What Is Kanban Methodology? Process, Model Principles & More

Tuesday, July 19, 2022
Sandra Petrova
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Today's businesses face many challenges in keeping their operations running smoothly. 

Companies are finding new ways to streamline their processes and optimize their resources to meet customers' changing needs and remain competitive.

One of those new ways is the Kanban methodology. But what exactly is the Kanban methodology? How can it benefit your business? 

In the following chapters, you'll learn the basics of the Kanban Methodology, its principles and practices, examples of use cases, limitations, and more.

 

What is Kanban methodology? Our definition

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way:

What is a Kanban system or the Kanban method? Here's a quick Kanban definition:

Kanban is an agile method focused on process improvement, based on lean values and lean thinking. It’s a set of principles and practices for managing workflow efficiently and reducing the lead time for new ideas or features from ideation to customer delivery is implemented by visual management techniques like cards or sticky notes, limiting work in progress (WIP), and visualizing workflow.

Kanban is one of the leading project management models, favored by a dizzyingly varied group of users. Indeed, when one thinks of project management meaning writ large—i.e. the formation of project teams and the assigning of tasks to project team members as part of a larger project plan—the Kanban board now comes to mind as an almost-stereotypical visual manifestation of the process. 

Contrary to what many people think, Kanban is not a methodology for building software but rather a method for process improvement based on lean values and lean thinking.

Although the Kanban method is applicable to virtually any industry, software development teams have found particular success with the agile practice. David J. Anderson is the major figure associated with adapting Kanban for software development. 

Kanban origin: How & when was the Kanban approach developed

When was kanban invented? Why? We’ll cover Kanban history in greater detail here. 

The concept of Kanban was developed by Taiichi Ohno in the late 1940s. He implemented the first version of what would later become known as “Kanbans” – labels on warehouse shelves and bins indicating how many parts were available for production. 

The word Kanban in Japanese means “signboard” or “signal.” It’s a methodology that originates from the Toyota Production System (TPS) to help their operations become more productive and efficient and meet customer demand. 

Legend has it that Taiichi was inspired by American supermarkets on one of his visits to the United States. He was impressed with how supermarkets could restock the shelves without holding huge amounts of inventory.

Toyota combined the Kanban method with a culture of continuous, incremental improvement called kaizen. Taking this approach helped the company grow into a brand known for making reliable and affordable cars via lean manufacturing. Today, companies that adopt the Kanban methodology strive to achieve this kaizen culture. 

Adopting Kanban is a means of changing an organization's culture and helping it mature. If the adoption is done correctly, the organization will morph into one that adopts change readily and becomes good at implementing changes and process improvements. 

The first virtual kanban system for software engineering was implemented at Microsoft in 2004. In software development, teams are using virtual kanban cards to limit work-in-progress. Although "kanban" means "signal card," and there are cards used in most Kanban implementations in software development, these cards do not actually function as signals to pull more work. Instead, they represent work items. Hence the term "virtual" because there’s no physical signal card. 

So, what is a Kanban board?

A Kanban board is an easy-to-read visual representation of a team’s workflow and processes. It’s an excellent way to keep tabs on the quantity of tasks in progress and limit how many are being worked on at once.

Kanban works through two main elements: cards, which represent tasks; and columns, which illustrate tasks at various stages of a project. Columns are generally divided into three sections: To Do, In Progress, and Done. However, depending on a team's size, structure, and objectives, the workflow can be customized to meet the unique process of any specific team. 

While many teams use physical boards, software development teams primarily use virtual whiteboards for easier collaboration, accessibility from multiple locations, and higher traceability. 

Some of the best project management software like Asana and Trello have built-in Kanban boards that come with advanced capabilities. Platforms like Trello and Jira have been voted to be the best Kanban software available on the market today. 

Another vital component of a Kanban process flow are kanban cards, which are used to represent separate work items. Kanban cards contain critical information about a specific work item, giving team members visibility into what the work item is about, who is responsible for its completion, the due date of the task, and so on. 

