Kanban, which is spelled “Kamban” in Japanese, is an Agile framework that uses visualization to understand processes and workflows better and actual work done in those processes. Kanban has become popular to identify and manage bottlenecks in workflows so that the work runs smoothly at an optimal speed.

Kamban, in Japanese, means “Billboard,” and in Chinese, it means “Signboard.” These visual representations are used to indicate the “available capacity to work.” Therefore, Kanban is a framework that helps manage processes and workflows by visualizing work. It ultimately helps processes achieve optimal efficiency and adapt to the Agile way of thinking.

Although Kanban is a framework that originated in the manufacturing industry, it became highly popular in the software development world. It has since been used across sectors, especially in the recent past. However, there are many misinterpretations about Kanban as it gains in popularity. Therefore, it is important to understand Kanban correctly before implementing the framework.

Kanban and Agile

Agile is a project management methodology that can be considered a way of thinking, where projects are broken into more manageable smaller chunks. Highly motivated, self-organizing teams work on those chunks to deliver working increments of the product to receive feedback from the stakeholders along the way. Teams in Agile environments regularly and continuously improve. Agile methodology was first intended to be used in the software development industry; however, it has been adopted by many other industries to manage complex projects with changing requirements.

Kanban, on the other hand, is a method or a framework that agrees with the Agile values and principles. Many companies find Agile somewhat difficult to adopt since it requires coaching and guidance from someone who has knowledge and experience about the methodology. However, Kanban is similar to the Scrum framework as it enables companies to become Agile without requiring much experience and know-how.

Therefore, Kanban can be called an Agile framework. It has many similarities to Scrum, as well as subtle differences. More importantly, Kanban’s core philosophy is similar to the Agile way of thinking, just like Scrum. Scrum and Kanban use the visual representation of work by using a physical board or a digital representation of a Kanban board. The work in a Kanban or Scrum project can be divided into three main categories: the work that needs to be done, work in progress, and the work that has been achieved.

The Kanban method is based on the Kanban Board, which plays a vital role in helping teams visualize the workflow and progress toward their ultimate goals. Teams can easily understand how different teams complete tasks while they collaborate with the same outcome. Every piece of work at varying development stages are represented on the Kanban Board.

The visual representation of tasks and how they are achieved not only bring transparency and clarity into teams but also helps them identify and manage bottlenecks that they may never have identified. The Kanban method also allows teams to reprioritize work according to their stakeholders’ needs, resulting in increased customer satisfaction. Teams are also encouraged to collaborate and strive for improvements by solving weaknesses in their processes.

The Kanban method allows more flexibility when it comes to the tasks that are selected to be completed in an iteration. For example, Kanban does not have a Sprint backlog where only the tasks that are in the Sprint Backlog are completed in a Sprint. Therefore, teams implementing Kanban can work on tasks if they become more urgent while in the middle of a development cycle. The Kanban method was first applied in software development by David J. Anderson in 2004, almost half a century since its inception in Japan. David was inspired by the works of Taiichi Ohno, Edward Demmings, Eli Goldratt, and many others. He published Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business in 2010, which is considered one of the most comprehensive guides to the Kanban Method.

Kanban soon started expanding into other industries. Its focus on gradual improvements within teams that were along the Agile way of thinking was one of the key factors behind its popularity. Kanban is now used in many industries and sectors, including information technology, sales and marketing, recruitment, staffing, and procurement. The principles of the Kanban Method are also so simple and powerful that they could be applied to any business function.

The Origins of Kanban

The Kanban method goes back decades; however, it is just starting to gain popularity in some industries. The Japanese carmaker, Toyota, stared optimizing and enhancing their processes using a similar model to what was used to stack shelves in supermarkets. The model is based on stocking a similar number of products on the shelves according to consumer demand.

The practice was proven to be successful since inventory levels matched the patterns around consumption. Therefore, supermarkets found it easier to manage inventory. More importantly, they managed to reduce excess stock in their stores that they were responsible for. However, any given product was still available for the customers whenever they needed it.

In the early 1940s, Toyota was not happy with the level of efficiency and productivity in their firms, especially compared to their American rivals. Taiichi Ohno, who was a businessman and industrial engineer at Toyota in Japan, came up with a very simple planning system. The system aimed to control and manage inventory and work at every stage of production.

The system was called Kanban. By implementing Kanban, Toyota managed to increase productivity and reduce costs related to maintaining inventories of raw materials, semi-finished, and finished products. Kanban controls the flow of the product from the supplier to the consumer. As a result, it can help eliminate many costly issues, such as the disruption of the supply and the overstocking of materials and goods during manufacturing.

One of the basic requirements of Kanban is continuous monitoring. Any process that implements Kanban needs to be monitored closely and continuously for it to be successful. Attention must be given to identify and avoid bottlenecks that can potentially disrupt the production process. Before the application of Kanban, Toyota was dealing with massive overheads relating to inventory levels. There was no systematic relationship with their inventory levels and the requirement of those materials for production. Kanban introduced a visual approach to overcome such struggles where capacity levels in the factory were communicated using Kanban cards.

