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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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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