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By Pavel Kukhnavets


Learn more about the Agile workflow management method for defining, managing, and improving services that deliver knowledge work.

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The Japanese word "Kanban" is becoming less weird and unclear to a wide audience, especially to professionals involved in project management and software development.

Recently, we all turned to Google to find out details about this mysterious Agile method, and today it conquers more and more companies, spheres, and environments.

What does Kanban stand for? What is the purpose of a Kanban system? How do project managers use the Kanban approach? If these and other questions are on your agenda, then our article will come in handy for you. Let's start with the basics and slowly dive into the fascinating world of Kanban!

Brief Introduction to Kanban System

Kanban definition: What does Kanban mean?

What is a Kanban system? In simple words, this method is a reliable means to design, manage, and improve workflows. The system of Kanban visualizes the workflow and the actual work passing through it. 

The key goal of the Kanban methodology is to define bottlenecks in the process and fix them to make workflow cost-effective with an optimal speed or throughput. The approach also allows various companies to start with their existing workflows and drive evolutionary changes. 

Translated from Japanese, it means a billboard that indicates “available capacity” (to work). Kanban relates to Lean and JIT (just-in-time) production, where it is utilized as a scheduling system that demonstrates what, when, and how to produce.

When you can apply Kanban

What is Kanban good for? You can use the system in any knowledge work setting. Kanban is especially applicable in situations where work arrives in an unpredictable way or when you strive to deploy work as soon as it is ready, instead of waiting for other work items.

What is the history of Kanban?

If this is your first time hearing this term, then you must surely be wondering where Kanban did originate.
It all started in the 1940s. Taiichi Ohno, a Japanese industrial engineer for Toyota automotive, developed the system. Initially, Kanban was designed as a simple planning approach. Its aim was to control and optimally manage work at every stage of production.
The inadequate productivity and efficiency of Toyota compared to its American competitors were the main reasons for Kanban’s development. With the help of this approach, Toyota achieved an efficient and flexible production control system that affected productivity and reduced the cost-intensive inventory of raw materials.
Using Agile Kanban, any company can perfectly control the entire value chain from the supplier to the end consumer. This helps to avoid supply disruption and overstocking of goods at different stages of manufacturing. The system requires continuous monitoring of the process and special attention to avoid potential bottlenecks that could slow down the process of production.
Over time, Kanban has become popular with a variety of production systems.

Kanban system

The values of the Kanban system

Kanban-focused teams can improve the services they deliver considering the following values:

  • Flow. It represents a continuous or episodic flow of value.
  • Transparency. It is about the clear sharing of information using straightforward language that improves the flow of business value.
  • Customer focus is needed for optimizing the flow of value to customers that are external from the system but can be internal/external to the company where the system exists.
  • Balance is required in different aspects and viewpoints so as to achieve effectiveness.
  • Collaboration is needed for improving the way people work together.
  • Leadership is a must at all levels to realize continuous improvement and deliver value.
  • Respect leads to understanding and demonstrating consideration for people.
  • Agreement. It is about commitment to improvement to jointly move toward common goals.

Introducing Kanban roles

Someone may say that there are no roles explicitly called for when adopting Kanban project management. However, two specific roles that serve particular purposes have emerged in practice. Here they are:

SRA: Service request manager

SRA understands clients’ needs and expectations, facilitating the ordering of work items at the Replenishment meeting. This role is often performed by a product manager or product owner.

SDM: Service delivery manager

This manager is responsible for the flow of work to deliver chosen items to clients. He/she facilitates the Delivery Planning and a Daily Kanban meeting. There are some other names applied to identify this role. For example, a flow manager, flow master, or delivery manager.

The Benefits of the Kanban System

user stories

Many companies have already experienced real benefits from the Kanban system, realizing that it helps to get more work done. Here are some of these benefits:

1. Keeping everyone on the same page

Kanban systems prompt teams to visualize every piece of work on a whiteboard or a digital Kanban board example that turns into a central informational hub. You can see all tasks, and they never get lost, which brings transparency to the whole work process.

2. Bringing flexibility

According to the basic Kanban principles, any team can use the method, from developers to HR. Kanban respects your company’s current state, and it doesn’t require revolutionary changes. On the contrary, it allows pursuing incremental, evolutionary changes and continuous improvements.

3. Revealing bottlenecks

After filling the board with Kanban cards, you will see that some columns will get overcrowded with tasks. This will demonstrate some bottlenecks in your workflow and tackle them. 

4. Making the team more responsive

The Kanban workflow is focused on meeting customers’ demands in time, not on pushing goods to the market. The method makes it easy to respond to the ever-changing client’s requirements, which makes teams more agile and responsive.

5. Focusing on finishing work to boost productivity

Kanban management requires teams to focus on their current tasks until they are done. Limiting work in progress is what makes it possible. WIP limits foster individuals to complete work items faster by eliminating distractions (for example, multitasking and context switching). This has a positive impact on the overall productivity of the Kanban team.

