kanban for project management

Kanban project management is a unique approach to project management that relies on the Kanban method, and it’s suitable for companies of any size. In this guide, you will learn:

  • how to break down your projects quickly,
  • how to track progress,
  • how to get real-time status reports,
  • how to achieve organizational transparency.

But first, let’s take a look at some data representing the current state of project management.

Did you know that in 2021, 45% of projects were not finished within the scheduled time, 38% of the projects were not finished within their original budget, and 27% of projects didn’t meet the original goals and business intent? This is according to the PMI Pulse of the Profession annual report.

Kanban project Management

Another research shows that 71% of projects and programs’ uncertainty and volatility has increased over the last 10 years due to business transformation including change in processes, systems, and technology. This only proves the need for increased agility in the management of projects, programs, or portfolios. Furthermore, the same research shows that only 50% of respondents rated their organization’s project management capabilities as effective. 

Poor project managers. Only if they knew there’s an approach that would help them achieve better results and cope with the growing challenges of business transformation.

In fact, there is one. I bet you have already guessed that I am talking about Kanban.

Kanban Brief Intro (If you are not familiar with it)

In short, the Kanban method is simple in its core, flexible and efficient approach for workflow management. It allows you to organize and manage your process by visualizing every step of your workflow on a visual board called “Kanban board”. 

In Kanban, there are two types of principles and six practices.

Kanban Principles 

Change Management Principles   Service Delivery Principles 
Start With What You Do Now   Focus on Customer’s Needs and Expectations  
Agree to Pursue Incremental, Evolutionary Change   Manage the Work, Not the Workers  
Encourage Acts of Leadership at All Levels  Regularly Review the Network of Services 

Kanban Practices 

  • Visualize the workflow  
  • Limit work in progress  
  • Manage flow  
  • Make process policies explicit  
  • Implement feedback loops  
  • Improve collaboratively

This is it in a nutshell. While the concept is unwavering, the structure is flexible, giving you the power of a simple visual management system. 

Compared to other methods, Kanban is very flexible and humane. It doesn’t tell you how to do things. On the contrary, it respects the current situation and helps you improve from where you are. 

Now, let’s see how you can apply Kanban in project management.

*Before we continue further, remember that the work items you create on the Kanban board are called Kanban cards.

What Is Kanban Project Management?

In short, Kanban project management will help you visualize your work, so you can acquire a better understanding of your workflow. By doing so, you will be able to organize and manage work more efficiently. It also allows teams to keep track of every project and task with ease while uncovering inefficiencies and workflow issues.

However, it can be applied in different ways depending on the hierarchical level of an organization.

So, let’s see how it works.

Kanban Project Management on a Team/Personal Level

Whether you use Kanban on a personal or a team level, you usually have to deal with multiple projects at the same time. This makes it difficult to track everything because all projects have their own sub-components, which multiply the number of work items you need to keep an eye on.

How to Use a Kanban Board for Project Management?

Let’s imagine that you already have your Kanban board and you see how easy it is to track work.

So far, so good.

Now, try to implement a project workflow on the top of your board. In Kanbanize, we call it an initiatives workflow.

portfolio-board + team-boardInitiatives workflow in Kanbanize

Try Kanbanize. Your First Board Is Set.

This top row serves as the place to break down large pieces of work into smaller work items and keep track of them. 

I am going to stop here to tell you something really important. 

At Kanbanize, we go one step further. We believe in the timeline as a planning tool, and we know that high-level roadmaps are one of the most useful visualization means for future work. But do not think of this as yet another version of the Gantt chart. The Kanbanize Timeline is the first timeline built with WIP Limits in mind. Plus, we found out that it is much more efficient when used on the Initiatives level. 

So, let’s see how you can visualize big projects, break them down into smaller work items, and get an immediate status report.

timeline_portfolio-board + team-boardKanbanize Timeline visualization

See, when you want a status update, you can just take a quick overview of the project workflow and see the current status of each deliverable and its corresponding individual work items. 

If you use Kanbanize, each of the child cards linked to the main project will appear on the project/initiative card as small colorful icons. They indicate the current position of the broken-down work inside the workflow.

Kanban Project Management on a Portfolio Level

Don’t hurry to celebrate. 

When different teams master Kanban on the team level, they tend to start delivering value faster. However, when all parts of a project start moving faster, it becomes a real challenge to get the bigger picture. 

If you have more than two teams using Kanban, it gets difficult to follow the different components of every project and their current status. 

How Can a Kanban Board Help Here?

The Project Portfolio Board is a separate board where you place only huge pieces of work. Naturally, you break down the different projects into smaller child work items. You put them into the different team boards depending on who is responsible for what and then link them to the mother initiative placed on the Portfolio Board

Now, this may seem a bit confusing, but let’s see how it actually works.

strategic-to-teamPortfolio Kanban board visualization in Kanbanize

As you can see from the image above, you can visualize work across two or more levels through interconnected Kanban boards. This ensures that the necessary dependencies between different project components are visualized, which guarantees alignment between the teams. 

When the strategic objectives are visualized on a separate Kanban board, it becomes easier to see which of them have been started or finished with a blink of an eye. At the same time, using the Strategic board makes it much easier to keep track of every single project running in a single department or even the entire company.  

Ultimately, when you visualize your portfolio of projects, initiatives, products, etc., break them down into smaller components, and eventually individual tasks, you will have an end-to-end value stream visualization that you can expand to cover your entire organization.

