When you think of a pipeline, what comes to mind? If you’re like most people, it’s probably oil and gas. Companies that extract these natural resources out of the ground need to transport them to refineries, production facilities and so on. A literal pipe needs to be in place to get the oil and gas from one location to another.
The pipe ensures the material gets from one station to the next from extraction, refinement and ultimately on a truck somewhere to deliver to the end customer. The pipeline makes it possible to get this material to every place it needs to be, and the entire process cumulatively purifies the product to a result we fill up at our gas stations and heat our homes.
You may be asking yourself, “What does an oil and gas delivery process have to do with me? I’m a knowledge worker that sits in front of a computer all day”. You’d be surprised!
Knowledge workers can use the pipeline concept to define their work in an assembly line-like fashion. Most work can be broken down into sequential tasks that must be performed back to back to complete a project. An excellent tool to implement this approach is Trello.
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Trello is a service that allows you to set up various boards, lists, and cards to piece together all kinds of pipelines. In Trello, a board consists of a collection of lists and cards. A board is an overarching container that will typically represent the entire work pipeline. Inside of the board, you’ll then have lists that will serve each stage a particular card is in. Then, each card is an individual task that will flow from list to list.
For example, let’s say you’re a recruiter and you have a predefined set of tasks that must be done for every potential candidate. You have a list of potential candidates you need to contact, then you either leave a message or email and wait on a response, then you schedule a call, contact the hiring company and so on. The steps to recruit someone for a job is generally the same. This is an excellent opportunity to develop a work pipeline in Trello!
You can see an example of what a pipeline like this might look like within Trello. The board is the process, each list is defined as the stage a particular candidate is in, and each card represents a candidate.
Once a board like this is created, adding new candidates to this pipeline is just a matter of creating more cards and dragging those cards from stage to stage giving the recruiter a birds-eye view of the status of all his or her potential candidates.
This concept can apply to any process that’s clearly defined.
Adding Additional Functionality
As you’ve seen, a pipeline can be created with a Trello board, a few stage lists, and some cards but you can do quite a bit more.
Assigning Due Dates
Using our recruiting example, perhaps whenever you get in touch with a potential candidate, you’d like to ensure that a candidate gets in front of the hiring manager no later than two weeks. Trello allows you to set various metadata in a card; one of that metadata is a due date.
Also, in addition to tracking the various stages, a candidate is in via lists, there are also some tasks that must be performed for each candidate like sending them information about the job, creating a contract, etc. For these smaller tasks, you can create a checklist within each candidate card giving you a clear indication of what you still need to do for that candidate.
Assigning Team Members
Perhaps you have a team of people that all need to work together in your recruiting agency and candidates are assigned to specific team members. In that case, you can assign card members to each card representing the candidate “owner.” Trello card members are created at the board-level via Trello teams, and there are a lot of different permissions you can set amongst these members.
The labeling functionality is also a useful feature that can be used in lots of different ways. Labels allow you to set categories or tags to various work items. How this is done is entirely up to you but again using our recruiting example, perhaps you’d like to categorize candidates based off of the industry they’re coming from. You’re working with companies from healthcare, manufacturing and biomedical companies and you’d want to classify candidates based on those areas. This is a great reason to use labels with your cards.
At this point, your Trello board is starting to take shape!
Custom fields are another awesome opportunity to track various information about a particular card. Custom fields allow you to get more specific than labels. Using labels, you were only able to define a single value. Custom fields, on the other hand, allow you to define a label and a value. For example, instead of just creating a label called Healthcare Experience, you could instead define a custom field called Experience with a value called Healthcare or perhaps you’d like to define whether or not the candidate is senior-level or not. Instead of filling up the labels, you can define different custom items for this like below.
Custom fields are a Trello Power-Up that must be enabled but is easy to do. Custom fields are a great way to add “app-like” functionality allowing you to begin assigning all kinds of fields to your cards.
