What Does Kanban Mean?

The Japanese word kanban means “billboard” or “visual card,” which is a simple yet accurate way to describe the visual approach to the kanban methodology for managing work in manufacturing, project management and software development.

What Is Kanban?

Kanban is a workflow management method that allows project managers to visualize their team’s work on easy-to-use boards that facilitate the process of planning, scheduling and tracking work. By using kanban boards, project managers have full transparency in the task management process. The kanban methodology consists of kanban boards, kanban cards, principles and practices and is typically used to manage manufacturing and software development projects. However, it’s a versatile methodology that can be used to manage any type of work.

Get your free

Kanban Board Template

Use this free Kanban Board Template for Excel to manage your projects better.

What Is a Kanban System?

A kanban system is defined as the framework that organizations use for the practical application of the kanban methodology. A kanban system might use either analog or software tools to help project managers create kanban boards.

Kanban software takes the basic visual approach of a kanban board and cards and digitizes it so the workflow can be seen by the whole team. It makes organization easier and helps project managers and teams manage the workflow better. The software fulfills the lean project management core practice of continuous improvement. Cutting waste and automating some aspects of the process through kanban board software features allows agile teams to focus on their activities.

ProjectManager is a kanban tool that does all this and more. Build automated workflows for your kanban processes and even work in different views. Build plans with Gantt, then execute in kanban boards and track with dashboards. It’s all in one powerful project and work management software. Get started for free.

kanban software with kanban board

History of Kanban

Kanban was developed by Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota in the 1940s. It was originally a task management system to execute lean manufacturing. It was designed to improve the Toyota just-in-time (JIT) production system efficiency by limiting supplies and resources to what was needed for the immediate work items. Today, kanban boards are used in nearly every industry, most notably in agile software development.

The kanban method was originally created as a lean manufacturing tool to maximize production efficiency. Since then, it’s become a great task management tool for DevOps and agile teams and is used in different industries such as software development.

When Should You Use Kanban?

As we learned above, kanban is a methodology that was first invented to improve existing manufacturing processes. Kanban is commonly adopted by manufacturing organizations to improve their efficiency and profitability by improving their operations. However, kanban might also be used for managing software development and other types of projects from scratch.

How Does Kanban Work?

As stated, kanban is a set of principles, practices and tools that are used to manage projects and improve how teams work. Here’s an overview of each of the elements that make up the kanban methodology. By using these together, you can create a kanban system or framework for your organization.

Kanban Principles

Before we learn about kanban boards, kanban cards and WIP limits, let’s learn the principles of the kanban methodology.

  • Start with what you’re doing now: The first step when implementing kanban is to focus on what the organization is currently doing. Don’t make changes to your process immediately, but use kanban to visualize your current workflow and begin making improvements.
  • Changes occur organically over time and shouldn’t be rushed: One of the key aspects of kanban is the notion of continuous improvement, which consists of making small, incremental changes based on careful observation of workflows instead of making radical changes.
  • Respect current roles and responsibilities: Implementing the kanban methodology doesn’t require any change in the organizational structure of teams. Changes in roles and responsibilities might come as the continuous improvement process advances but aren’t part of the kanban methodology.
  • Encourage leadership from everyone: Kanban promotes a collaborative atmosphere where team members can suggest improvement opportunities to help keep the mandate of continuous improvement for maximizing efficiency.

Kanban Practices

The following kanban practices help teams ensure the principles explained above are followed when implementing the kanban methodology.

  • Visualize workflow, whether through a physical board or kanban software
  • Limit work-in-progress to keep teams executing tasks quickly
  • Manage and improve workflow by observing work and resolving bottlenecks.
  • Be explicit with process policies: define and share them
  • Have feedback loops, such as review stages, to deliver the end product to the customer as quickly as possible
  • Be collaborative and experimental to always push for improvement

Once you know what the practices are and how to use them, you’ll be able to use them in project management.

Kanban Boards

A kanban board is a visual way to manage tasks and workflows, which utilizes an analog or digital board with columns and cards. The kanban cards represent tasks, and the columns organize those tasks by their progress or current stage in development.

Related: Free Kanban Board Template for Excel

The kanban board is part of the larger kanban project management system. It helps to visualize workflow, keep only what needs to be done in progress, and by doing so, maximizes task management efficiency. The kanban board represents the overall project plan and is usually broken up into three columns: to do, in progress and done. Kanban cards represent each task in your project, and they’re placed in one of those columns. You can set work-in-progress (WIP) limits to define how many work items can be executed at the same time.

The beauty of the kanban board is its simplicity and its ability to portray the project in a practical way. Each column is a stage in the project, so the board gives teams and project managers an overview at a glance. Teams can see what they’re assigned to work on, and managers can track progress. Here’s an example of a kanban board.

Kanban board made with ProjectManager, a kanban software

Kanban Cards

Kanban cards live on the kanban board. Each one represents an individual task, also referred to as work items. Each kanban card is filled with information related to that task, such as its name and a short description. They’ll also be assigned to the team member or members, who will be responsible for executing the task by the deadline.