Planning, Prioritizing, and Tracking

A lot has been said about planning in the past. 

One thing is clear; planning is of critical importance if you want to succeed. 

Winston Churchill once said: “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” 

So how can Kanban help here?

Planning in Kanban

Acknowledging that plans are an essential part of every management method, Kanban offers a lightweight approach to planning. 

In order to put planning into action, first, you need to have a Kanban project board. This board contains the project components.

Kanban-planning-board

Kanban planning using Timeline on a Kanban board

Focus on the far left part of the board – the Requested area and the Backlog area. They contain projects/work items that have not been started yet. 

As shown above, the Requested and the Backlog columns form a reversed timeline – the more you go to the left, the more you go into the future. 

Putting a work item in the “Q1” column means you plan to complete it by the end of March. This looks like a push system, but what makes it a push system is how you think and act about it. 

Simply said, this is it. However, planning activities can occur on different levels. To make it easier let’s say that in most cases an organization has Portfolio plans and Team plans. And this is where Kanbanize enters as a game-changer.

Strategic Level Planning

On a Strategic level, you can plan strategic projects/initiatives with the Initiatives workflow, which I mentioned earlier in this article. You can see this is in the image below.

strategic_boardStrategic planning on a Kanban board

Team Level Planning

On a team level, you can use the Timeline workflow for team project planning in order to make it easier for teams to acquire a better understanding of the current situation at any time. The picture shows it. 

team_board_backlogTeam-level planning on a Kanban board

Initially, Kanban is about continuous improvement, and the planning should be a flexible process. Update the system regularly, so it corresponds to the real world. Don’t try to ignore the influence of the outside world, just for the sake of sticking to a plan. You better use it as a compass.

Prioritizing

Implementing a pull system is essential for getting the most out of the Kanban method. To facilitate the conditions necessary for maintaining pull, you need to avoid assigning (pushing) work to your team. Of course, the work should be collected in a backlog, but the idea is to hold replenishment sessions at regular intervals with your team to figure out who can do what without causing overburdening. This way, as soon as a teammate with the proper function has the capacity, they can start new work or pull it in progress. 

A major rule in Kanban – work items should be ordered by importance. The higher the card on the board, the higher the priority. Simple, isn’t it? 

Apart from this, you can also use the swimlanes to prioritize work items. For example, you can use swimlanes such as high priority, medium priority, and low priority.

Prioritizing projects with kanban

Work prioritization on a Kanban board

In general, the prioritization process in Kanban will assure you that the most important work items at the moment will be completed prior to others.

Tracking and Forecasting

This topic is endless and a paragraph is not enough.

There are different tools and charts you can use in Kanban software for better tracking and forecasting.

Here are a few of them.

  • Cumulative Flow Diagram – This is one of the most eye-opening charts in Kanban. It gives you a quick overview of the most important workflow metrics:
    • Cycle time (the horizontal distance between the lanes)
    • Work in progress (the vertical space between the lanes)
    • Throughput (the slope of the chart)

cumulative-flow-diagram-kanbanizeCumulative Flow Diagram

These can help you manage the amount of work that is in progress and make sure that you are not overburdening your team.

  • Cycle Time Scatterplot – The chart allows you to monitor all of your finished work items, inspect their cycle time, and spot trends regarding your team’s performance over time. With its help, you can analyze how many work items are finished within a given cycle time period and even extract probabilities of when similar work can be completed in the future.

Cycle Time ScatterplotCycle Time Scatterplot in Kanbanize

  • Monte Carlo Simulations – “When is it going to be done?” – Isn’t this one of the most important questions for project managers? We rarely have the answer.

The good news is that Kanban software solutions can solve this problem for you. The Monte Carlo simulations are based on the historical data of your workflow. This way, you can see how many work items you can finish by a certain date and what is the probability for this to happen.

Monte Carlo WhenMonte Carlo When simulations

Now have in mind that not all Kanban tools are armored with this powerful feature, but if you try one you won’t regret it. 

There is more to be said, but probably a book won’t be enough. If we aroused your interest, jump into Kanban and master the way you manage projects.

So, What Are the Benefits of Using Kanban for Project Management? 

After everything that’s been said, let’s take a look at some of the main benefits of the Kanban method for project management: 

  • A rock-solid foundation for organizing work 
  • Better tracking of projects and related tasks 
  • Improvement of your cycle time 
  • Relief from overburdening and happier workforce 
  • Increased customer satisfaction due to shorter delivery times and increased predictability 
  • Workflow (process) improvement 
  • A better understanding of the work state and project status 
  • Increased predictability 
  • Transparent work environment 

Bottom Line

To draw the bottom line, one of the most important areas where Kanban project management can help you is focusing on finishing work items rather than constantly starting new ones. As the Kanban credo states, “Stop starting and start finishing”. At the end of the day, this aims to enable you to increase your organization’s efficiency and deliver on time, so you can satisfy your customer’s expectations.  

And still, that’s just the beginning of the story and there’s so much more to explore. So, don’t hesitate to try Kanban. Even if you don’t succeed at first, remember that it’s all about continuous improvement.

Try Kanbanize. Your First Board Is Set.

Subscribe to our blog. Get each new piece of content straight into your mailbox.

Read insightful articles from top Agile/Lean thought leaders and our experienced team.