Kanban is an Agile Lean project management method to improve work function and service delivery by utilising visual organisation techniques. It is designed to maximise efficiency, improve the handling of large projects, and manage team workload more easily. The basic structure follows a to-do list mentality. Tasks are moved from left to right across a Kanban board, from ‘To-do’, to ‘In progress’, and then to ‘Done’, making it optimal for handling complex projects for multiple teams in a single environment.
The word ‘Kanban’ is a Japanese word that means “visual board” or “sign” and was first introduced by Toyota in the late 1940s. An engineer named Taiichi Ohno created it for Toyota as a scheduling system for just-in-time manufacturing but today “Kanban” refers to the “Kanban method” which was first defined in 2007 based around the principles Toyota used upon its first inception.
Kanban is one of the simplest Agile methodologies as it works with existing organisational structures. This is a distinct feature of Kanban since many other Agile frameworks come with an in-built structure that must be followed for the system to function as intended, such as Scrum.
The Kanban board is the calling card of the Kanban framework. It is a tool for workflow visualisation that is designed to clarify and bolster the efficiency of work processes - primarily by limiting the amount of work in progress. The Kanban board allows you to quickly identify sticking points or mismatched work stages and improve them so your team can work more efficiently.
Kanban boards come in a variety of shapes and sizes. While some teams prefer physical whiteboards or glass walls with sticky notes, nowadays the majority of teams use digital boards, utilising one of many software options. Digital boards are much more flexible than physical boards as the team can access them from anywhere, facilitating collaboration even if your team isn’t located in the same office.
There are many kinds of digital boards, some being very structured and limited to keep the focus on the core concept of Kanban. Others are highly flexible and allow managers to track multiple workflows and organise their work in different categories.
Regardless of which type of board is chosen, there are plenty of examples of successfully applied Kanban boards across multiple industries and teams with various backgrounds.
Kanban boards can look different from team to team depending on their industry and their organisational needs, but across the board (pun intended) there are a few key components that are needed to make it a Kanban board.
- Kanban Cards: A Kanban Card is the visual representation of a task. The cards contain details about the task like deadlines, status, descriptions, assignees, etc. They aim to show you all of the relevant information about a task at a quick glance.
- Kanban Columns: A Kanban column represents a stage of the overall workflow. The simplest Kanban boards use three columns. They are the ‘To do’ column, for tasks not yet begun, the ‘In progress’ column, for work they are currently doing but have yet to finish, and the ‘Done’ column, where the tasks that have been completed are placed.
You can add as many columns as is pertinent to your process, for example, your ‘In progress’ column could be broken into ‘design’, ‘production’, and ‘editing’. So long as the cards still move from left to right as stages of work are completed, then the columns serve their purpose.
- Work-in-progress limits: A work-in-progress limit is one of the key components of Kanban. It restricts the maximum number of tasks that are in the workflow stages. This allows your team to focus on the most pressing tasks and finish work faster.
- Kanban Swimlanes: These are horizontal lanes used to separate activities, teams, or anything else you need.
- Commitment point: A commitment point marks when a work item is ready to be pulled into the Kanban board.
- Delivery point: A delivery point marks where a work item is considered completed.
Kanban methodology is agile in more than just title. It aims for constant improvement in teams and workflow, and to add flexibility to task management. Since it is a visual organisation system, the progress of entire projects can be easily understood just by looking at the board.
Because Kanban was originally used in the manufacturing setting to control inventory, it applies that same concept to project management by controlling the amount of work done by the team.
While Agile has its own 12 principles of project management, Kanban has its own set of principles and practices. Kanban is built on four principles and five practices.
These principles are:
1. Start with what you do now: Kanban doesn’t come with a certain setup or procedure. You can use Kanban functions integrated with your current process to highlight issues and begin to introduce small improvements over time. By taking things slow and integrating with what is already established, it is very easy to begin a Kanban implementation without overhauling the whole system at once.
2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change: This principle is very similar to the first one. As a project management system, Kanban works best when it is allowed to work without resistance. This is why it advocates for continuous, small, incremental, and evolutionary changes to your current system. Large overhauling changes are discouraged because they can be met with apprehension and reluctance to cooperate. New processes can be scary for folks, but the smaller the changes, the more likely they are to be accepted, and the more smoothly the transition to Kanban will be.
3. Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities, and titles: As previously mentioned, Kanban is one of the simplest Agile methodologies. The major reason for its simplicity is this principle. Kanban encourages you to work with what already exists. It doesn’t give you new roles, new meetings to manage, or a new work culture, all it is designed to do is simply show you a path forward with visual organisation as the key component.
4. Encourage leadership at all levels: Most project management systems are very traditional and require approval from the project manager for all tasks, no matter how small. Kanban, however, gives the freedom of decision making to those working on the task. This encourages forward thinking and innovation and creates future leaders with a growth mentality eager to learn from their mistakes and improve their work.