Which projects benefit from the Kanban system

The Kanban model will definitely benefit your business if your project meets some of the following criteria:

  • The product backlog has stalled. 
  • Your workflows function but could be more efficient and smoother.
  • Your company prefers to improve existing processes instead of imposing a new system.
  • The priorities of your team can change in a short period.
  • Your key priority is being responsive to customers’ needs.

Principles and Practices of Kanban

How does a Kanban system work? The methodology offers a set of principles and practices for managing and improving your workflow. By following these principles and practices, you will be able to apply Kanban ceremonies for maximizing business benefits – boost value to the customer, improve flow, reduce cycle time, etc. 

Let’s dive deeper into these foundational principles and core practices of Kanban.

4 Kanban Principles

1. Start with what you are doing now

Kanban does not require particular setups. It can be applied directly to your current workflow. This simplifies its implementation as there is no need to change existing processes. Any process improvements in Kanban are adopted over time.

2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change

Radical changes can unsettle teams. The method encourages making small incremental changes rather than applying sweeping changes that may lead to resistance in the team or the entire company.

3. Respect current roles, responsibilities, and job titles

The Kanban approach admits that existing processes, roles, and responsibilities may have value, and it is worth preserving them. The method encourages incremental change to avoid emotional resistance.

4. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels

Kanban encourages continuous improvement. It proclaims that leadership acts should not originate only from senior managers. All team members can provide ideas and show leadership to implement changes to continually improve the way they deliver the products or services.

Kanban Practices: What Are the 6 Rules of Kanban?

kanban method

1. Visualizing workflows

This is an initial step to adopting and implementing the Kanban system. Using a whiteboard or an online Kanban system, you need to visualize the process step that you currently use to deliver your work or your services. Your board can be simple or elaborate. After visualizing the process, you will be able to visualize the current work that you and your team are doing.

2. Limiting work in progress

By limiting WIP, you encourage your team to complete the work at hand first before taking up new work.  All work with the status “In Progress” must be completed and marked “Done”. Only then the team can take new tasks.

3. Managing flow

Kanban helps to manage flow by highlighting different stages of the workflow and the status of work in each stage. Depending on the quality of the workflow and WIP limits set, you will observe either a smooth flow within WIP limits or work piling up. 

This will affect how quickly work traverses from the start to the end of the workflow. With the help of Kanban, your team will be able to analyze the system and make adjustments to improve flow in order to reduce the time for completing each piece of work.

4. Making process policies explicit

Defining and visualizing your policies, rules, or guidelines is also an important step. By identifying explicit process guidelines, you generate a common basis for all participants to understand how to do any type of work in the system. The policies can be at the board level or can be a checklist of steps to be done for each work item type. They can look as entry-exit criteria for each column, or anything else.

5. Implementing feedback

Feedback is a crucial part of any good system. Kanban encourages feedback loops of various kinds from review stages in the board workflow, metrics, and reports, to different visual cues that provide you continuous feedback on work progress.

5. Improving and evolving collaboratively

Kanban helps to adopt small changes and improve at a pace and size that your team can handle easily. The method encourages the use of the scientific method. You should form a hypothesis, test it and make changes depending on the testing outcomes. Your main task is to evaluate your process constantly and improve continuously.

The Concept of Kanban: How Does It Work?

As Kanban is an evolutionary change management system, so the existing process can be improved in small steps. The risk to the entire system is reduced due to the implementation of many minor changes.
The method’s evolutionary approach leads to low resistance in the team and the stakeholders involved. The introduction of Kanban relates to workflow visualization. It is implemented with the help of whiteboards or online Kanban boards that contain sticky notes or Kanban cards where each card represents a task.
A typical Kanban board includes three columns: “To Do”, “In Progress”, and “Done”.

The Role of the Kanban Method in Project Management

Project managers all over the world apply the Kanban style adapting it to software development. Here are the key points which motivate them to do this:

1. Value Stream

Value Stream helps to bring a project from its creation to completion. These actions may add value to the project or not.

2. Elimination of waste

Everything that does not add any value to the project is waste. In software development, three types of waste are defined: waste in code development, waste in project management, and waste in team potential.

3. Waste in code development

Waste in code development may occur due to the following reasons:

  • Partially completed work that may become unusable and outdated. 
  • Defects. Their correction and retesting require time and resources. 

The first type of such waste can be eliminated with iterative cycles and modular code. the second type can be eliminated with a relevant test suite, completing testing within the iteration and customer feedback.

4. Project management waste

Three reasons define waste in project management:

  • Extra processes. For example, unnecessary documentation that requires time and resources. To solve this problem, you can improve pre-planning of what processes are relevant and necessary. 
  • Code handoffs from one person to another after the first person’s work is complete. It may lead to a lack of knowledge.
  • Extra features that are not required by the customer. Effort and time are wasted. Try to interact with your customers continuously to eliminate unneeded work.