Cards can also contain information like comments, mentions, photos, code, and other technical details. The person responsible for the task drags the card from one stage to another as work on the task progresses. Each task, for example, begins in the to-do stage and ends in the completed section. 

Kanban cards allow teams to visually observe work-in-progress, assign their own tasks, organize their priorities, and move work from a backlog to completion without direction from a project manager. Project managers can measure team performance using metrics such as cycle times (how fast work gets done) and throughput (how much work is delivered). 

The two Kanban metrics that best measure your team performance are cycle times (how fast work gets done) and throughput (how much work is delivered).

 

What does a Kanban team structure look like?

Kanban is team-structure neutral, which means it can work with any typical team structure. However, creating a cross-functional team is one of the first process improvements most organizations make to remove bottlenecks.

 

What are the 9 Kanban principles and practices

As we previously mentioned, Kanban is a set of principles and practices that help teams optimize workflow and enforce visual management of their work. There are 9 Kanban principles and practices to consider, which we’ll look at in detail below.

1. Start with what you do now

Implementing Kanban does not mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Given that your existing production process has been honed through trial and error and day-to-day experience, it has value and Kanban respects this. Kanban implementation involves breaking down your current workflow into cards and columns, which will give you a starting point for examining your system schematic and identifying pain points. 

2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change

Kanban is about iterations and collaborative work, not stop-start disruption. The project team needs to be reassured that workflow will remain rational and familiar, avoiding the negative effects of big shake ups and uncertainty. Everyone needs to be open and on the same page for Kanban to work smoothly.

3. At first, respect current roles, responsibilities & job titles

Again, Kanban is not about reinventing the wheel. Implementation of Kanban will identify issues of work delegation and hierarchy, so there’s no need to make any shake-ups to your project team structure at first. You team will organically be moved to adjust over time.

4. Visualize workflow

The Kanban board is the primary tool for visualizing the workflow. The board is where the team physically tracks progress, making it easier to spot bottlenecks in the current process and jumpstart the continuous improvement process. The board is also a source of information regarding the work being performed, making it easier to forecast upcoming work and ensure that the team can complete everything on time.

5. Limit work in progress (WIP)

The core principle of Kanban is to reduce WIP. Limiting work in progress (WIP) means restricting the number of work items in a particular stage in the project's workflow. There's no specific number of items or tickets that should be in process at any given time; this depends on the system and what it is capable of. 

The key takeaway is to ensure that the system is not overloaded and that the right amount of work is being processed. This can be measured through visual boards where the team tracks progress, boards that track the number of tickets in different states within the workflow, or by measuring the amount of time it takes for a piece of work to go from start to finish.

6. Measure and manage flow

This is an important aspect of Kanban. The flow of the system is the rate at which work items move through it. The team should find an optimal pace for continuous delivery combined with a comfortable amount of feedback. No one is overburdened, and work tasks are distributed equally. On the other hand, unevenness in the system can cause work to pile up, interrupting the work and decreasing the flow of work. 

7. Make process policies explicit

This practice involves writing down a description of how the team works and showing it to everyone who's affected by it. These policy initiatives should be established collaboratively by the entire team. There's no need for long documents or huge Wikis to make your processes explicit. Your policies can be as simple as writing WIP limits at the top of the columns. 

8. Implement feedback loops

The main principle behind the use of feedback loops in Kanban is that the more quickly and frequently you can get information about the current state of your project, you can make mid-course corrections much faster than if you’re waiting for a formal milestone to get a snapshot of progress every few weeks or months. In other words, feedback loops keep the quality of the product in check.

9. Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally

The Kanban practice “improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally” means taking measurements, making gradual improvements, and then confirming that they worked using those measurements. 

 

What is the Kanban method useful for?

The Kanban method can be useful for any type of organization in any industry that wants to become lean and agile and produce high-quality products and services in a responsive manner.  

Considering the Kanban method has its roots in manufacturing, it’s a good fit in non-IT business processes as well, such as construction, staffing, recruitment, marketing and sales, and procurement projects. 

