December 12, 2023

What Is Kanban?

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Key takeaways

  • Kanban is a scheduling system from the Toyota Production System that optimizes workflow and has evolved into a project management methodology used across various industries.
  • A Kanban board is a visual tool that shows work at different stages of a process.
  • The methodology is ideal for teams that are receptive to feedback, value quality over quantity, and have a smooth workflow.

Dec. 12, 2023: Irene Casucian revised the copy for clarity, accuracy, and depth. She also included examples of project management software solutions equipped with features tailored to the Kanban framework.

Kanban definition

Kanban, a term that translates to “signboard” or “billboard” in Japanese, is deeply rooted in the Toyota Production System, a precursor to lean manufacturing. It was initially conceived as a scheduling system aimed at optimizing workflow and inventory at each stage of the manufacturing process. The essence of Kanban within this context was to guarantee that components were only supplied as and when needed.

Over time, Kanban has transcended its manufacturing confines and evolved into a robust project management methodology. Today, it is celebrated for its ability to visualize work, limit work-in-progress, and enhance flow, thereby maximizing productivity.

By mapping out tasks on a Kanban board, teams can see the state of every piece of work at any given time. Doing so simplifies identifying bottlenecks and streamlining the path to continuous improvement. This visual approach to managing work has proven effective across various industries beyond its automotive origins.

What is a Kanban board?

A Kanban board is a visual management tool representing work at various process stages. It’s a practical way to display tasks, often using Kanban cards on a board, which allows teams to see the flow of work and the dynamics of progress in a tangible form. This visualization is not just about aesthetics; it’s a functional view that helps teams understand their workload and process clearly and immediately.

The typical layout of a Kanban board includes columns, each representing a different stage of the workflow. Cards, which represent individual tasks, are placed in these columns based on their current status in the workflow.

As work progresses, the cards are moved from one column to the next, so you can visually track the journey from initiation to completion. This real-time progress tracking is crucial for identifying bottlenecks for a more efficient workflow. The movement of Kanban cards is not just a shift in physical space—it’s a signal of progress, an update visible to the entire team without needing meetings or reports.

Screenshot of an Asana Kanban board displaying multiple columns for work requests, including 'Backlog,' 'In Progress,' and 'Completed,' with various tasks organized as cards under each column.
Asana’s Kanban board, where work requests are efficiently organized from inception to completion. Source: Asana

Kanban core practices

Kanban core practices are the cornerstone of this Agile methodology. They are designed to amplify visibility, collaboration, and productivity within teams. By adhering to these practices, teams can maintain a steady pace of work, adapt to changing demands, and deliver quality results with excellent reliability.

Visualize the workflow

Visualizing the workflow is a key practice in Kanban, as it allows teams to see the full spectrum of their tasks in tangible form. This visualization often occurs on a Kanban board, where each piece of work is represented as a card. By seeing all tasks laid out, team members can better understand the current workload and prioritize effectively. This can lead to more effective management and execution of work.

Miro is particularly good at the Kanban practice of visualizing workflow. It is an online collaborative whiteboarding platform that allows teams to create a visual representation of their workflows using boards that can be customized with cards, columns, and other visual elements.

Miro is an excellent tool for remote teams implementing Kanban practices because it creates a shared visual space that team members can access from anywhere. The platform’s intuitive design and real-time collaboration features enable teams to map out their processes, move tasks through different workflow stages, and see the big picture at a glance. 

Limit work-in-progress

Kanban emphasizes the importance of limiting work-in-progress (WIP) to prevent overloading team members and maintain focus and throughput. By setting WIP limits, teams are encouraged to complete current tasks before starting new ones, which helps to reduce context switching and promotes a smoother workflow.

Jira, a project management tool from Atlassian, is particularly adept at limiting work in progress. It allows teams to set WIP limits on Kanban boards, which helps to prevent overloading team members and makes sure that focus is maintained on current tasks.

When a column reaches its WIP limit, the team knows it’s time to focus on completing existing tasks before taking on new work. This feature is crucial for maintaining a balanced and efficient workflow, making Jira a strong choice for teams looking to implement this key Kanban practice.