When a production line in the factory ran out of nuts and bolts, a Kanban was sent to the warehouse with a description of the material needed, the amount needed, and other important details. The warehouse would then issue the exact number of nuts and bolts to the factory line while sending a Kanban to their supplier for the same material and the same amount. Upon receiving the Kanban, the supplier would issue the materials to the warehouse from the stocks.

The Kanban system eliminates the need for the factory floor, warehouse, and the supplier to maintain too much inventory. They only need to maintain just enough to keep production going. Whenever they issue a certain item, a Kanban is sent out requesting for the same amount so that the optimal inventory levels can be maintained to keep production flowing.

Key Values and Philosophies of Kanban

The Kanban Method prescribes several practices and principles that can be applied to teams to improve their workflow. It is popular for being a highly non-disruptive method to encourage continuous and regular improvements to processes. Kanban principles and practices help businesses achieve better flow in their processes, reduced cycle times, increased predictability, and increased product value. Therefore, adopting the Kanban method is a highly attractive proposition for many businesses belonging to different sectors.

Kanban Principles
The Kanban Method describes several principles that can be easily practiced by individuals and teams to enjoy the benefits that the method offers. These principles are very simple and easy to understand. Furthermore, they are usually unlikely to disrupt a process, making them very easy to adopt.

Start with What You Are Doing Now
Kanban recommends that companies not disrupt the way things are done when adopting the method. The method sees such disruption as negative and disadvantageous. The current processes should be left alone while Kanban is applied directly to the workflow. Changes to the processes can be done gradually at a pace that teams are comfortable with.

Agree to Pursue Incremental and Evolutionary Change
Making radical changes to a team’s process often reduces productivity for a considerable amount of time. As a result, Kanban recommends making smaller incremental changes. The application of radical changes often leads to resistance from teams and employees, resulting in the entire exercise being unsuccessful.

Initially, Respect Current Roles, Job Titles, and Responsibilities
Methodologies such as Agile and frameworks such as Scrum impose organizational changes and changes to the way employees are managed. As a result, many companies struggle to adopt such methodologies and frameworks. Kanban is easy to implement since it does not require any organizational changes.

Existing roles, responsibilities, and the way employees function in their roles are left alone. Therefore, factors that contribute to good performances are left alone. The implementation of Kanban will result in team members implementing required changes without the need to enforce them.

Encourage Acts of Leadership at All Levels
Kanban, being an Agile method, encourages teams to improve continuously. The Kanban method does not limit leadership qualities to specific job titles or roles. One does not need to have seniority or a management role to become a leader when Kanban is applied. Team members at all levels are encouraged to share their ideas so that teams can collaboratively improve as they progress with work.

The Goal of Kanban

The Kanban Method is a non-disruptive management system that enables processes to be improved using small steps instead of radical changes. Many minor changes are used to improve processes without risking the current processes and causing teams and stakeholders to resist change. Principles and practices in Kanban aim to achieve a set of goals that are highly beneficial for companies.

Planning Flexibility
A Kanban team focuses on the work at hand. They do not commit to new work until the work in progress is completed. As soon as a work in progress task is completed, the item at the top of the backlog is attended to. The Product Owner maintains backlog priority, and any changes to its priority do not affect the work that is in progress.

As long as high priority items are accurately identified, the team automatically ends up committing to them. This results in teams offering maximum value to the company without limiting them to iterations. Iterations often limit teams to a number of tasks that they commit to at the very beginning of it.

For example, a Scrum team commits to several tasks from the Product Backlog to be completed during the Sprint. These items are then added to the Sprint Backlog. The team does not commit to any more items during the Sprint. However, a Kanban team does not limit itself to a certain list of items. Instead, it focuses on finishing the work at hand. As soon as the work is complete, the task with the highest priority is taken from the Product Backlog. Therefore, the Kanban Method offers better flexibility when it comes to planning.

Shorter Time Cycles
One of the key metrics for Kanban teams is Cycle Time. It refers to the time that a unit of work takes to travel from the moment the development starts until it is shipped out. Optimizing cycle time makes the team more productive and enables them to forecast how quickly products can be delivered correctly. The Kanban Method aims to shorten cycle time by overlapping skill sets through mentoring and knowledge transfers.

Reducing Bottlenecks
The more items that are in progress, the more teams need to multi-task, and the longer it takes for those items to be completed. As a result, the Kanban Method focuses on limiting the work that is in progress. Work in Progress Limits can be used to highlight bottlenecks within a process as well as backups that are usually caused by a lack of people and skillsets.

Visual Metrics
One of the Kanban Method’s core values is to continuously strive for improvements so that teams become increasingly efficient and effective. Teams respond well to visual metrics, such as charts, where they can see improvements visually and become motivated. Kanban teams use cumulative flow charts and control charts as visual metrics to identify and eliminate bottlenecks, resulting in improved processes.

Continuous Delivery
The Kanban Method focuses on continuously delivering working increments of a developed product. For example, when a Kanban team is developing the software, they are focused on building code for a particular item, testing the code, and releasing the item once it is done so that the customer can use the feature and provide feedback.

