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Kanban Explained for Beginners | The Complete Guide

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. Learn more.

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. From 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.

As more and more people hear about Kanban, there often are misinterpretations.
What exactly is Kanban? How to build a Kanban system?
Here are the most important things you need to know about the method and its practical application.

What Is Kanban? Definition and Brief Introduction.

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.

Toyota Production System
The original Kanban System, Source: TOYOTA Global Website

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 – “Requested”, “In Progress” 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.

But how does the Kanban method work?

Let’s discover more.

The 4 Kanban Core Principles

David J. Anderson (a pioneer in the field of Lean/ Kanban for knowledge work) has formulated the Kanban method as an approach to incremental, evolutionary process and systems change for knowledge work organizations. It is focused on getting things done, and its fundamentals can be broken down into four basic principles and six practices.

Principle 1: Start With What You Do Now

Kanban’s flexibility allows it to be overlaid on existing workflows, systems, and processes without disrupting what is already successfully being done; naturally, it will highlight issues that need to be addressed and help assess and plan changes, so their implementation is as non-disruptive as possible.

Kanban’s versatility allows you to introduce it incrementally to all types of organizations without fear of over-commitment or ‘culture shock’, as there is no need for you to make sweeping changes right from the start.

Principle 2: Agree to Pursue Incremental, Evolutionary Change

The Kanban methodology is designed to meet minimal resistance. It encourages continuous small incremental and evolutionary changes to the current process. In general, sweeping changes are discouraged because they usually encounter resistance due to fear or uncertainty.

Principle 3: Respect the Current Process, Roles & Responsibilities

Kanban recognizes that existing processes, roles, responsibilities, and titles have value and are, generally, worth preserving. The Kanban method does not prohibit change, but neither does it prescribe it as a “panacea”. It is designed to promote and encourage incremental, logical changes without triggering fear of change itself.

Principle 4: Encourage Acts of Leadership at All Levels

This is the newest Kanban principle. It reminds you that leadership comes from people's everyday acts on the front line of their teams. Everyone must foster a continuous improvement mindset (Kaizen) to reach optimal performance on a team/department/company level. This can’t be a management level activity.

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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

Basic Kanban boardA simple Kanban Board

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.

When you start working on item X, you pull it from the “To Do” column, and when it is completed, you move it to “Done”. This way, you can easily track progress and spot bottlenecks.

2. Limit Work in Progress

WIP warning
Digital Kanban Board with WIP Limits

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 it 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 demand 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 switch focus fast.

You focus on finishing work to boost collaboration and productivity

One of Kanban's main advantages is that it requires teams to focus on their current tasks until they are done. This is possible, thanks to the concept of limiting work in progress.

Limiting WIP fosters teams to collaborate to complete work items faster, which, on the other hand, eliminates distractions such as context-switching and multitasking. At the end of the day, this has a positive impact on the team’s productivity.

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.

Digital Kanban boardDigital Kanban Board Example

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.

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.

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.

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.

In Summary

Trying to learn what is Kanban could be hard at first but now that you know what it is, you can make the most out of the main benefits of Kanban:

  • Physical and digital Kanban boards help you visualize your work
  • Kanban is easy to adopt and - just start with what you have
  • WIP limits empower you to become more efficient
  • The Kanban principles and practices offer an evolutionary path towards agility without disrupting the current processes

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