The Kanban Method: Go With the Flow

Wednesday, September 9, 2020
Nick Williams

The key to productive workflow is streamlining.

But how does an established company, with a long history of specific workplace practices and relationships, streamline itself? Can an old dog learn new tricks?

One of many potential solutions is the Kanban method; a deceptively simple method that has managed to completely and utterly transform companies—oftentimes giant corporations—from hulking, inefficient behemoths into agile, seamless task squads.  

Kanban literally translates to “signboard” and is a Japanese term for “visual signalization.” The method implements a visual representation of a team’s tasks and goals, with the ultimate goal of improving workflow and delivery time.

It's Kanban's simplicity which distinguishes it from other visual organization methods such as mind mapping—any person or company can begin the Kanban implementation process, without having to stress about backing a dump truck filled with cash directly into the lap of some synergy guru. While the Kanban method is used in many useful productivity apps (such as Asana or Trello), if you have a board, a stack of Post-It notes, and a group of people willing to engage, then you have all the necessary elements to Kanban your flow.

For example, implementation of Kanban at medical technology company, Siemens Healthineers

helped reduce the company’s median cycle time by 21% with the introduction of Kanban.

Most companies that successfully implement Kanban see these kinds of improvements, and sometimes they can be even more substantial. What’s more, the Kanban method can work for any company, from assembly line to SaaS to names like Pixar, Zara, Spotify, Microsoft’s Xbox Division.

Kanban: from produce to productivity

Like it’s sister workflow theory, Scrum, Kanban was invented in Japan.

The system was initially conceptualized by a man named Taiichi Ohno, who worked as an industrial engineer at Toyota in the 1940s. Ohno was inspired by American supermarkets, where he recognized an efficient model of which a customer takes off a shelf the desired goods needed and the supermarket restocks with only enough product needed to fill the shelf space. This meant that there was never any extra junk that nobody ever buys clogging the shelf. We’re looking at you, marinated beef tongues in a jar.

While most people who get inspired at the supermarket to restock their spice collection, Ohno’s inspiration led to inventing one of the most influential work philosophies in the modern workplace and, thus, an early example of Kanban began to form.

As a result, Toyota changed its production flow to focus on quality over quantity, and to build a parts inventory based strictly on demand.

Kanban was simply one factor in Toyota’s move towards lean production. The idea was to pare down bloated, inefficient development cycles, remove unimportant steps from the process, and optimize delivery times from the plant to the customer.

Toyota needed an edge against their rapidly expanding American rivals, and they found one.

Of course, it ended up working—how often do we hear about the sorry state of the American automotive industry?

Early modern forms of Kanban began taking shape at Microsoft In 2004 and then later at Corbis from 2006-2007. Several business thinkers began developing explicit theories for the process and implementation of Kanban at software companies, such as David J. Anderson—often cited as the creator of modern Kanban, who wrote a book on the method “Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for your Technology Business.”

Since 1940, there have been many different variations and implementations of Kanban—although arguably none are as influential or successful as Anderson’s.  

Projecting the original purpose for Kanban—the cutting out of excess car parts—on to modern software development ultimately serves to create a lean and efficient development environment where person-power is being poured into only the essential projects which contribute towards satisfactory delivery.

The simplest way to understand the pragmatic process of Kanban is to look at its six key tenets.

The core tenets of Kanban

Below is what the Kanban system looks like.  

It might seem like something you can throw together with a bunch of Post-It notes and a wall, but that’s exactly the point.

Kanban is easy and simple, with no need for substantial financial or time commitments. That also means that development teams have no excuses for relying on outdated and impractical legacy workflow models.

Once you have your board sets up, it becomes a matter of moving cards from left-to-right, from one column to the next. As the cards move along their path, notes and feedback can be added. It’s also important to respect and manage WIP (work-in-progress limits).

Honing in on the simplicity of things even further, the Kanban Method can be broken down into six fairly straightforward core concepts.

1. Visualize

One of the major premises behind the Kanban method is visualization, or, in other words, making your projects and workflow tangible.  

This is accomplished through the construction and implementation of a Kanban board as shown above. Being able to literally see what needs to get done, and where everyone is at in the process, helps everyone to stay on track.

Kanban boards counteract that ceaseless feeling of needing to complete just ONE MORE task because it provides visual feedback that each task is moving along until completion. It’s the same concept as your kindergarten teacher putting a shiny golden star sticker next to your name every time you finish your homework.

Or, as another example, in the case of managing an editorial schedule with Kanban, a typical flow may look something like this:

Content Ideas → Sent to Writer → First Draft → In Review → Approved → Published

If the Kanban card associated with your task has made it to the ‘Published’ column you should feel confident that everything to prepare it for its public debut was completed before hitting ‘publish.’

