the headquarters of some major manufacturing companies, like Nissan North America.
How long did it take to put together Leankit?
The founders worked on it “nights and weekends” for the first two years, while we kept our day jobs. We got our first customers after about 10 months of development, but things really started to take off for us in early 2011. That’s when we started quitting our jobs one-by-one, to work on LeanKit full-time. Five of us moved into our Franklin office in January of 2012, and now we have a staff of 21, and we’re growing faster than ever.
What was technically the most challenging part of developing Leankit?
We invested the most effort in making sure that the visualization capabilities of LeanKit would be superior. It’s fairly easy to build software to visualize vertical columns that work moves through. But it’s much more difficult to provide the kind of flexibility that LeanKit provides, while still making it easy to set up and use, and providing the ability to measure and analyze all that flexibility via charts and reports. Our first attempt at building this part of LeanKit resulted in us working for a couple of months, then scrapping everything we’d built and starting over based on what we learned the first time. We’ve built and rebuilt these aspects of our software several times, and it continues to be our biggest differentiating feature.
Any big clients on your list?
Absolutely. One of our oldest clients from way back in 2010 is Spotify, before they were in the U.S., and before I’d ever heard of them. Today our client list includes many major companies including NBC Universal, Rolls-Royce, JetBlue, AOL, GEICO, Monster.com, OfficeMax, DirecTV, Groupon, Nokia, and the government of Ontario, Canada, to name a few.
What advantage does Leankit have over its competitors?
The biggest advantage is that you can use LeanKit to model any process. We have customers from fashion designers to physicists, preschool teachers to avionics engineers, and everything in between using LeanKit to help them manage their work. It doesn’t assume anything about your process, and gives you the flexibility to to design the process to fit the way you actually do your work-something that traditional project management systems and even other visualization tools struggle to do. It’s also easy and fast to design your workflow. It usually takes about 5 minutes, and rarely requires any training – allowing people to just pick it up and do it for themselves.
Where do you see Leankit in 5 years time?
I think we can make a huge impact on the future of how work gets managed. The project management software in use today hasn’t changed much in decades, and the principles upon which these methods are based are as much as 100 years old. People that “do the work” hate working with the systems they have now, and managers struggle in vain to get the visibility, forecasting, and risk management capabilities that they need.
We have a project management approach that is truly different, not just more attractive or more collaborative, as many recent entrants into the project management software market are. As we get our message out, we can transform the way that people plan and manage their work, the way people collaborate on their work, and the way that managers and project managers plan, forecast, budget, and manage their organizations.
This is much bigger than managing the work of software developers and corporate IT. That’s where we started, building software that we would want to use. But it has grown from there into something that marketing teams, construction companies, university research teams, sales organizations, and all types of people can use to manage their work.
What future do you see for Lean and Kanban software development?
Lean and Kanban in software development and IT in general is starting to become a big deal. After 10 years, much of the world is coming around to the idea that Agile software development practices are far superior in many ways to the traditional methods that have been used for software development, especially in corporate IT. But there are classes of problems that Agile doesn’t solve well, like how to scale it to large organizations and how to manage incremental improvement for teams and organizations that struggle with the revolutionary nature of Agile.
Lean and Kanban predate Agile, but share many of the same core principles, like “fast feedback loops”, “smaller batch sizes”, and “build in quality from the start”. Learning about Lean and Kanban can be the answer for organizations who are working to improve their processes, improve their delivery speed, and generally improve the quality of their work, as well as helping organizations manage their implementations of Agile principles and practices.
Finished reading? Check out Leankit!