Kanban Explained for Beginners

Trying to understand what is Kanban? Discover the true power of the Kanban method and learn how to apply it successfully to your organization today. Find out how to manage your workflow with ease.


Kanban has been growing in popularity during the recent decades. Originating from manufacturing, it later became a territory claimed by software developers. Recently, it started getting recognized by the business units across various areas.

As more and more people hear about Kanban, there often are misinterpretations. So what is Kanban? Here are the most important things you need to know about it from its creation till today.

The Brief History of Kanban

Kanban is a method for work management, originating from the Toyota Production System (TPS). In the late 1940’s, Toyota introduced “just in time” manufacturing to their production. The approach represents a pull system. This means that production is based on customer demand, rather than the standard push practice to produce amounts of goods and pushing 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
Source: TOYOTA Global Website

What does Kanban mean?

From Japanese, Kanban is literally translated as sign board or visual signal. The simplest Kanban board has three columns – “Requested”, “In Progress” and “Done”. When constructed, managed and functioning properly, it serves as a real-time information repository, highlighting bottlenecks within the system and anything else which might get in the way of smooth working practices.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, key players within the software industry quickly realized how Kanban could be used to positively change the ways in which products and services were delivered. With an increased focus on efficiency, and by harnessing advances in computing technology, Kanban left the confines of the automotive industry and was increasingly applied to other complex industrial and commercial sectors.

But how does Kanban work?

Let’s discover more.

The 4 Core Principles of Kanban

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 the most important principles 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; it will, naturally, highlight issues that need to be addressed and help to assess and plan changes so their implementation is as non-disruptive as possible.

Kanban’s versatility allows it to be introduced incrementally, and sympathetically, to all types of organization without fear of over-commitment or ‘culture shock’. This makes Kanban easy to implement in any type of organization 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 method is designed to meet minimal resistance and thus 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 ‘universal panacea’. It is designed to promote and encourage incremental, logical, changes without triggering a fear of change itself.

Principle 4: Encourage Acts of Leadership at All Levels

This is the newest Kanban principle. It reminds you that some of the best leadership comes from everyday acts of people on the front line of their teams. It is important that everyone fosters a mindset of continuous improvement (Kaizen) in order to reach optimal performance on a team/department/company level. This can’t be a management level activity.

The 6 Practices of Kanban

Although embracing the Kanban philosophy and embarking on the transitional journey is the most important step, every organization needs to 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

  2. Basic Kanban board

    The first and most important thing for you is to understand what it takes to get an item from 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.

    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.

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

  3. Limit Work in Progress

  4. Switching a team’s focus halfway through will generally harm the process, and multi-tasking is a sure route to generating waste and inefficiency; a primary function of Kanban 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.

    Limiting WIP means that a pull system is implemented on parts or all of the 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.

  5. Manage Flow

  6. The whole idea of implementing a Kanban system is to create a smooth healthy flow. By flow, we mean the movement of work items through the production process. We are interested in the speed and the smoothness of movement.

    So, managing the flow is about managing the work but not the people. So 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 through the system faster.

    Ideally, we want fast and smooth flow. This would mean that our system is creating value quickly. This way we can minimize the average cycle time for production and avoiding the cost of delay, but in a predictable fashion.

  7. Make Process Policies Explicit

  8. You can’t improve something you don’t understand. This is why the 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 change that will move you in a positive direction.

  9. Feedback Loops

  10. In order for the positive change to happen, succeed and continue, one more thing needs to be done. The Lean philosophy supports the assumption that regular meetings are necessary for knowledge transfer (feedback loops).

    Such are the daily stand up meetings for team synchronization. They are held in front of the Kanban board and every member tells the others what he or she did the previous day and what will be doing today.

    There are also the service delivery review, the operations review, and the risk review meeting. 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 depending on the team size and topics.

  11. Improve Collaboratively (using models & the scientific method)

The way to achieve continuous improvement and sustainable change within an organization is through shared vision of a better future and collective understanding of the issues that need to be overcome.

Teams that have a shared understanding of theories about work, workflow, process, and risk are more likely to build a shared comprehension of a problem and suggest steps towards improvement, which can be agreed by consensus.

Modern-Day Kanban

Digital Kanban board

With the development of technology, Kanban has been also continuously improving. Digital Kanban board solutions have been developed to overcome the problems arising in remote teams.

Most of the enterprise sized companies and even more startups have many remote employees. Teams are often distributed all over the world.

They are not able to work on a single physical whiteboard and thus need a digital one, they could access from anywhere. Kanban boards in the cloud are the most effective way to get everyone on the same track as they provide access to all of the information from any device at any time and show actions live.

Moreover, Kanban software allows for a sophisticated analytical process to help you track performance in details, discover bottlenecks and implement the necessary changes.

Digital Kanban boards are also easy to integrate with other systems and can give an extremely valuable perspective of the whole process, save time and increase efficiency.

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 then 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 you could think. Remember to organize regular feedback loops and all these pieces together will reveal the true power of Kanban.

As you are now embarking on a journey to understanding Kanban, this is only the beginning. To get a deeper understanding of Kanban, explore the strengths of Kanban Boards, WIP limits, and the Kanban Cards.

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

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What is a Kanban Board?

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