The Kanban Guide

Kanban Basics

Introduction

Kanban is a workflow management method for defining, managing and improving services that deliver knowledge work. It aims to help you visualize your work, maximize efficiency, and improve continuously. In Japanese, kanban is translated as billboard or signboard. Originating from manufacturing, it later became a territory claimed by Agile software development teams. Recently, it started getting recognized by business units across various industries.

The History of Kanban

The name Kanban translates from Japanese to “visual sign” or “card” and originated from the Toyota Production System and Lean Manufacturing in the late 1940s. Toyota made improvements to its processes by modeling them after how supermarkets stock their shelves.

Engineer Taiichi Ohno observed that supermarkets focused on stocking their shelves with just enough products to meet demand, and would only be triggered to restock when there was a space on the shelf. This shift optimized the flow between the supermarket and customers and improved inventory management efficiency.

Toyota brought this concept to the factory floor: Teams would create a visual cue, or Kanban, to communicate that they were ready to pull more materials to complete their work.

How do you define a Kanban?

Kanban definition. Initially, it arose as a scheduling system for lean manufacturing, originating from the Toyota Production System (TPS). In the late 1940s, Toyota introduced “just in time” manufacturing to its production. The approach represents a pull system. This means that production is based on customer demand, rather than the standard push practice to produce goods and push them to the market. Their unique production system laid the foundation of Lean manufacturing or simply Lean. Its core purpose is minimizing waste activities without sacrificing productivity. The main goal is to create more value for the customer without generating more costs.

The Kanban Method

At the beginning of the 21st Century, key players in the software industry quickly realized how Kanban could be used to change how products and services were delivered positively.

With an increased focus on efficiency, and by harnessing advances in computing technology, Kanban left the automotive industry’s realm and was successfully applied to other complex commercial sectors such as IT, software development, R&D, and others.

Indeed, what we now recognize as the Kanban Method with all core elements emerged at the beginning of 2007.

You can start building your Kanban system by setting up the most straightforward Kanban board with three basic columns – “To Do”, “Doing” and “Done”. When constructed, managed, and functioning correctly, it serves as a real-time information repository, highlighting bottlenecks within the system and anything else that might interrupt smooth working practices.

Five Core Principles of Kanban

Kanban is a simple framework that does not require specific setup or procedures and is typically easy for teams to get started with or overlay on top of existing workflows. Many teams try Kanban project management to see if it lives up to its reputation of delivering increased productivity, higher quality, and reduced waste.

As a best practice, Kanban projects should incorporate the following five core principles:

  • Visualize the workflow: To effectively manage the work with Kanban, you need to be able to visualize it. With an up-to-date, real-time Kanban board, you can quickly visualize the work and mitigate issues early on.
  • Limit work in progress (WIP): Work in progress limits (WIP limits) determine the amount of work the team can accomplish for each phase and workflow being tracked on the board. Kanban focuses on reducing WIP to increase speed and throughput.
  • Manage and enhance the flow: The movement of work or flow of work across the Kanban board must be monitored and improved upon. To do this, it’s necessary to measure and track performance metrics, like the number of items in process and the number of items completed, to calculate the average completion rate and total cycle time.
  • Make workflows explicit: To increase the efficiency of your workflows, you must ensure that your entire team is aware of the processes and procedures. Regularly review steps within the workflow to ensure they are as efficient as possible.
  • Continuously improve: Once your team is up and running on the Kanban system, they should be able to identify issues and provide feedback on the process to ensure maximum throughput.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Kanban

The visual nature of Kanban offers unique value when deciding if it’s the right project management methodology for your team. Here are some additional advantages and disadvantages of choosing Kanban to manage projects:

Advantages

  • Increase flexibility: With no set phase durations, Kanban is a fluid model where priorities are re-evaluated when new details arise.
  • Reduce waste: Kanban focuses on reducing waste by ensuring that teams don’t spend time doing unnecessary work.
  • Easy to get started: The visual nature of Kanban makes it intuitive and easy to understand, so teams don’t have to learn a whole new methodology.
  • Improve flow: Kanban focuses on the just-in-time approach of value and delivering work on a regular cadence.
  • Minimize cycle time: In Kanban, the entire team is focused on reducing bottlenecks to ensure that work moves quickly through the process.

Disadvantages

  • Overcomplicated board: The beauty of Kanban is its simplicity, so the board should remain clear and easy to read.
  • Outdated board: Teams must emphasize the importance of keeping boards up to date, otherwise they run the risk of working off of inaccurate information.
  • Lack of timing: Since columns are only labeled with phases (to do, in progress, complete), it can be difficult to see when things will be done.

The 6 Practices of Kanban

When aiming to implement the Kanban method, every organization must be careful with the practical steps. There are six core practices as identified by David Anderson that need to be present for successful implementation.

1. Visualize the Workflow

To visualize your process with a Kanban system, you will need a board with cards and columns. Each column on the board represents a step in your workflow. Each Kanban card represents a work item.

The first and most important thing for you is understanding what it takes to get an item from a request to a deliverable product. Only after understanding how the flow of work currently functions can you aspire to improve it by making the necessary adjustments.

The first and most important thing for you is understanding what it takes to get an item from a request to a deliverable product. Only after understanding how the flow of work currently functions can you aspire to improve it by making the necessary adjustments.

2. Limit Work in Progress

One of Kanban’s primary functions is to ensure a manageable number of active items in progress at any one time. If there are no work-in-progress limits, you are not doing Kanban. Switching a team’s focus halfway through will generally harm the process, and multitasking is a sure route to generating waste and inefficiency.