Screenshot of a Jira Kanban board showing a WIP limit exceeded under Code review.
In this screenshot of Jira’s Kanban board, the background under Code review has turned red to indicate that it has exceeded its established WIP limit. Source: Atlassian

Manage flow

The management of flow in Kanban involves monitoring and optimizing the movement of tasks across the Kanban board. This practice is essential for identifying delays and checking that work progresses effectively through each stage. By managing flow, teams can build up cycle times and deliver value to customers more consistently.

Amongst the plethora of Kanban tools available, Asana is quite effective at managing flow. It allows teams to create tasks, assign them to team members, set deadlines, and track progress through various stages. Its features support the monitoring and optimization of task flow across different projects. Additionally, Asana’s timeline view and calendar functions help teams understand their project’s progress and manage their workload over time. 

Make process policies explicit

Kanban calls for making process policies explicit, meaning that all team members clearly define and understand the rules and criteria for how tasks should progress through the workflow. This clarity helps avoid misunderstandings and ensures that everyone is aligned on handling the work.

Feedback loops

Incorporating feedback loops is crucial in Kanban as it allows for regular inspection and adaptation of the workflow. These feedback loops can take the form of meetings or retrospectives where the team reflects on their process, discusses improvements, and makes necessary adjustments to boost efficiency.

Improve collaboratively

Kanban is a collaborative approach that encourages the entire team to work together to identify process upgrade opportunities and implement changes that will lead to better workflow management. This collective effort makes sure that enhancements are sustainable and that the team consistently strives for excellence.

Trello is excellent for collaboration. It’s designed as a highly interactive tool that allows multiple users to work on the same board simultaneously. Team members can comment on cards, assign tasks, set deadlines, attach files, and get notifications about project updates in real time.

This level of interaction makes it easy for teams to stay connected and communicate effectively, regardless of their physical location. Trello’s simplicity and user-friendly interface also reduce the learning curve, making it accessible for all team members and increasing its collaborative capabilities.

Screenshot of Trello's collaboration template with columns for task stages, designed to facilitate an effective Kanban system by enabling clear collaboration and team assignments.
Trello’s collaboration template can give you a headstart in promoting team efficiency and task management. Source: Trello

Kanban principles

Kanban principles lay the foundational mindset of this methodology and emphasize respect for current processes and a commitment to incremental change. These principles guide teams to boost their workflow without upheaval, encouraging continuous, collective progress.

Kanban stands out for its non-intrusive approach to process improvement. It doesn’t ask teams to overturn their current processes but to overlay Kanban practices to enhance what’s already in place. This principle respects the existing workflow and seeks to build it up incrementally. It makes the transition smoother and more palatable for teams.

Kanban is about the long game; it champions evolutionary change over revolutionary upheaval. By advocating for minor, manageable improvements, Kanban minimizes disruption and resistance to foster a more sustainable path to increasing effectiveness.

Kanban acknowledges the value of the existing structure within teams. It doesn’t demand a reorganization but instead works within the current roles and responsibilities to optimize the flow of work. This respect for the status quo helps maintain stability.

Leadership in Kanban isn’t confined to management. This principle encourages everyone to take initiative and contribute to process improvements, regardless of their position. It’s a democratic approach that values input from all team members, fostering a culture of collective responsibility and empowerment.

How is Kanban different from other PM methodologies?

Kanban’s versatility sets it apart from other project management methodologies. It’s designed to complement and enhance existing workflows without the need for sweeping changes.

Kanban
Waterfall
Framework Flow-based, focuses on visualizing the workflow. Linear and sequential, each phase depends on the deliverables of the preceding phase.
Flexibility Very high, as work items can be added at any time. Low, as changes are costly and difficult to implement once the project has started.
Delivery time Continuous, items are delivered as soon as they are done. Long phases, often months.
Risk and uncertainty Managed through work-in-progress (WIP) limits and a pull system. Risks and issues are often discovered late in the project timeline.