With ProjectManager, any supporting files for your work items can be added and there’s a comment box for team collaboration. Here’s an example of a kanban card created with ProjectManager.

Kanban card created with ProjectManager

Kanban Columns

As noted above, columns reside on the board and are a way to break up the different stages in the project workflow. Kanban cards are organized under the column headings and are dragged to the next column to the right to indicate where in the production cycle or workflow they are.

Work-in-Progress (WIP) Limits

To optimize efficiencies and avoid overcapacity, project managers need to set WIP limits to control the number of work items that are placed within the different stages of the kanban board at a time. By limiting the number of tasks collected in the work-in-progress column, for instance, agile software development teams can concentrate on only those crucial tasks and get their work done faster. WIP limits also help optimize lean manufacturing processes.

Kanban Swimlanes

Horizontal lanes on kanban boards can also be helpful. They’re called swimlanes and help to separate different work items, activities, teams, services, etc.

What Is Kanban Used For?

Now that we’ve learned how kanban works, let’s go through its most common applications: project management, software development and manufacturing.

Kanban In Project Management

Kanban is a great project management methodology mainly because it allows project managers to break down the scope of a project and helps teams easily understand what they’re working on by simply observing what’s in the kanban boards. In addition, kanban principles and practices ensure the team constantly improves their processes so that they can work collaboratively and efficiently for successful project delivery.

Most project management teams use kanban software which is equipped with tools such as workflow automation, collaboration features and other project management tools to help teams better implement the kanban methodology.

Kanban In Software Development

Kanban is a very popular project management approach for agile software development because kanban and agile have principles and practices that are compatible. While agile works best when the final goal isn’t set and adapts as the project progresses, kanban works to reduce waste and eliminate those activities that aren’t adding value.

Agile software development teams work in short sprints, usually no more than two weeks. Kanban strives for short cycle times as well so it can deliver its features faster. Both are tethered to constant communication to enhance collaboration. One of the main reasons why agile teams love kanban is that kanban boards are a great visual tool to manage the user stories of software development projects while providing an overview of the project.

Kanban In Manufacturing

A kanban system can manage the whole value chain of any lean manufacturing production process. That is, from the supplier to the end customer and all points in between. It does so by helping manufacturers with production planning, inventory control and task management throughout the production cycle from ordering parts and components to creating the production schedule.

To use kanban for lean manufacturing, kanban cannot be an isolated tool but must be used throughout the entire value chain. That’s necessary as lean project management’s continuous improvement principle requires constantly removing waste from processes while keeping resources balanced with the needs of production planning.

For example, bottlenecks slow down production because there’s too little supply or too much supply for the resources allocated to the process. Kanban helps manage production inventory by using a pull system to control workflow. That pull system consists in adding more work items to the kanban board, only when other tasks have been completed.

How Does Kanban Differ from Agile, Scrum and Waterfall?

Kanban is one of many project management frameworks and can be easily mistaken for other similar methods. Here’s how kanban compares to agile, scrum and waterfall.

Kanban vs. Agile

Agile is a software development approach that can be implemented through a kanban system. Practically speaking, agile defines the guidelines that software engineering teams will follow as they use a kanban framework. For example, agile requires teams to plan their work through sprints, which are short iterations of work that must be completed until a software product is delivered. Software development teams will plan those sprints by using kanban boards. So, ultimately kanban is the means for applying the agile methodology.

Agile project management teams enjoy using this system due to its ease of use, visual interface and ability to instantly see what everyone is working on. It also provides visibility into task progress and whether a specific task is holding up the project.

Kanban vs. Scrum

Just like kanban, scrum is a framework that’s used to implement agile project management in an organization. So, how do kanban and scrum get along?

Many teams that are using scrum in projects find kanban a powerful tool. Scrum and kanban can work together, especially as a way to visualize workflow. But they also complement each other, as both focus on process and the elimination of waste.

There are differences, however: roles and responsibilities in a kanban system are not pre-defined like they are in scrum teams. Kanban isn’t scrum. It’s visual and scrum is iterative.

However, kanban can be customized to fit in a scrum framework to manage projects, workflow and processes. There’s even a project management methodology called scrumban that mixes elements of both scrum and kanban.

Kanban vs. Waterfall

Like agile, waterfall is a larger project management methodology that can use kanban as a work management framework. However, unlike agile, waterfall is best suited for projects that are completed in a linear fashion, instead of using an iterative planning process. Waterfall teams will use kanban boards in a different fashion than agile teams.

While kanban helps agile teams plan and manage sprints, waterfall teams use kanban boards to manage their daily work instead of being used as a planning tool.

Benefits of Kanban

The benefits of the kanban methodology are myriad. Here are some of the main advantages of using kanban for manufacturing, software development and project management.

Kanban Helps Teams Control Their Workflow and Prioritize Work

The kanban method helps teams control the amount of work that’s being executed by setting work-in-progress limits. This is one of the main advantages of the kanban method. By focusing on the most important tasks, teams can complete projects faster.