Kanban can also be useful for teams that are using Agile methods like scrum. And if you’re wondering: what is scrum?—it’s a project management methodology which helps plan projects by breaking the scope of the project down into smaller groups of tasks to be done over short periods of time. You can even combine Scrum with Kanban. The combination is cleverly called Scrumban.

Kanban is a great partner to any scrum-based project, but it works for teams following more traditional methods like waterfall project management as well. Following the Kanban methodology on top of your existing methods can be a great way to gradually improve your processes, reduce cycle time, and improve your flow. 

Kanban system examples

Here are a few examples of how some companies are using the Kanban system to manage their teams’ workflow effectively.

The Toyota Kanban board system

Toyota is the first car manufacturing company that has managed to produce more than 10 million cars а year. Its success is rooted in the Kanban board system the company developed in the 1940s to communicate capacity levels on the factory floor in real-time. 

Workers would pass a card or "kanban" between teams. For example, when a bin of specific materials was emptied, the production line team would pass a kanban to the warehouse team describing what material was needed. The warehouse team would then send a kanban to the factory floor team, and the factory floor team would send their own Kanban to the supplier. 

The supplier would then ship the bin of required materials to the warehouse. This was called the "just in time" (or JIT) manufacturing process.

Spotify’s Kanban project planning

Spotify is a tech company that uses Kanban boards to execute its projects. The board focuses on simplicity and has three sections of workflows: To Do, Doing, and Done. In addition to the above, there are also two horizontal lanes for the two main types of service: standard type and intangible stories. 

Tasks are either small, medium, or large. Small tasks take a day to complete, medium-sized tasks a few days, and large tasks a week. 

Tasks that take more than a week to complete are called "projects.” Projects are split into smaller tasks and are inserted back into the backlog. Additionally, Spotify doesn't set too high a Work In Progress (WIP) on the To-Do lane to ensure that all intangible tasks are actually completed.

Pixar’s use of Kanban to create animation

Pixar adopted the Kanban board to organize its creative process. The Kanban board is used throughout the entire creative process, from ideation to animation. After a process is completed, it is passed on to the next team, who would transfer it down the chain. 

Everyone on the creative team can track what their colleagues are working on at any point in the process. This also enables greater visibility where people are aware of how their work affects the other team members. 

They also created a culture where anyone could "pull the cord" and "stop the line" if something was done ineffectively so they could go back and refine it.

 

Advantages and disadvantages of Kanban style project management

The following section will introduce the most important benefits and downsides of the Kanban-style project management.  

Kanban benefits

The benefits of Kanban are as follows:

Focus on Quality

As a general rule, the fewer things you have in progress at any given time, the more attention and focus each of them receives. When you have multiple projects in progress, there might not be enough time or people to dedicate to each one appropriately. 

Deliver Often

Many project managers are expected to deliver a final product on a specific date: a report by the end of the month, a product launch at a specific time, etc. The Kanban method encourages project managers to deliver smaller, more consistent updates throughout the project lifecycle. 

This helps team members avoid feeling like they’re under pressure to deliver everything at once. It also helps keep stakeholders from feeling anxious or frustrated, especially if they have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes. 

Bottom-up prioritization

Prioritization helps teams identify tasks and projects that are important, but not necessarily urgent. In many productivity systems, urgent tasks are prioritized at the top of the list, whereas important tasks are pushed to the bottom. 

This is because important tasks are often less urgent, and urgent tasks are often less important. For team members to feel like the Kanban method is fair, it’s important that they have the chance to prioritize their tasks and make them visible to everyone.

Continuous Improvement

With its emphasis on visualizing workflow, identifying inefficiencies, and improving existing systems, Kanban is a great methodology for encouraging continuous improvement. 

This is because it’s easy to see the current state of a process and identify issues or bottlenecks. This enables the team to come up with an action plan to remove these issues and make improvements to the workflow. 

