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Kanban vs Scrum: Detailed Comparison

What is the difference between Kanban and Scrum? Why is there no Burndown chart in Kanban software? How do Kanban and Scrum software tools compare? Who wins the battle Kanban vs Scrum board? Get to know more here.

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Brief Introduction to Kanban and Scrum

Kanban is a method for optimizing and managing workflows, which lets you visualize processes on a Kanban board and continuously process work items. The work in progress limits at each stage of the workflow allows your team to use its capacity in an optimal way. In other words, Kanban helps you optimize your existing process with a set of principles. 

Kanban has 4 principles and 6 core practices: 

Principles: 

  1. Start With What You Do Now
  2. Agree to Pursue Incremental, Evolutionary Change
  3. Respect the Current Process, Roles & Responsibilities
  4. Encourage Acts of Leadership at All Levels

Practices:

  1. Visualize the workflow
  2. Limit work in progress
  3. Manage flow
  4. Make process policies explicit
  5. Establish feedback loops
  6. Improve collaboratively

Scrum is a framework that is highly prescriptive, compared to Kanban. Scrum requires detailed and restrictive planning, has predefined processes and roles.

The Scrum framework is based on 3 pillars:

  1. Transparency
  2. Inspection
  3. Adaptation

In Scrum, the work is divided into a set of smaller tasks that have to be completed in a predefined period of time (sprint). Also, adding new work items during a sprint is highly discouraged, making new work waiting for a new sprint and thus reducing the ability of a team to react to change.

Now that we know the fundamental differences between the two concepts, let’s dig in a little bit deeper and see what are the similarities and the differences between Kanban and Scrum software solutions. Or can we say Kanban vs Sprint?

Kanban vs Scrum – Roles

scrum kanban roles

Scrum has a set of mandatory roles that you must implement:

  • Product Owner
  • Scrum Master
  • Development Team


The Product Owner is in charge of the backlog and gives direction to the team. The Scrum Master dictates the timelines, and the team processes the work that is agreed on during the Sprint planning.

Kanban allows you to keep your current structure without making drastic changes. Still, there are two Kanban roles that you can implement, but are in no way mandatory:

  • Service Delivery Manager
  • Service Request Manager

The Service Delivery Manager is responsible for making sure that work items pass efficiently through the process by keeping an eye on the board and assisting team members when there’s a problem. In addition, the person in this role has to facilitate continuous improvement within the team and suggest improvement activities.

The Service Request Manager is usually a secondary role of the team manager. This stakeholder is responsible for managing the process policies and consistency, improving corporate governance, and reducing the risk associated with a single individual.

Scrum vs Kanban Planning

scrum vs kanban planning

Planning in Scrum happens iteratively at the beginning of each Sprint. It is facilitated by a dedicated meeting for the purpose. There, the Dev team, Product Owner, and Scrum Master gather to break down user stories into tasks.

Then, they estimate how much time would be required to finish everything on the list. When there’s an agreement, the team commits to finishing all items in the upcoming Sprint and starts working. If there’s a change of priorities mid-sprint, the current Sprint must be aborted and the planning process is restarted.

The Kanban method relies on a probabilistic approach to planning, which is basically a prognosis based on past workflow data. It must be based on work types, size, classes of service, and various other factors related to the work itself and not so much on the team that processes it.

In Kanban, your workflow is continuous. Therefore, it is a common practice to extend the Requested section of a Kanban board by adding roadmap columns like “This month”, “Next Month”, etc. to visualize planned work.

As a result, when there’s available capacity, your team just pulls a new work item towards “In Progress” according to its priority. Finally, when you know what’s the average time required to finish a task of a given type and size, and how many work items your team finishes per week, for example, you can plan the start and end dates of each task.

Commitment in Kanban and Scrum

scrum vs kanban commitment

Kanban preaches deferring commitment as long as possible, to ensure agility and delivering value frequently, and at the right time. As WIP limits prevent team members to work on multiple tasks at once, everybody commits to finishing what they have started before engaging in new work.

In Scrum, the commitment for a Sprint is in the form of forecasting. When the team doesn’t anticipate their capacity accurately or unexpected problems arise, either the sprint fails or personal heroics are required to finish everything on time.

Core Key Performance Indicators

scrum vs kanban kpis

When looking at the argument Kanban vs Scrum, you can’t ignore the key performance indicators (KPI) that are going to become part of your work life when you make a choice.

Scrum KPI
Scrum has two specific KPIs that you should focus on:

  • Velocity
  • Planned capacity

Velocity is based on actual story points completed, which is typically an average of all previous sprints. It is used to plan how many product backlog items the team should bring into the next sprint.

Capacity is how much availability the team has for the sprint. This may vary based on team members being on vacation, ill, etc. The team should consider the capacity in determining how many product backlog items to plan for a sprint. If capacity is expected to be less for the sprint, the team has to consider taking on fewer items from the product backlog. Likewise, if more team members are recently added, the team may want to take on more product backlog items.

