Kanban system implementation may seem easy. Some think that having a board with a bunch of cards is what all Kanban is about. But it’s much more than the columns, swimlanes, and cards that flow through a board. Making a successful kanban system implementation is another story.

Kanban is a system with principles and properties that must be adhered to. Otherwise, your Kanban system implementation will end up wishy-washy and your team won’t benefit from the effort they’ve put into trying to make it work. So what does it take for a Kanban system implementation to be successful?

First, let’s bust a myth.

The Kanban System is Not Only About the Kanban Board

If you think a Kanban board and sticky notes are all you need to do Kanban, you’re wrong. While a Kanban board helps you visualize work, which is the first property of Kanban, having it alone doesn’t equate to doing Kanban.

Kanban has 5 properties and 4 principles. Let’s get to them one by one.

Five Kanban Properties

  • Visualize the Workflow – Having a visual representation of the process allows teams to examine the flow of work through their Kanban system. This is where the Kanban board comes in.
  • Limit Work-in-Progress – Limiting WIP helps teams focus on the task at hand and get it completely done before moving on to the next task.
  • Measure and Manage Flow – Collect process metrics that will help the team analyze what needs to be improved in the process.
  • Make Process and Policies Explicit – Stating process policies explicitly establishes a common understanding within the team on how work should be performed.
  • Use Models to Recognize Improvement Opportunities – Use process modelling techniques to analyze and plan out improvement initiatives.

Four Kanban Principles

  • Start with what you do now
  • Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change
  • Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities, and titles
  • Encourage acts of leadership at all levels

These properties and principles guide teams on their Kanban system implementation. Kanban doesn’t stop with the Kanban board. Kanban is a change management approach and is built on top of an established process or project management method. This allows teams to use Kanban in surfacing inefficiencies, improving the process, and monitoring process performance.

Kanban aims for continuous improvement through evolutionary change. Adhering to these properties and applying the principles will help you get the most out of your Kanban system implementation.

Common Kanban Implementation Problems

Let’s look into the common reasons why Kanban system implementations fail.

Not Using or Respecting the WIP Limits

WIP limits are there for a reason. Aside from helping your team master focus, it also helps you know just how much work you can really do. If you don’t use or follow your WIP limits, you won’t know where things are getting stuck in your process. Hence, you’ll miss out on spotting opportunities to improve your process too.

Cards are Being Pushed Not Pulled

If you’re experiencing instances where cards are magically added to the Doing columns on your Kanban board without your team doing it, then you have a problem. Unlike traditional project management approaches where your managers assign the work, Kanban is a pull system. And it is the team who will pull the work. When work is pushed, there is a high tendency of multi-tasking. This increases cycle time and prevents you from delivering customer needs just when they need it.

Cards are Not Updated

If your team isn’t using the Kanban board to communicate and track their progress, then it’s useless. Cards must be regularly updated so that the team can know what’s happening any time. This enables your team to talk through impediments and swarm to it.

The Kanban Board Doesn’t Reflect the Real Process

If your Kanban board is based on some process you’ve imagined or a past process you’re no longer using, then it won’t help you manage your workflow. Your Kanban board should accurately show the process your team undergoes. Not doing so will end up in confusion and can make your team members feel that Kanban isn’t helping them at all.

Not Reviewing Progress and Team Performance

Kanban and continuous improvement work hand-in-hand. The only way you can get the most out of your Kanban system implementation is to use it to analyze your work and formulate improvements based on your assessment. If you’re not taking action towards improvement, you won’t fully realize the benefits of your Kanban system implementation.

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Tips for a Successful Kanban System Implementation

Thankfully, these problems are not without resolve. Here are our actionable tips to make the most out of your Kanban system implementation.

Pull the Work

Educate your project team, including your stakeholders, on how work should flow into your Kanban system. This sets up expectations and establishes a working agreement amongst team members and project stakeholders. Use pull signals on your Kanban board to indicate when an item is ready to be pulled through the next process step.

The Kanban Board Should Reflect Reality

Make sure your Kanban board is an accurate representation of your reality. The columns should represent the process you are doing. The cards should be regularly updated to reflect their most current status. This will help you quickly spot bottlenecks and modify your process to improve the flow of work.

Adhere to WIP Limits

Respect your WIP limits. There may be instances when you have to break them, but this shouldn’t be the default approach. If you do need to go beyond your WIP limits, take time to discuss as a team why it needed to happen through a process review session. Analyze if something in your process needs to be adjusted or if the WIP limit needs to change to accurately reflect the team’s capacity. Do note that your WIP limits may not be accurate during the initial stages of your Kanban system implementation and that’s fine. What you need to do is regularly monitor your workflow and adjust your WIP limit depending on what your team finds optimal.

Review Your Kanban System and Assess What Could be Improved

Take advantage of Kanban process metrics and tools to analyze your workflow and performance. Explore using process modelling techniques to diagnose gaps and plan improvement strategies. When you regularly improve your Kanban system implementation, you also improve your process performance. This results in better product quality and higher customer satisfaction.

Making Your Kanban System Implementation Work

Kanban isn’t rocket science but it takes discipline and commitment to be successful. Making sure your team is aligned with what Kanban is and how it’s properly done will help you establish a successful Kanban system implementation. You need to elevate your Kanban practice and accept that your Kanban board is not enough. Your board is a tool; it is a medium for you to apply the Kanban method properly. But it needs to be supported by the right mindset that is grounded on Kanban’s properties and principles.

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About the Author: Lena Boiser

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Lena Boiser is an Agile enthusiast. Starting off her career as a Software Business Analyst in 2010, she eventually performed other roles including Project Manager and IT Business Manager. When she was immersed in Agile methodologies in 2014, Lena found her way through honing her craft and eventually became a Certified Scrum Product Owner. In 2017, after 7 years of working in the corporate world, Lena started her own remote consulting practice. Today, she provides project management and Scrum Product Ownership services to various businesses including software development companies, e-Commerce business owners, and small to medium sized companies. She believes that even teams working remotely can harness the benefits of Agile in order to deliver results for their companies. In her free time she likes to write. One day she could be writing about Agile, the next she could be writing anything about fashion or travel.

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