What is Kanban?

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

Kanban—which is the Japanese word for “billboard”—was developed by Toyota in the 1940s. It was originally a scheduling system to execute just-in-time manufacturing. It was designed to improve efficiency by limiting supplies and resources to what was needed for the immediate task. Today, kanban has expanded to all industries, most notably software development.

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 boards and cards for workflow improvement

The benefits of kanban are myriad. As mentioned, it 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 is working on what and where that falls in the project cycle. Team effort can be focused solely on the task that is needed now, so that work is done faster.

This keeps work moving without interruption. Project managers can assign work when a team member is idle, and team members always have a task to work on. This process facilitates the smooth movement of work, avoiding bottlenecks and overloaded teams with too many assignments at once.

The History of Kanban

Kanban was developed in Japan in the late 1940s by the Toyota car company. It was originally developed by the Japanese industrial engineer, Taiichi Ohno. They looked into other stocking systems, such as those used by supermarkets, and applied them to their factory floor. For example, in a supermarket, customers shop for what they need and not as often just to stock up on supplies. Therefore, the supermarket stocks what it expects to sell.

Picture of Taiichi Ohno, the creator of the kanban methodThis made Toyota develop a process in which the production cycle was thought of as a customer in need of immediate supplies. In other words, the factory stocks the inventory at levels that meet the actual consumption.

Toyota tracked consumption through a replenishment cycle, which made the chain from supplier to consumer visible. The rate of demand controls the rate of production. By 1953, Toyota was using kanban for workflow in its main plant machine shop.

Kanban eventually moved from the factory floor in Japan to being a global tool in lean manufacturing systems and agile approaches to project management. By the 2000, it was established as a tool to visualize work, limit work in progress, focus on flow and practice continuous improvements.

The Kanban Board

The kanban board is part of the larger kanban system. It helps to visualize workflow, keep only what needs to be done in progress, and by doing so, maximizes efficiency. The board represents the overall project and is usually broken up into three parts: to do, in progress and done.

Therefore, the board is but one view of the project, which can be seen in many different configurations depending on preference or the project. For example, ProjectManager.com has a kanban view, but also a task list, Gantt and calendar view, which all show the same data but in different ways.

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 managers an overview at a glance. Teams can see what they’re assigned to work on, and managers can track progress.

Kanban Cards

Kanban cards live on the kanban board, and each one represents an individual task. Each card is filled with information related to that task, such as its name and a short description. They will also be assigned to the team member or members, who will be responsible for executing the task by the deadline. With ProjectManager.com, any supporting files can be added and there is also a comment box for collaboration.

Kanban Columns

As noted above, columns reside on the board and are a way to break up the different stages in the project workflow. 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.

Example drawing of a software development kanban board

Work-in-Progress Limits

In order to optimize efficiencies and avoid overcapacity, there can be limits placed on the amount of tasks that are placed within the different stages of the workflow columns. By limiting the amount of tasks collected in the work-in-progress column, for instance, teams can concentrate on only those crucial tasks and get their work done faster.

Kanban Swimlanes

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

What is a Kanban System?

The kanban system manages the whole value chain of any production. That is, from the supplier to the end customer and all points in between.

In order to do this, kanban cannot be an isolated tool but must continuously monitor its process throughout the entire value chain. It is always looking for improvements to add efficiencies and keep resources balanced with the needs of production.

For example, bottlenecks slow down production because there is too little supply or too much supply for the resources allocated to the process. Therefore, the system is looking for ways to get more throughput with less delivery lead times. Given time, kanban achieves its goal of increasing production efficiencies.

4 Foundational Principles of Kanban

  1. Start with what you’re doing now. Don’t make changes to your process immediately, but use kanban for your current workflow. Changes occur organically over time and shouldn’t be rushed.
  2. Evolutionary change is incremental, not radical, so as not to give teams cause for alarm or resistance.
  3. Respect current roles and responsibilities, and allow teams to collaboratively identify and implement any changes.
  4. Encourage leadership from everyone to help keep the mandate of continuous change for maximizing improvements.