Kanban Promotes Team Collaboration

As mentioned, the kanban methodology offers a visual means to manage workflow. The kanban board puts the whole process on one page or screen so it’s easy to see who’s working on what and where that falls in the project cycle. This helps team members better collaborate with each other.

Kanban Is Compatible With Agile, Scrum and Waterfall Projects

As stated, kanban is a versatile method that can be used in conjunction with project management methodologies such as agile, scrum and waterfall. This makes it valuable for software development, manufacturing and project teams.

Kanban Facilitates the Continuous Delivery of Products

A kanban system keeps work moving without interruption which helps teams achieve a continuous delivery of products. Kanban facilitates the smooth movement of workflow, avoiding bottlenecks and overloaded teams with too many assignments at once.

What Is Kanban Software?

Naturally, to execute a kanban system you need some sort of a kanban board, but it doesn’t necessarily need a digital platform. The structure is simple and could be applied with a wall and a bunch of sticky notes in columns. However, the right kanban software can help project managers and their teams visualize their workflow and collaborate even better.

Kanban software facilitates the continuous improvement of the production process. That’s because it has added task management features, such as tracking, WIP limits, reporting functionality, forecasting and more.

Web-based kanban software further adds efficiencies for kanban teams by being accessible from everywhere and at any time. This is ideal for remote or distributed teams, keeping them in communication and fostering collaboration. Also, with online project management software, updates are instant and changes go live immediately. This adds to efficiencies as the project manager and teams are able to see the actual progress of the workflow.

To learn more about kanban software, watch the short video below.

Project management training video (8cbjgsisvj)

Must-Have Kanban Software Features

Kanban software varies in terms of what tools it offers, so when you’re looking to use one be sure it has these features.

Work How You Want

No two projects are exactly the same, nor are the teams that execute them. Kanban boards need to reflect this flexibility with customizable columns. Add as many as you need and name them whatever you want.

Kanban board showing project tasks

Get Teams Working Together

Connecting your team, wherever they might be, boosts productivity. Sharing kanban boards and being able to add comments to cards gives your team a platform to collaborate. Get a real-time tool that’ll notify you whenever there’s an update to the task, too.

Kanban card showing card details

Hold All Important Documents in One Place

Giving direction helps teams execute their tasks better. Being able to add files and images directly to a kanban card makes those directions more clear. In fact, having unlimited file storage to keep all your project documents in one place is ideal.

File sharing in ProjectManager's kanban view

Sort Through Your Task With Ease

Projects have many tasks and finding the one you want can be an ordeal. If you tag your kanban cards for priority, type of work, team, etc., filtering the tasks will bring up what you want to see without having to dig through every file on the tool.

Kanban card showing task details

View Project Status Anytime

Managers need to monitor their project to keep them on track. Kanban boards offer transparency into production, but a dashboard calculates other project metrics. It shows what you’re spending, the overall health of the project, variance, time and much more.

ProjectManager's dashboard showing details of a kanban project

Make as Many Projects as You Like

Some kanban software can only manage one project at a time—more will cost you. But you want to have a tool that can handle as many projects as you need. Even one project is really more like a bunch of sub-projects and you need a kanban tool that can accommodate them all.

ProjectManager's collaboration tools showing members of a kanban project management team

How to Use ProjectManager to Implement Kanban In Your Organization

ProjectManager, online project management software, is an ideal kanban software for project managers and teams. It visualizes workflow and has task management features that make assigning and executing tasks as simple as a keystroke.

To use the kanban view with ProjectManager, start a free 30-day trial. Then, upload your task list, or create a new project. Follow this step-by-step guide below to get started with ProjectManager’s free kanban board.

1. Add Columns to Your Kanban Board

The traditional kanban process has three columns: to do, doing and done. But you can title the columns whatever suits your workflow. There can be as many columns as you need to visualize the various task management stages. Essentially, this is a flow from assigned to executing to complete.

Standard kanban board setup in projectmanager's software

2. Add Kanban Cards

Now, beneath the to-do column, add the individual tasks or work items to the kanban board. Your kanban cards should have a descriptive title so they can be easily understood. Remember to define WIP limits to control how many kanban cards are being executed at the same time.

ProjectManager's Kanban boards, ideal for manufacturing and software development projects

3. Add Description and Assign Task

Write a description on your kanban cards to provide instructions for the task. The kanban card can then be assigned to one or more team members, and supporting documents or images can be attached to it. These kanban cards will move to the work-in-progress column as they’re being executed and to the done column when complete.

ProjectManager's kanban board

4. Collaborate on Tasks

You can open up your task right from the kanban view. Throughout the process, comments can be added at the task level, and team members will get email notifications when an @ is added before their name. This keeps everyone on the same page and enables real-time team collaboration.

Tasks in the ProjectManager kanban board view

Start your free 30-day trial

Deliver faster, collaborate better, innovate more effectively — without the high prices and months-long implementation and extensive training required by other products.

Start free trial