Kanban
Agile
Framework Flow-based, focuses on visualizing the workflow. Iterative and incremental, emphasizing flexibility and customer collaboration.
Flexibility Very high, as work items can be added at any time. Highly flexible, allowing for changes in project direction based on customer feedback and evolving requirements.
Delivery time Continuous, items are delivered as soon as they are done. Rapid delivery of high-quality products through short development cycles.
Risk and uncertainty Managed through work-in-progress (WIP) limits and a pull system. Mitigates risk and uncertainty by breaking projects into manageable units, allowing for regular reassessment and adaptation

Kanban
Scrum
Framework Flow-based, focuses on visualizing the workflow. Empirical and iterative, based on Agile principles.
Flexibility Very high, as work items can be added at any time. High, as it welcomes changes even late in the development process.
Delivery time Continuous, items are delivered as soon as they are done. Fixed sprints, usually lasting 2-4 weeks.
Risk and uncertainty Managed through work-in-progress (WIP) limits and a pull system. Managed through daily stand-ups, sprint reviews, and sprint retrospectives.

Explore the dynamic between Kanban and Scrum and discover which methodology can best streamline your project management efforts.

When is Kanban most effective?

Unsurprisingly, teams loaded with visual learners are ideal matches for Kanban. And if your team pulls from a pool of unassigned tasks, like how an IT team draws from a pool of tickets, then Kanban could be a good fit.

But you’ll also need a team that’s chock full of open-mindedness and creativity. That’s because the methodology relies on feedback loops, meaning plans can change on the fly in response to people’s feelings.

Kanban team members must also have trust and chemistry with one another. As mentioned above, there are no strict roles or predetermined ceremonies to serve as checks and balances. As a result, workers must police themselves.

Here are some other crucial characteristics of a successful Kanban team:

  • Receptive to constructive criticism: Feedback loops, known as “cadences,” are part of Kanban. Honest discussion and advancement are critical to success.
  • Open-mindedness: Kanban thrives on outside-the-box solutions. Strict adherence to predetermined rules is not compatible.
  • Relaxed deadlines: The methodology encourages throttling work rather than overloading. Hence, projects may take more time.
  • Quality over quantity: Following the point above, Kanban’s lax attitude about time favors creative, open-ended tasks versus repetitive, routine ones.
  • Smooth, well-oiled workflow: Since Kanban’s inception in the 1940s, it’s always focused on increasing productivity and slashing waste. Disjointed teams, complicated processes, and excess red tape are incompatible.

The bottom line is that Kanban emphasizes simplicity, efficiency, and constant adaptation to feedback.

Learn more about the benefits of Kanban in our video overview:

When is Kanban least effective?

If you must adhere to rigid guidelines, then Kanban won’t fly. This disqualification is due to the methodology’s need for creative solutions and ever-changing priorities. As a result, if there’s only one way to approach work, consider a different project management strategy.

Indeed, this need for flexibility means many industries won’t qualify. For example, healthcare businesses under strict HIPAA guidelines are not ideal Kanban candidates.

Moreover, businesses operating under tight deadlines aren’t ideal, either. As mentioned above, work assignments use a pull system that caps in-progress tasks. So, if you regularly need your team to double-time it, Kanban is not for you.

Here are some other scenarios that will not mesh with Kanban:

  • Strict organizational chart: Kanban encourages transcending roles and centralized authority. Enforcing a rigid chain of command destroys this approach.
  • Large workloads: Teams accustomed to a seemingly endless slate of tasks will not succeed with Kanban’s focus on limiting work and keeping things simple.
  • Lack of transparency: Workers are charged with clearly communicating their tasks without formal roles and mandatory meetings. As a result, transparency is fundamental.
  • Rigid guidelines: If there’s only one way to make your product, your team won’t survive the numerous feedback cycles and improvisation involved in Kanban.

Don’t worry if Kanban isn’t suitable for you. Some alternatives like Scrum or Waterfall involve more formal, unyielding guidelines. Meanwhile, other strategies such as the adaptive project framework (APF) double down on flexibility and add other perks.

Is Kanban is for you?

Kanban is an excellent choice if your team is chock full of visual learners who crave autonomy. Remember, you’ll need to illustrate work via a Kanban board constantly. Plus, you must feel comfortable without strict roles and meeting schedules (Kanban mandates neither).

Ultimately, Kanban’s comparatively lenient approach isn’t for everyone. Consider that many people using Scrum switch to Scrumban as an easy way to adopt some Kanban principles. So, if you’re not ready to tackle Kanban fully, consider this hybrid option.


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