6 Core Practices of Kanban

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

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 Post-Its in columns. However, the right kanban software can help project managers and their teams visualize their workflow and collaborate even better.

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

Kanban software facilitates the continuous improvement of the production process. That’s because it has added features, such as tracking, limiting work-in-progress, reporting functionality, forecasting and more.

Web-based kanban software further adds efficiencies by being accessible from everywhere and at anytime. This is a boon for remote or distributed teams, keeping them in communication and fostering collaboration. Also, with an online 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.

How to Use Kanban for Project Management

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

To use the kanban view with ProjectManager.com, 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 kanban on ProjectManager.com.

1. Add Columns

The traditional kanban process is three columns: To Do, Doing and Done. But you can title the columns whatever suits with your workflow. There can be as many columns as you need to visualize the various stages of your production. But, basically, this is a flow from assigned to executing to complete.

Standard kanban board setup in projectmanager.com's software

A kanban board in ProjectManager.com

2. Add Cards

Now, beneath the To Do column, add the individual tasks. These should have a descriptive title so they can be easily understood.

Example kanban cards in projectmanager.com's software

3. Add Description and Assign Task

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

Assigning a task in projectmanager.com

4. Collaborate on Tasks

You can open up your task right from the board 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 collaboration.

How to collaborate on tasks in projectmanager.com

5. Expand Task to Add More Details

You can also expand the card to get even more control over your task. Here you can update hours worked, create a to-do list within the task, add tags and so on. You can also create a dialogue with other team members, documenting all the communication right there on the task card.

Expanded task in projectmanager.com including comments and attachments

Take a 30-day free trial of ProjectManager.com, and start using kanban boards today!

How do Agile and Kanban Work Together?

Kanban is a tool when taking an agile approach to project management. Agile is seeking continuous iteration, and kanban seeks continuous improvement. While agile works best when the final goal is not set and adapts as the project progresses, kanban works to reduce waste and eliminate those activities that are not adding value.

Agile works in short sprints, of usually no more than two weeks, and kanban strives for short cycle times as well, so it can deliver its features faster. Both are tethered to constant communications to enhance collaboration.

However, in terms of quality assurance (QA), agile isn’t interested until the end of its sprint, while with kanban QA is tested throughout every phase of the project. Also, agile embraces iterative development, but kanban doesn’t allow it.

Therefore, there are points in common between these two approaches, but they’re not fully aligned.

How about Kanban vs Scrum?

Agile is an iterative and incremental approach, and scrum is one of the implementations of agile. 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 kanban are not pre-defined like they are in scrum. Kanban is not 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.

Who Uses Kanban?

Kanban can be used by anyone who prefers a visual workflow tool. There are various types of intelligence: some respond better by doing things with their hands, others learn best from text and then there are visual learners. Those who lean on a visual understanding are going to find kanban a clear and concise way to manage their workflow.

In terms of business, while the tool have been embraced by tech companies who love to work agile, almost any that are working some kind of project can benefit from kanban. This includes healthcare providers, especially hospitals, which are a constant flow of medical devices and materials; manufacturers of every kind, from the Toyotas of the world to smaller factories creating whatever widget; even publishers, whether digital or physical, are on a production schedule that can be streamlined through the use of kanban.

Can Kanban Boards Be Used for Personal Task Management?

Kanban is such a versatile tool that it can be applied to one’s own personal tasks. Look outside of business and few might be using kanban as a means to organize their household. However, it could be used as a dynamic tool for getting the groceries, doing housework and making sure the kids are on schedule for school and whatever extra-curricular engagements.

But back to industry, which is built on individual workers, they too can benefit from kanban whether it’s employed in their organization or not. Everyone who works is responsible for getting something done. That’s just another way of saying that they have tasks. Tasks can be placed on a kanban board and moved through the process of identifying, executing and completing.

Think of kanban as a super-task list, one that can keep you focused on the work at hand without losing track of the larger picture. If your company isn’t using kanban, you can. And when they see how you’ve excelled and made your job more efficient, chances are they’ll be getting on the kanban wagon too.

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