Flexibility

Kanban is highly flexible and can be applied to a wide variety of business processes. This gives you a lot of freedom to create the perfect workflow that works well for your specific business. This doesn’t just apply to how you organize your project management board. 

Kanban also gives you freedom when it comes to how you assign tasks, manage priorities, and collaborate with your team members. With Kanban, you don’t need to follow a strict set of rules. Instead, you focus on the core principles behind the methodology and use these to create the best workflow for your specific business.

Increased productivity

Kanban is great for identifying previously unidentified inefficiencies in a workflow. Once these issues have been removed, it’s likely that you’ll see a considerable increase in productivity. 

This will be particularly noticeable in the reduction of bottlenecks in your workflow. A Kanban approach will help to identify these issues and, once removed, will drive a significant increase in productivity.

Reliable Estimation

Kanban estimates are some of the most reliable you can make. This is because you organize your work into chunks and you have a visual board so you can spot any potential bottlenecks or issues.

Visibility

One of the core advantages of Kanban is that it improves the visibility of your workflow. This will enable the team to see whether there are issues that need to be addressed or if there are any bottlenecks that are slowing the workflow down.

Improved collaboration

Part of the reason that Kanban is so good at improving collaboration is because it makes it easier for people to see their impact on the rest of the business. It also makes it easier for people to see what their peers are working on and when they expect to have something done. 

This will help to remove the “silos” mentality that can form within a business as it grows and brings on new employees. It will also help to ensure that people are working towards the same goal and supporting each other wherever possible.

Kanban drawbacks

The cons of Kanban are as follows:

Potential for confusion and work duplication

The board has to be kept up-to-date because an outdated Kanban board may cause issues in the development process. An out-of-date Kanban can lead to bottlenecked productivity, and also spiral into confusion over what work is to be done. 

Difficulty managing complexity

Kanban boards can quickly become extremely complex when there are multiple teams with separate skill sets. The minimalism and visuality of Kanban can fall flat when too many variables are involved.

Timing 

Some project managers might have an issue with Kanban boards lacking timing parameters. If your work is exceptionally time-sensitive, you may have to consider another tool instead of (or in addition to) Kanban.

Resource planning limitations

Kanban tasks vary in length and effort, but end up visually represented in identical terms. This can make it difficult to plan resources.

 

Our final points on the Kanban system

The key takeaway here is that Kanban contributes to the cultural evolution of companies. 

By exposing bottlenecks, focusing a company on resolving them, and eliminating their effects in the future, Kanban can help you build a highly collaborative, high-trust, highly empowered, and continuously improving company.

And the good news is that Kanban can be applied to any team, not just software development teams. Any team that needs to accomplish more work in a limited amount of time will benefit from implementing Kanban.

Remember: a Kanban board isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. 

If you’re planning on adopting the Kanban methodology, make sure you set up and customize your workflow and processes to fit the unique needs of your team.

And if you want to learn the similarities and differences between Kanban vs Scrum, check out the in-depth comparison post we’ve prepared for you. 

 

FAQs

Is Kanban agile?

The difference between agile and Kanban is that agile is an overarching methodology, while the Kanban agile approach is a visual framework that provides specific details on how to manage projects. Kanban is a means of enacting agile practices, focused on continuous improvement and flexible task management.

What is Kanban in agile?

The Kanban agile methodology is a framework for implementing agile and DevOps software development. Agile project management with Kanban happens on the Kanban board, which is a single source of truth. All work items are represented visually, letting everyone involved in the project see every item at any time. 

Is Kanban a framework or methodology?

It’s both. Kanban is a framework that falls under the Agile methodology. The Kanban framework is used to implement agile and DevOps software development. The framework focuses on visualizing the entire project on a Kanban board to increase project transparency and collaboration between team members.

Is Kanban Japanese or Chinese?

The Kanban method was developed in Japan by Taiichi Ohno, who was a management consultant at Toyota at the time. The term “kanban” translates to “visual signalization.” Toyota, who created the concept of the “Just in Time” production method, was one of the first companies to adopt the Kanban method.

 
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