Kanban is Japanese word and, although is literally translated as billboard or signboard, it means “visual sign” or “card”. Kanban is a workflow management method designed in order to easily visualize your work, maximize efficiency and be agile.
Kanban was firstly used by the Toyota Production System and Lean Manufacturing in the 1940s. Engineer Taiichi Ohno noticed few things in a work of a supermarkets and realized how to use them in order to improve Toyota’s engineering process. He saw that, when supermarkets stock shelves, they stock just enough product to meet demand. This way they were optimizing the flow between the supermarket and customer. When there was empty space on the shelf (a visual cue) the product would be restocked. This way inventory matched consumption and the supermarket improved efficiency in inventory management.
Toyota used same methods in factory. When some of the teams gain extra capacity and is ready to pull more materials they would create a card (Kanban) to let know others about it. That’s why, because all requests for parts were pulled from the order, Kanban is sometimes called the “pull system.”
Same methods are used by project managers in almost all areas as well as by software teams and in IT projects today.
How Kanban Works
In past, this tool has been a physical board, with cards, magnets, or sticky notes on a whiteboard to represent work items. Today, more and more project management software have Kanban boards as part of their product.
Whether it is physical or digital, Kanban board is made up of different columns. These means that boards have three columns: to do, in progress, and done.
Kanban cards represent the work and each card is placed on the board in the lane that gives the current status of how much is done regarding that work. These way, with cards you have status at a glance. Also, with use of different color cards it’s possible to include different details. For example, red cards could represent a feature and yellow cards could represent a task.
When constructed and managed properly, it serves as a real-time information repository. Also, it highlights bottlenecks within the system and everything else which might get in the way and harm work on project.
Advantages of Kanban
If you implementing Agile and you want to bring order to chaotic work processes, Kanban’s visual nature gives you an unique advantage. That’s because Kanban board is easy to learn and understand and it improves flow of work as well as minimizes cycle time.
Main advantages of Kanban are:
- High flexibility: Kanban is flexible and fluid model that respects the current state of your organization and it doesn’t require revolutionary changes. Priorities are reevaluated as new information comes in and if you take a look at the basic Kanban principles you will easily understand that it can be used by any team in your organization.
- Reveal bottlenecks: Revealing the bottlenecks in your workflow, Kanban is reducing waste and ensure that teams don’t spend time doing work that isn’t needed or doing the wrong kind of work. With Kanban board filled with cards, you can see that some columns will get overcrowded with tasks. This way you can spotlight bottlenecks in your workflow and act properly.
- Easy to understand: The team doesn’t need to learn a completely new methodology, because Kanban is really easy to learn and can be easily implemented on top of other systems in place.
- Gives focus: One of the main advantages of Kanban is that it requires teams to focus on their current tasks until they are done. Also, with Kanban it’s easy to respond to the ever-changing customer’s requirements. It gives teams possibility to change priorities, re-organize or switch focus really fast.
- Minimizes cycle time: Cycle time is the amount of time it takes for work to move through the team’s workflow. In Kanban projects, where the Kanban boards represent central information hub, all tasks are clearly visible and can’t get lost which improves transparency. Every team member can have a quick update on the status of every project or task and the entire team helps to ensure the work is moving quickly and successfully through the process which brings collaboration to maximum.
Disadvantages of Kanban
Most disadvantages associated with Kanban are the result of the misuse or mishandling of the Kanban board. Outdated or to complicated board can produce lot of mistakes and confusion.
These are mistakes in work with Kanban:
- Outdated board: Kanban board must be up to date, otherwise team will work with inaccurate information. If work is completed based on off an out-of-date board, it’s really hard to get things back on track.
- Over complicated board: It is very important that the Kanban board remain clear and easy to read. Some team members may learn “new tricks” they can apply to their board but adding these kinds of things to the Kanban board just makes the important information less visible.
- Lack of time frame: The columns on the Kanban board are only marked by phase (to do, in progress, complete). Because there are no time frames associated with each phase and you really don’t know how long the phase could last, frequent complaint about Kanban is that you don’t know when things will be done.
Core Principles of Kanban
According to David Anderson, author of several books about Kanban, every Kanban project, in order to be successful, should follow these core principles:
- Visualize the workflow
In order to see big picture and see how the flow of work progresses it’s important to make all the work visible, including blockers and queues. Only after understanding how the flow of work currently functions, you can identify issues early, make the necessary adjustments and improve collaboration.
To do this you will need a board with cards and columns. Every column on the board represents a different step in your workflow and every Kanban card represents a work item.
When you start working on one of the items, you pull it from “To Do” column and when it is finished, you move it to “Done”. This way you can visualize your process as well as easily track progress and spot bottlenecks.
- Limit Work in Progress
Switching a team’s focus halfway through will generally harm the process, and multi-tasking is a sure route for generating waste and creating inefficiency. Primary function of Kanban is to ensure a manageable number of active items in progress at any time. If there are no work-in-progress limits, your Kanban is wrong.
Limiting WIP means that a pull system is implemented on some 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 show problem areas in your workflow making it possible for you so to identify them and resolve them as well.
- Manage Flow
The purpose of Kanban system is to create a smooth healthy flow. By flow, we mean the faster and smoother movement of work items through the production process.
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 concentrate on managing the work processes and understanding how to get that work through the system faster.
This way we can minimize the average cycle time for production and avoid costs that are result of delay.
- Make Process Policies Explicit
If you don’t understand something you can’t improve it. That’s why the process should be clearly defined, published and socialized so people can associate and participate.
When everyone is familiar with the common goal, they are able to work and make decisions regarding a change and that will move you in a positive direction.
- Feedback Loops
According the Lean philosophy, regular meetings are necessary for knowledge transfer (feedback loops).
There are different types of meetings. Purpose of daily stand up meetings is 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.
Frequency of this meetings 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, while others may reach up to an hour which depends on the team size and topics.
- Improve Collaboratively
Through shared vision of a better future and collective understanding of the issues that need to be overcome you can achieve continuous improvement and sustainable change within an organization.
Team that understands theories about work, workflow, process, and risk is more likely to build a shared comprehension of a problem and suggest steps towards improvement, which can be agreed by consensus.
Visualizing workflow, setting WIP limits, managing flow, ensuring explicit policies and collaborative improvement is really easy once you learn and completely understand Kanban.
Also, with the development of technology, Kanban has been also continuously improving and digital Kanban boards are today part of many project management software . Because of this, the problems arising in remote teams are overcome. Today, through good project management software, teams that are often distributed all over the world can easily access from anywhere to all of the information from any device at any time.