Limiting WIP means implementing a pull system on parts or the complete workflow. Setting maximum items per stage ensures that a card is only “pulled” into the next step when there is available capacity. Such constraints will quickly illuminate problem areas in your flow so you can identify and resolve them.

3. Manage Flow

Managing the flow is about managing the work but not the people. By flow, we mean the movement of work items through the production process.

One of the main goals when implementing a Kanban system is to create a smooth, healthy flow. Instead of micro-managing people and trying to keep them busy all the time, we should focus on managing the work processes and understanding how to get that work faster through the system. This would mean that our Kanban system is creating value more quickly.

4. Make Process Policies Explicit

You can’t improve something you don’t understand. This is why your process should be clearly defined, published, and socialized. People would not associate and participate in something they do not believe would be useful.

When everyone is familiar with the common goal, they would be able to work and make decisions regarding a positive impact.

5. Feedback Loops

For teams and companies that want to be more agile, implementing feedback loops is a mandatory step. They ensure that organizations are adequately responding to potential changes and enable knowledge transfer between stakeholders. An example of such a feedback loop is the daily stand-up meeting for team synchronization. It takes place in front of the Kanban board, and every member tells the others what they did the previous day and what they will be doing today.

There are also the service delivery review, the operations review, strategy review, and the risk review meetings. The frequency depends on many factors, but the idea is that they are regular, at a strictly fixed hour, straight to the point, and never unnecessarily long.

The ideal average length of a stand-up should be between 10-15 minutes, and others may reach up to an hour or more depending on the team size and topics.

6. Improve Collaboratively (using models & the scientific method)

The way to achieve continuous improvement and sustainable change within an organization is through a shared vision of a better future and a collective understanding of the issues that need fixing.

Teams with a shared understanding of their goals, workflow, process, and risks are more likely to build a shared comprehension of a problem and work together towards improvement.

The Positive Side of Kanban

Nowadays, many organizations adopt the Kanban method to become more agile and bring order to their chaotic work processes. Simply said, a Kanban system helps you get more work done.

But let’s dig a bit deeper and see the real benefits of using Kanban.

  • Everyone is on the same page

The basic idea of Kanban is visualizing every piece of work on a whiteboard. This way, the Kanban board turns into a central informational hub. All tasks are visible, and they never get lost, which brings transparency to the whole work process. Every team member can have a quick update on the status of every project or task.

  • Kanban reveals bottlenecks in your workflow

Once you build a Kanban board and you fill it with cards, you will see that some columns will get overcrowded with tasks. This will help you spotlight bottlenecks in your workflow and tackle them properly.  For example, you can get a sense of how big tasks should be so your team can promptly move them forward.

  • Kanban brings flexibility

If you take a look at the basic Kanban principles, you will quickly understand that any team can use them in your organization, from R&D to HR.

The main reason is that Kanban respects your organization’s current state, and it doesn’t require revolutionary changes. On the contrary, it suggests that you should pursue incremental, evolutionary change and continuously improve.

  • Your team gets more responsive

Kanban was created to meet actual customer’s demands just in time, rather than pushing goods to the market. Today, in knowledge work, Kanban makes it easy to respond to the ever-changing customer’s requirements. It allows teams to be more agile, adapts to changing priorities, reorganizes, or switches focus fast.

  • You focus on finishing work to boost collaboration and productivity
The way to achieve continuous improvement and sustainable change within an organization is through a shared vision of a better future and a collective understanding of the issues that need fixing.
 
Teams with a shared understanding of their goals, workflow, process, and risks are more likely to build a shared comprehension of a problem and work together towards improvement.
 
Modern-Day Kanban
 
With the development of technology, Kanban has also been continuously improving. Digital Kanban board solutions have been developed to overcome the problems arising in remote teams.
 
1. Easy access for remote team members
 
Nowadays, teams are often distributed all over the world. They cannot work on a physical whiteboard and thus need a digital one they could access from anywhere to be more agile. Kanban boards in the cloud are the most effective way to get everyone on the same track. They provide access to all of the information from any device at any time and show actions live.
 
2. Flow analytics
 
Moreover, Kanban software allows for a sophisticated analytical process to help you track performance in detail, discover bottlenecks, and implement the necessary changes.
 
3. Integrations with other tools
 
Digital boards are also easy to integrate with other systems. They can give a valuable perspective of the whole process, save time, and increase efficiency.
 
4. Workflow automation
 
The online Kanban solution allows you to automate some parts of your processes and save valuable time. With custom automatons, any typical workflow can be made more efficient.
 
Kanban in a Nutshell
 
A Kanban system is more than sticky notes on the wall. The easiest way to understand Kanban is to embrace its philosophy and apply it to your daily work. If you read, understand, and resonate with the four core principles, the practical transition would seem logical and even inevitable.
 
Visualizing workflow, setting WIP limits, managing flow, ensuring explicit policies, and collaborative improvement will take your process far beyond what you could think. Remember to organize regular feedback loops, and all these pieces together will reveal Kanban’s real power.
 
When to Use Kanban
 
Although originally established in the physical goods industries, Kanban is now used for intangible goods work, such as software development. Depending on your workflow, Kanban may be the right project management methodology to implement or to overlay on your existing processes.
 
However, considering the reduced ability to predict delivery timelines, you should consider the following factors when assessing whether Kanban is the right method for your team:
  • You need a system that is flexible to add or remove items on the fly
  • Estimation isn’t necessary
  • You don’t have hard deadlines
  • Continuous improvement is already emphasized
  • You want the ability to release at any time
  • Your team doesn’t respond well to big change
  • The system needs to be easy to understand
  • You want to improve the delivery flow
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