5. Waste in team potential

This waste happens due to the following reasons:

  • Task switching. It leads to the danger of multitasking. To eliminate this waste, try to focus on a task with every release. 
  • Time for getting instructions or information (waiting). Your team can sit idle if the decisions are not made by the team or if the info provided is expensive resources. Let all team members take decisions and have access to information. This will definitely help.

Kanban in Lean and Agile development

Kanban was successfully adopted by app software and technology product development teams as a way to implement Lean and Agile principles. This Agile method provides tech teams with a set of principles for visualizing their work, delivering products continuously, and getting customer feedback more often. Consequently, it assists teams to get to market faster.

In the IT sector, Kanban development today is considered as the approach that brings about agility in managing and improving service delivery in a gradual, evolutionary manner. It also provides important techniques for better managing SLA (service level agreement) commitments, delivering products to market just in time, and minimizing the cost of delay risks. 

Kanban helps clients and delivery teams to collaborate effectively, ensuring that the right things are getting worked on at the right time.

Kanban Lifecycle

The best way to describe the Kanban process lifecycle is to use the feedback cadences involved. Here are these cadences:

  • Strategy review (quarterly). You have to choose the services to provide and the context in which those services are appropriate.
  • Operations review (monthly). This is about understanding the balance between and across services (including deploying people and resources to maximize value delivery).
  • Risk review (monthly). You need to understand and respond to delivery risks in services.
  • Service delivery review (bi-weekly). The main idea is to examine and improve the effectiveness of service (similar to a Retrospective meeting).
  • Replenishment meeting (weekly). You have to determine items that your team will work on and define which work items may be selected next. 
  • The Kanban meeting (daily). Your team should coordinate their activities for the day.  This is analogous to a Scrum Standup.
  • Delivery planning meeting (according to delivery cadence). The goal is to track and plan deliveries to customers.

Daily Kanban Meeting: 15 Minutes Worth Your Attention

Any company’s culture requires meetings. It doesn’t matter what the agenda of the meeting is: to discuss new marketing prints or iterations before the product release. Meetings accelerate transparency and reliability. Any status meeting should result in benefits, even if it lasts 15 minutes.
The key goal of a Daily Kanban meeting is to minimize the time spent on the tasks at all their stages.
Kanban meetings are not obligatory, but they can influence the processes. A typical one is focused on a specific board and identifies the current bottlenecks.

What are the rules of the Daily Kanban?

  • A moderator gathers all participants (typically, a project manager or product manager). 
  • The team focuses on the board and explores tasks from right to left from the top to the bottom. All team members discuss the soonest transferring to the next stage. 
  • Everyone may have a speech.
  • The far-right column means the completion of the work. 
  • The moderator clarifies what prevents a particular member from moving a task to the “Done” column. 
  • The postponed tasks are “sorted out” by team members. Each of them takes tasks to move them to the next column by the next meeting.

During the Kanban Stand up, three typical questions must be discussed (the same as for the Scrum meeting):

  • What disturbs the progress?
  • How does the task progress?
  • What can be improved?

Implementing Kanban: Quick Steps to Succeed

The very first step towards the successful implementation of Kanban you can apply is to make your work visible. An online Agile Kanban board with columns and cards will help you. 

Use 4 basic columns (or more if needed):

  • Backlog – to visualize your current product backlog.
  • To-Do – to set all tasks that have not yet started.
  • Ongoing – to define the tasks that have started.
  • Done – to place all completed tasks.

Remember, that every task that occupies a Kanban card should be moved across the board as it progresses through each state. In the ideal case, tasks move smoothly between states. In reality, there are bottlenecks and impairments to flow.

Kanban Software: How to Choose the Best Kanban tool?

Any Kanban-focused project management tool provides project managers and their teams with handy functionality to perform projects according to the Kanban method principles.

A typical online Kanban tool allows you to work with convenient digital boards and cards, Swimlanes, color labels, tags, and due dates. With their help, you can analyze and improve your processes to boost business efficiency.

The most popular features of any Kanban tool are:

  • Online Kanban boards and cards
  • To-do lists
  • Visual project management
  • Insightful analytics
  • Prioritization matrices
  • Drag & drop tasks
  • Online documenting

Final thoughts

Now the questions like “What is the Kanban method?” or “When should Kanban be used?” should not mislead you. The latest trends demonstrate that Kanban is becoming natural beyond the software & IT spheres. You may apply this Agile method everywhere: in tech or non-technical environments.

Hopefully, this quick post will help you to make confident steps to get started with Kanban.

Use the method’s benefits to become Lean and agile and deliver high-quality products and services!

Pavel Kukhnavets

Pavel is a Content Marketing Manager at &, a project management tool loved both by tech and non-tech people. Pavel writes about the world of Agile project management, covering such topics as popular methodologies, frameworks, techniques, innovative tools, and much more that affect the overall efficiency and productivity of product teams.