In addition to those four core principles, Kanban also has five core practices.
1. Visualisation of workflow: The Kanban method’s most notable practice is the visualisation of workflow. The cards, columns, and swimlanes all allow you to see the entire project and understand its process at a glance.
2. Work in progress limit: By limiting the amount of work in progress to only what the team can reasonably accomplish, they are free to focus on prioritising what is there. The Kanban method utilises limiting the number of tasks able to be pulled into the board to what is reasonably accomplishable in order to encourage the team to work collaboratively and efficiently to complete what is there before starting anything new.
3. Efficient workflow management: This practice focuses on measuring lead time, the total time spent on a given task from inception to completion, in order to reduce it as much as possible.
4. Explicit management policies: In Kanban, as well as most project management, it is important for the team members to know what their goal is. It is challenging to set a goal for improving your process if you don’t even know what your process is. This is why it is so important to the Kanban method that policies and processes be explicit, easy to understand, and firm.
5. Take feedback and improve collaboratively: A key piece of the Kanban project management method is improving upon what is already there. Well, you can’t improve if you don’t know where you’re falling short! This is where feedback comes into play. Getting feedback highlights areas where the team has room to grow as a collective. The word Kaizen is sometimes used in connection with Kanban. Kaizen generally means continuous improvement. Using Kanban effectively means involving Kaizen. If you are not continually improving, you are not using Kanban.
How does kanban work?
As explained above, Kanban is made of a board with cards on it. The board can have several columns to track each stage of a project. Commonly, there is a column for:
- the tasks that haven’t been started yet.
- the tasks that are currently in progress.
- the tasks that have been completed.
Kanban is a pull system. A pull system is a lean technique that ensures work is only replaced when it is completed. All production is based entirely on demand to keep the WIP limit in place.
The details of Kanban vary from team to team and the columns they create can vary as well. However, as flexible as the framework is, there are some central elements of Kanban and how it works that ensures the method is being used correctly and effectively.
- The Kanban board, split into columns, tracking each stage of a project.
- The project is split into individual tasks. Those tasks go onto cards with the details needed to understand each one. One task per card. They are then placed into the column corresponding to what stage of the process they are in; beginning with ‘requested’ or ‘To-do’.
- As tasks arise in the project, they are assigned to a team member, who then moves that card into the next column, commonly an ‘In progress’ column.
- As work continues on the task, documentation may be added to the card. Screenshots, technical resources, or links may all be added so anyone looking at the card knows exactly what is being completed.
- When the task is complete, it is then moved into the ‘Done’ column.
- All of the columns are interconnected so that tasks can be easily pulled from left to right as they progress to completion.
- When a task reaches the ‘completed’ column, another task is added to the ‘To-do’. This is to maintain the WIP limit.
Benefits of kanban
Kanban has several benefits, to name a few:
- Visibility and productivity: Kanban focuses on making projects, tasks, and structure more visible. More visibility leads to a better understanding of the process which in turn leads to more efficient teams. With higher efficiency, it naturally follows that you would see an increase in productivity.
- Flexibility: Some project management structures are very rigid which doesn’t allow for much room to grow or adapt as process changes, companies expand, or teams adapt. Kanban is very flexible, allowing it to be implemented in a number of ways and grow with your team rather than stifle it.
- Team focus: Better visibility of what is expected leads to people being more aware of their goals. With a collaborative team goal, the team has focus and can put energy into achieving it.
- Decreased waste: Waste exists in all levels of business and one of the main ways it is clear is in time spent trying to determine what task to start next. With Kanban, the whole process from start to finish is clearly visible to everyone, preventing teams from having to stop and reconsider all of their steps at every turn.
- Collaboration: With the Kanban board visible to all team members, everyone is on the same page. This allows for smooth transitions of tasks between co-workers and better communication in all levels of team interaction.
As previously mentioned, Kanban is a flexible framework that can be used in almost any industry. Here are a couple of examples of how the Kanban framework is used in companies today.
In and around 2010, as Spotify was beginning to grow, the company’s Operations team found that it was becoming increasingly hard to keep up with all of the planned projects. An interview one of their spokespeople gave to InfoQ mentions that their biggest struggle was that they had 15-minute tickets next to several-month-long projects all weighted equally and visually similar. It was challenging to look at their workload and know what should be prioritised. So, they turned to Kanban to split up these larger projects into smaller tasks.
Their board was split into three simple sections: To Do, Doing, and Done. They also categorised their cards as either tangible tasks (physical work) or intangible tasks (planning and design). Then determining the size of each task, the order in which they should be completed, and how long each would take helped them to improve their workflow process and allowed them to achieve their goals more efficiently. Spotify also noted that since implementing Kanban, their lead times are shorter, they are getting more internal tasks done, and all of this without people’s day-to-day work changing too much.