Implementing Kanban

The Kanban method has gained popularity across various sectors as it is easy to apply to processes and setups. It clearly describes what needs to be done to avoid disruptions to processes and cause resistance within teams. The six core practices explained in Kanban are aimed toward the implementation of Kanban successfully without inducing negative resistance disrupting the performance of teams.

The Kanban Method aims to increase project performance by visualizing the workflow while encouraging teams to improve continuously. It also enables the customer to be more involved during the development phase of a project, just like other Agile frameworks. However, Kanban also has some features that are different from many Agile frameworks.

Most Agile frameworks feature iterations that last a certain period and involve multiple tasks. However, a development cycle in Kanban is the time taken for a single user story to go through all the stages of work in a process until it is marked as Done. Therefore, implementing the Kanban method can be tricky for some companies. Patience and gradual changes may be required when implementing the Kanban method.

Step 1: Visualize the Flow of Work
The first fundamental step toward adopting the Kanban Method is to visualize the steps in the process currently being used to develop a product or service in a company. Visualization of the steps can be done physically, with the use of a Kanban Board, or digitally, with the use of a digital tool that represents a Kanban Board. Kanban Boards representing different processes can look different. Some may look simple, while others may be very complex, depending on the processes that they represent.

Different types of cards and colors can be used to highlight the significance of different work items. Kanban Boards also feature Swim Lanes, where each lane is dedicated to a particular type of work item. However, the Kanban Method recommends that things be kept simple initially while focusing on gradual changes. Therefore, a single Swim Lane may represent the entire process in the beginning with the possibility of gradual redesigning of the representation down the road as teams become more comfortable with the visualization of the processes.

Step 2: Limiting Work in Progress (WIP)
This practice encourages teams to finish the tasks that are at hand or in progress before committing to new ones. Therefore, the work that is currently marked as Work in Progress first needs to be completed and marked as Done before taking up new work. This practice results in the efficient use of the capacity within teams. They end up completing work and taking up more work at a faster pace.

It is natural for teams to struggle when it comes to initially determining their WIP limits. Therefore, it is recommended that Kanban is implemented with no WIP limits in place. The work in progress is first observed, and limits are only applied after analyzing substantial data. Most teams typically start with a Work in Progress Limit of between one to 1.5 times the number of team members contributing to a specific stage. Introducing WIP limits to columns in the Kanban Board helps team members finish what they have at hand first before committing to new work. Furthermore, it also provides transparency— since stakeholders, including the customer, can see that the team’s capacity is limited. This encourages them to plan their requests and manage their expectations.

Step 3: Managing Flow
Once the first two practices are implemented, managing and improving the flow begins. It is a difficult practice to implement, and it must also be done carefully. Now that the workflow has been defined and Work in Progress Limits have been carefully set, there should be a smooth flow within those WIP limits or work should start piling up. The workflow needs to be adjusted so that it is improved, depending on how it flows upon applying the first two principles.

One of the key ways of achieving this goal is by carefully observing the workflow to identify bottlenecks. Attention must be given to intermediate wait stages where work items that are marked as Done are handed off. Reducing the time that Done items are parked in these intermediate work stages results in eliminating bottlenecks and reducing cycle time. As improvements are made gradually, teams begin to deliver work smoothly and more predictably. When predictability improves, it is easier to make commitments to customers and their requests without taking the risk of disappointing them. Improving the accuracy of forecasts regarding product completion times is one of the main advantages that the Kanban method offers.

Step 4: Making Process Policies Explicit
Just like processes are visualized explicitly, the Kanban Method recommends that policies or rules and guidelines are made explicit. These policies decide the way teams work, and making rules and guidelines overtly encourages everyone who takes part in those processes to work the same way.

They will know how to work in any situation according to the rules and guidelines that are made very clear. Processes may have different policies at different levels or stages. They may exist in specific Swim Lanes or specific columns. They may involve a checklist that dictates entry or exit criteria for a certain column. Making policies unambiguous helps processes run smoothly without irregularities. Therefore, policies need to be made explicit and represented visually on the Kanban Board for each Swim Lane and column.

Step 5: Implementing Feedback Loops
Any good methodology, framework, or system emphasizes feedback loops. The Kanban Method helps organizations implement different kinds of feedback loops. These include reviewing different stages in the workflow, reports, and metrics, as well as visual clues that provide feedback regarding the workflow that needs to be implemented. Feedback needs to be taken early, especially when things are not going great, so improvements can be made. Feedback loops are critical to make those improvements and deliver a satisfactory product or service to the customer.

Step 6: Improving Collaboratively and Evolving Experimentally by Using the Scientific Method
The Kanban Method enables companies to gradually improve their processes and workflows without posing difficulties to those involved in the processes. The use of the scientific method is encouraged to make those improvements and evolve through experimentation. A hypothesis is first formed, followed by tests. Changes are then made according to the outcomes of those tests.

When the Kanban Method is implemented, there needs to be continuous evaluations and improvements based on those evaluations. The Kanban system makes it easy to experiment since it provides signals to help teams figure out if a change is helping them improve.


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