Kanban explained for beginners

Trying to understand what is Kanban? Discover the true power of Kanban work management and learn how to apply it successfully to your organization today.


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 Birth of Kanban

Kanban is a method for work management, originating from the Toyota Production System. In the late 1940’s, Toyota introduced “just in time” delivery process 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 became also known as the Toyota Way. It 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 and at the same time prevent overproduction.

Toyota Kanban board

Toyota’s engineers came up with a simple technique to achieve these goals. They were using a whiteboard divided by columns to visualize work process and work items were displayed through cards, moving through the different stages of production. From Japanese, Kanban is literally translated as signboard or visual signal. If a Kanban board is constructed and functioning properly, it would serve as a traffic light system, as it shows where the bottlenecks are in the process and what keeps the workflow from going smooth.

David J. Anderson has formulated the Kanban method as an approach to incremental, evolutionary process and systems change for organizations. It is focused on getting things done and the most important principles can be broken down into four basic principles and five core properties.

The 4 Core Principles of Kanban

    1. Principle 1: Start with what you do now

Kanban doesn’t require certain setup and can be overlaid over an existing workflow or process to bring issues to light. 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.

    1. 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.

    1. Principle 3: Respect the current process, roles & responsibilities

Kanban recognizes that existing process, roles, responsibilities, and titles may have value and are worth preserving. The Kanban method doesn’t prohibit change, but it does not prescribe it either. It encourages incremental change as it doesn’t create the level of fear that impedes progress.

    1. 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 5 Properties 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 five core properties as identified by David Anderson that need to be present for successful implementation.

    1. 1. Visualize the workflow

Example of a 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. The goal of Kanban is to optimize the workflow through the system. Only after understanding how the flow of work currently functions can you aspire to improve it by making the necessary adjustments. The most common way to visualize your process is to use a board with cards and columns. Each column on the wall represents a step in your workflow. Cards move from To Do to Done and you can easily track their progress and spot bottlenecks.

    1. 2. Limit WIP

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.

    1. 3. Manage flow

The whole idea of implementing a Kanban system is to create positive change. Before you can achieve it, you have to know what needs to change. You should start with observing the value stream. Afterward, analyze it to identify problems and decide what change to introduce.Then, you should repeat the cycle to see what is the effect on the system in order to know if the change you made had a positive or negative impact on the things you were attempting to enhance.This doesn’t mean you are finished. This cycle needs to be constantly repeated to ensure an ever evolving process.

    1. 4. Make Process Policies Explicit

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.

    1. 5. 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.

Feedback Loops

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 may be also weekly and monthly meetings. The frequency depends on many factors, but the idea is that the meetings 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.

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 on a 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 (e.g. Kanbanize has a powerful analytics module) 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 on the whole process, save time and increase efficiency. One of the most effective ways to achieve all this is the use of automation. In Kanbanize they are called business rules and allow you to configure runtime policies based on the if-this-then-that dependency. There are infinite combinations, which can set reminders when a deadline for a card is approaching; make a card move to ‘Follow up’ column when an e-mail is received in it; automatically assign cards created in a certain cell to a specific person and many-many more.

Kanban in a Nutshell

Kanban 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 power 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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