Seattle Children’s Hospital
The Seattle Children’s Hospital (SCH) began using Kanban for their supply issues, similar to how the method began initially. In 2007, SCH noticed that they were running into an issue with supply, specifically, they were experiencing consumable shortages. These shortages were leading staff to hide stockpiles of items needed every day to ensure that they always had a supply. This however, led to issues with inventory and time wasting.
So, to solve this problem, Seattle Children’s Hospital adopted a two-bin Kanban system. The inventory managers used real data from a year’s worth of operations to figure out how much stock was needed, then they began using the two-bin system. The two-bin system works by monitoring the levels in the first bin, and when an item is used, it is ordered and stocked in the second bin. When the first bin is completely empty, the second bin moves forward to replace it and the cycle continues. Also, to ensure transparency of the process, the staff had a Kanban board which they could see at any time to always know what their supply chain looked like.
By implementing this solution, SCH found that they not only solved their shortages issue, but they were also able to reduce the size of their storage room and save money since perishable goods were no longer expiring and there were no longer operational delays due to lack of supplies.
Is kanban agile?
Yes! Kanban is one of the simplest Agile project management methods. It is commonly recommended as a first step into the Agile methodology because it can function with existing structures and communication channels. Unlike Scrum, which comes with new roles to assign and events to manage, Kanban is a very stripped-down way to visualise workflow that allows the Agile methodology to shine without being overwhelming to implement.
Does kanban have sprints?
No. Sprints are time blocks commonly used in Scrum. Kanban functions without time-based blocks as it is a project-based methodology. You would only use a Sprint function with Kanban if you were combining it with Scrum in a Scrumban (see explanation of Scrumban below).
Difference between scrum and kanban?
If you are familiar with Scrum, you may notice some similarities between Kanban and Scrum. They both allow projects to adapt and change, both encourage team engagement, both have short development cycles, and both focus on increased transparency. However, while they share the same core concepts, each one has a different approach. Scrum provides a schedule and structure for teams while Kanban is designed to help visualise tasks using the established process. Scrum focuses on time-based segments called Sprints, whereas Kanban focuses on project-based deliveries. Whilst both Kanban and Scrum have their own strengths, there is no reason to pit them against each other when collaboration between them maximises the benefits of each; this is known as a Scrumban.
Scrumban combines both Kanban and Scrum by using the processes of Scrum and the visualisation tools of Kanban. Scrumban can be a good way for teams familiar with either Scrum or Kanban to incorporate the other into their process.
Visualisation of tasks
Learn, prioritise, and organise as a team and reflect on process to continuously improve
Continual flow, project-based board
Fixed one-to-four-week Sprints, time-based board
No required roles
Scrum team/development team, Product Owner, Scrum Master
Visualise workflow and limit work in progress to allow for prioritisation to naturally occur. Feedback is incorporated as it is received
Formal meetings to establish goals, set tasks, and review feedback to better the team and the production process as a whole
Best for projects with varying priorities and lengths
Best for teams with stable, consistent priorities
Kanboard vs scrum board
The way that work is tracked by both the Kanban system and the Scrum method are very similar. They both typically utilise columns to sort what stage work is in and both are widely viewed by the whole team.
One of the key differences between a Kanboard and a Scrum board is the way work is tracked in a graphed way. With Scrum boards, there is a burndown chart that shows the team how much work has been completed as a count down to zero. It tracks how many days are left in the Sprint and calculates if the team is on track to finish all the work or where areas can be improved. This information is important to Scrum as it is reviewed during the Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective.
With Kanboards, you have a similar sort of graph to track overall progress, but it counts up to a cumulative total because Kanban doesn’t operate on any formal timeline. This information can be referenced at any time and clearly shows dips or swells in productivity which can help the team to improve their processes.
- Kanban is a project management method to improve work function and service delivery by utilising visual organisation techniques.
- Tasks are moved from left to right across a Kanban board, from ‘To-do’, to ‘In progress’, and then to ‘Done’.
- Kanban is a pull system - a lean technique that ensures work is only replaced when it is completed. All production is based entirely on demand to keep the WIP limit in place.
- Kanban’s main benefits are visibility and productivity, flexibility, team focus, decreased waste, and collaboration:
- Kanban can be combined with Scrum in a Scrumban to utilise the benefits of both frameworks.
Kanban Courses at QA
For those looking to broaden their knowledge of Kanban or Agile Lean Project Management, QA provides several excellent Agile courses for all skill levels.
About the Author: Leah Hanson work as a Content Editor and Publishing Specialist for QA, successfully developing educational content across a variety of subjects, including Agile.