2. Limit WIP

If the usual mentality in a workplace is to complete as many tasks as possible, then the idea of cutting out any works-in-progress (WIP) may seem counterintuitive, right? Well, not if all the finished products are half baked.

The Kanban method aims to limit the number of tasks being worked on at the same time—an idea that circles back to the car manufacturing days of Kanban, where spending time and money building parts unnecessary to the final product resulted in an obvious waste of resources.

Basically, WIP is like if Google Chrome only allowed you to open six tabs at once. It prevents you from leaving that Wikipedia article on some Japanese Metal band from the 80s in an eternal purgatory on your to-read list.

WIP is also nice because, like most things in Kanban, it can evolve with time and experience. For example, a particular development team’s WIP limit might start off at 2 tasks/cards, but as their efficiency and comfort with the system develops, perhaps that limit will increase over time.

As with most Agile systems, Kanban is about monitoring progress and turning those metrics into tangible self-improvement.

Once an item is fully completed and moved into the “Done” category, your team can pull a new item into the workflow. This feeds directly into the next core tenet.  

3. Manage workflow

Both enforcing WIP limits and visualization allow for the management of workflow—or, in other words, cutting down on unnecessary or “non-value-giving” transition times.  

The most important aspect of workflow management is using visual representations to notice where bottlenecks are happening, or where your team is getting held up in handoff stages.  

Adjustments can subsequently be incorporated to help unblock the development cycle. For example, if a deliverable is stuck in the QA section of the board, a team member can be temporarily relocated from development to QA to expedite the process and get things moving again.

4. Make workflow policies explicit

In big, multi-faceted companies, there are way too many procedures and expectations left open to interpretation, or taken for granted as a ‘part of the process,’ a process which no one attempts to unpack or define. Yet these are the exact components of the workflow that can bog everything down.

Kanban reduces every aspect of the workflow to its bare essentials.  

Making workflow policies explicit essentially means leaving a paper trail and making sure that every work item is explicitly defined so that there is no misunderstanding or miscommunication along the way.

Defining workflow policies could manifest as a sudden influx of ‘how-to’ and technical guides, but in the long run, clarity breeds efficiency.  

5. Feedback loops

One of the main benefits of the Kanban board is that it allows for multiple layers of internal feedback.  

The Kanban method provides visual feedback—traditionally using four specific processes: the standup meeting; the service delivery review; the operations review; and the risk review—so that issues can be resolved before they snowball.

In a sense, the Kanban board is basically an intellectualized water cooler. It allows team members to come together daily and discuss the progress of their tasks in a practical and simple manner.

These feedback opportunities allow development and timing issues to be caught early, to prevent mistakes from happening later in the cycle where they will certainly become progressively more costly.

6. Improve and evolve

Because of the WIP limits and simple visualization of Kanban, the system is adaptable to change.

Kanban allows teams to almost constantly monitor their own progress and efficiency, which means changes and improvements can be implemented on the fly. Since a Kanban Board basically consists of moving cards from left to right, everything is easily trackable.

The nice thing about Kanban is that it allows workflow to be measured. Say, for example, you can see that two Kanban cards are completed per day, consistently, over the span of a couple of weeks. You can use this knowledge to plan out projects—if the average amount of Kanban cards completed per day is 2, are you really going to try and get 3 done in one day?

Tying it all together

The endgame (non-Avengers-related) for Kanban is a more efficient workplace process and a more efficient delivery of service or goods, aka a happy workplace = a happy customer.

Think about when you order a pizza. You place the order, hope to wait an appropriate amount of time for it to be prepared, then pay upon delivery. But what’s happening behind-the-scenes in the pizza production process?

In an effort to be techy and transparent, Domino’s created the Pizza Tracker, a modified Kanban board designed for the modern, impatient customer to be able to watch their pizza’s progress move from ‘Order Placed’ →  ‘‘Prep’ → ‘Bake’ → ‘Quality Check’ → ‘Out for delivery.’

Whether the Domino’s Pizza Tracker is totally legit as a Kanban system or not, it does serve to demonstrate the satisfaction of tracking ‘work in progress’.

Most teams that have successfully made the jump to Kanban swear by it, and couldn’t imagine returning to those bloated, inconsistent and unclear workflow management structures of yore.

If you and your team fully buy in, before you know it you’re going to be the human embodiment of Kanban. Just an anthropomorphic whiteboard with arms and legs walking around, covered in colored sticky notes, wearing pants, but not a shirt, because what kind of shirt fits onto a walking whiteboard anyways?