Taking Trello Pipelines to the Next Level
You’ve seen that you can build an extensive pipeline with Trello alone, but once you’ve discovered the productivity boost you and your team can get out of defining work this way, you’ll inevitably begin coming up with ideas to improve upon the process further. Common questions may be:
- How do I ensure X happens before a card goes into a particular list?
- How can I make Y happen when a card gets moved from one specific list to another list?
- How do I generate reports from this card activity?
- How do I limit the type of information is added to a card and add some rules around events?
Although Trello is a beautiful piece of technology, it can’t do everything. If you find yourself asking questions like this yet still want to use Trello for your work pipelines, this is where the Trello API and other API-driven applications come in handy.
Using the Trello API or a service like Zapier, you can create various workflows that trigger from specific events that your Trello board generates and then take action on those events. Upon trigger, you take action on other services or even make changes to the Trello board itself; it all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Using our recruiting example again, perhaps when a candidate card is moved into the Call Scheduled list, you’d like to confirm that a calendar entry was added to Google calendar or maybe when specifying an address for a candidate in the card description, you’d like to verify the address is correct and if not, update it automatically. Simply use Zapier to “listen” for a particular event or build your application and then initiate an action based on what you’re trying to achieve.
There are tons of potential triggers and actions you can take when extending Trello’s native functionality to other services.
How to Implement a Work Pipeline: A Real-World Use Case
To demonstrate these benefits in a real-world scenario, I’d like to show you how I use these techniques in a company I own a company called TechSnips. This company produces short screencast videos explaining how to perform various technical tasks in the information technology space. One metric the company uses to measure success is how many videos are published every day. We know that the more videos we release, the more successful the company will be overall.
We define our work pipeline in Trello. Trello provides us the ability to track work with cards which represent a single unit of work. We also define each stage as a Trello list going from left to right as you can see below.
A card cannot proceed to the next stage until the required work has been performed on it in the previous step. Once that is done, the card is then dragged to the following Trello list and on and on until it finally gets to the To Publish stage.
In each step, we use Zapier to trigger specific actions based on the stage that a video is currently in. This allows us to perform a consistent, predictable set of operations on every video we publish for our customers. This process dramatically reduces human error by not adding a video description, introducing a typo to the video title, uploading a video that’s too small, too big, etc. Automated testing is performed throughout the entire lifecycle of a video.
A huge benefit for us is automated testing. We can publish better quality videos because this testing is automated and mandatory.
Another benefit of our work pipeline is for tracking and reporting purposes. One of the tasks that trigger when a Trello card is moved to a new stage is sync to AirTable. We keep a database of all videos already published and are soon to be in AirTable. This provides us to see, at a glance, various attributes related to each particular card. For example, in the screenshot below, you see one video that has no Record Start Time or Completion Time because no one has started recording it yet. However, the other videos have these attributes because they’ve already been published. Each video inherits different attributes like this as it flows through our pipeline.
Other actions in our pipeline include automatically uploading videos to Amazon S3 when submitted for review, publishing the video when complete to our video platform, submitting to clients (only if necessary) based on pre-defined rules and more.
Since we have defined our unit of work (screencasts), laid out the stages (Trello lists) and set up the tasks necessary to perform at each stage, it’s now merely a matter of following the rules and moving cards. We’ve leveraged automation to eliminate many potential problems and have boiled down this complicated process to just checking off boxes in a checklist!
The End Result
Defining your work in terms of predictable pipelines and leveraging automation frees you up to do more creative work, ensures better quality and dramatically reduces human error. Although potentially time-intensive up front, building a work pipeline is a hugely beneficial endeavor that will save countless hours of time and frustration down the road.
My company and all of the other examples I’ve provided here are just that; examples. The key is to figure out how to apply this principle to your situation. With a little creative thinking, ingenuity and time, work pipelines can benefit every individual or organization.
The key to getting the most out of a work pipeline is the tool. My company chose to use Trello as a tool to implement our work pipeline. The tool doesn’t matter. As long as you’re able to break up your projects into units of work, define stages, set up tasks associated with each stage and have a way to move work from one stage to another, it’ll work out great!