To keep a check on them, usually, Scrum teams implement a couple of charts:

  • Burndown chart
  • Velocity chart

The Burndown chart is a visual representation of how much work remains to be completed versus the remaining amount of time in the Sprint. On the other hand, Velocity charts are usually in the form of histograms showing the past performance of the Scrum team.

Kanban KPI
In Kanban, the most important metrics are:

  • Lead time
  • Cycle time

Shortly explained, Lead time is the period between a new task’s appearance in your workflow and its final departure from the system. Think of it this way, Lead time starts ticking as soon as you commit to working on a task or customer order.

On the other hand, Cycle time begins at the moment when the new arrival enters the “in progress” stage and somebody is actually working on it.

Your goal is to reduce the values of each metric (which are usually measured in days) over time and keep your process efficient all the time. To keep a close eye on them there are two primary charts that you can implement:

  • Cumulative flow diagram (CFD)
  • Cycle time histogram

The CFD will show you how stable your flow is and help you understand where you need to focus in order to make your process more predictable. On the other hand, the cycle time histogram is a simple way to monitor your process performance over time.

Meetings

scrum vs kanban meetings

As we already stated, in Kanban meetings are optional. Still, if you decide to implement them, you can choose between 7 different types that will keep your team aligned:

  • Daily Meeting
  • Replenishment & Commitment Meeting
  • Delivery Planning Meeting
  • Service Delivery Review
  • Operations Review
  • Risk Review
  • Strategy Review

You can learn more about each of them from our dedicated article on the topic, but what’s important to understand is that you can combine them or skip those that you don’t find necessary. For example, we are doing the Service Delivery Review and the Replenishment & Commitment meeting together on a weekly basis. So as long as it works for your team, you’ve got the liberty to improvise.

Each Sprint cycle consists of 4 mandatory types of meetings:

  • Sprint planning
  • Daily Scrum
  • Sprint review
  • Sprint retrospective

Sprint planning is held at the beginning of each Sprint. If the Sprint cycle is 1 month, it is not unusual for these meetings to last up to 8 hours. After everything is delegated and committed, the team meets every day to discuss progress and shares any problems that occurred. At the end of each Sprint, the team and any relevant stakeholder meet to review what was achieved.  At last, the Retrospective is dedicated to analyzing what worked and what could be improved during the next iteration.

Kanban Board vs Scrum Board

scrum vs kanban boards

Visual management boards are applied in both Kanban and Scrum. However, there are some fundamental differences between them.

The Scrum board is an extension of the product backlog. When the team commits to a given amount of work, it is added to the Scrum backlog on the board, then the team starts putting work in progress at their will. The goal is to get everything in Done by the end of the Sprint. Logically, the board is reset after each iteration.

On the other hand, the Kanban board is a continuous map of the team’s process. When building it, your goal is to create a sustainable Kanban system that could stand the test of time. A proper Kanban board has WIP limits visualized on it. The goal is to control the amount of work that enters and leaves the process so that you can improve delivery speed.

Kanban vs Scrum Software solutions

Just like the Kanban method itself, Kanban software relies heavily on Kanban boards where your team would map all its processes and all of the work items. This allows for unprecedented work visibility and full transparency into its progress.

Each work unit becomes a card on a board that has columns that help visually communicate work stages and swimlanes that could visualize the priority or type of work inside of each lane.

Scrum Board

Scrum software used to focus more on largely text-centered interfaces, turning work epics function into something more like folders with items inside. Recently, popular Scrum tools started integrating boards similar to such in Kanban software to visually display work stages and work items themselves.

However, on a Scrum board, your team would have to add all stories (units of work) at the beginning of each sprint and keep the list intact until the end of a sprint.

scrum board exampleBasic Scrum Board Example

Only when all of them are completed, the sprint is considered as a successful one and any new work can be reviewed and started. After each sprint, there is a retrospective meeting and the board should be reset and prepared for a new sprint. Additionally, the Scrum board is usually owned by a cross-functional team that has all the skills required for the completion of the sprint.

Last but not least, in Scrum, the work in progress limits are predefined for each sprint. This is because the team commits to accomplish an exact number of tasks during the sprint. Respectively, the total predefined number of tasks is their WIP limit.

Kanban Board

On the other hand, a Kanban board doesn’t have to be owned by a specific cross-functional team. Kanban is more about the efficiency of a workflow. Moreover, in Kanban, WIP limits are set per workflow stage. This ensures that bottlenecks won’t appear in the work process or if they do you can easily identify them and take actions.

In a good Kanban software tool, the columns on the board are not only labeled to show workflow states but also allow you set a WIP limit for each column that restricts the maximum amount of work that can enter each work stage.

Kanban board exampleBasic Kanban Board Example

Additionally, on a Kanban board, there are no time restrictions (such as sprint length in Scrum tools) and new cards (work items) can be added at any time if WIP limits (which represent the team’s optimal capacity) allow it. Therefore, a Kanban board doesn’t need to be reset periodically.

In other words, Kanban software tools are based on and actively support the continuous flow of work. Advanced Kanban boards also let you collect data for each piece of work that appears on your Kanban board and use it for locating bottlenecks, improving cycle times, and else.

Planning and Remaining Work

Scrum burndown chart example

In a Scrum software tool, there is a backlog where all future activities for the sprint are placed. In order to keep the pace of work on the right track, Scrum software tools are equipped with a Burndown Chart.

It is a fundamental performance indicator of a Scrum system that illustrates how much work remains to be completed in the project.

Generally, Burndown Charts might be good for a short overview of current progress relative to the plan, but if there is a gap in the process, it is hard to be identified through the chart. After all, it simply displays a summary of work for all team members. In other words, when something goes wrong, you’ll see it as a drop in total work finished.

However, deducting the reason of that drop is up to you alone – most Scrum tools won’t help discover the true roadblock of your project.

On the other hand, Kanban software doesn’t have a Burndown chart at all, because there is no predefined length of time in which a backlog should be finished.

Instead, digital Kanban boards usually have a Cumulative Flow Diagram, which automatically collects data for every task that enters the workflow.

Kanban Cumulatife Flow Diagram example

This data is then used to analyze the cycle time of all assignments.

As a result, CFD can visualize both work items along with the time they’ve spent in specific work stages. This lets the team immediately see when a specific work stage starts blocking cards – the longer each card’s stay at a specific stage is, the wider the section of this stage on the diagram will get.

This means you can directly locate problematic parts of your workflow and take action, instead of simply being notified that things are not going according to the plan.

Work Estimation

In Scrum software solutions, estimation is an essential part of the process and it is done by the entire team during the sprint planning meeting.

Scrum planning and estimation meeting

During the planning stage, your team agrees on the levels of difficulty for each user story. Afterward, the user stories have to be prioritized.

The main purpose of estimation process is to determine, how many work items can be executed by your team within the predefined period of the sprint. The Scrum-based software lets you assign story points to each story and keep track of them.

The estimation process is a time-consuming activity and it is often of questionable value. This is due to the fact that teams can rarely forecast the exact amount of work that can be finished for a sprint and the initial estimation often turns to be wrong.

In a typical Kanban software solution, there isn’t a predetermined estimation of work tasks, but only a task size field. The value that you enter there corresponds to the relative amount of effort needed to complete a given task. However, it is up to your team to decide whether to estimate the sizes of their work tasks or not.

In Kanban, it is recommended to break down large assignments into smaller tasks. The idea is to keep tasks as small as they can be without decreasing the value of the final deliverable. This helps during the execution of the tasks and supports a steadier flow that is much more reliable than bursts of work.

Instead of estimation, good Kanban software solutions offer workflow forecasts. Because it uses historical data of actual work items, and advanced Kanban board analytics can forecast what amount of work can be completed within a predefined period of time in the future.

For example, the analytics module in Kanbanize features Monte Carlo simulation. This tool can provide you with a statistically correct approximate number of tasks that your team is likely to complete within a specified time frame. All of this is mathematically calculated based on the previous history of the work of a specific team.

Unlike Scrum tools, Kanban software gives you predictions based on historical data and not based on the team’s unreliable assumptions.

differences between kanban and scrum

So, Kanban or Scrum. Who Wins?

Both, Kanban and Scrum were created in order to help teams to increase their efficiency and productivity.

Picking the winner, however, is individually up to each team as both types of tools obviously come with a method or a framework attached to them.

Scrum software is helpful for the teams that decided to undergo a full Scrum transformation, with the adoption of roles, practices, and frameworks that it implies. The problem is that Scrum software won’t help you become better at work estimation and will only make it easier to document your estimations.

Kanban software, just like the Kanban method itself, is significantly easier to adopt and get started with. With no process requirements or team structure changes needed, Kanban software lets you start with what you have right now and build on top.

Kanban software is in a way much more flexible, adaptable to different environments, and helpful while visualizing and optimizing any workflow despite the context.

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In Summary

Both Kanban and Scrum have their fans and success stories. When translated into software, the main differences that Kanban vs Scrum comparisons make are still there:

  • Kanban software flexibly adapts to any team, while Scrum tools rely on a framework
  • Kanban relies on continuous improvement and Kanban software helps to continuously analyze the workflow. In its turn, Scrum relies on the story points planning and the Scrum tools only help you measure how successful you are at meeting the estimation
  • Kanban software lets you limit WIP to keep team’s productivity by balancing work with real capacity. Scrum software prevents the team from starting or changing the work queue once the sprint has begun, helping to concentrate on current items but making it impossible to adapt to any change outside of sprints

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