What is Kanban

Every organization or team should aim for process efficiency as this enables teams to achieve higher levels of productivity and better quality products and services. While there are a lot of techniques and methodologies out there that teams can explore and use for their improvement initiatives, here is one method that is gaining traction within a number of industries today because of its straightforward approach to process improvement.

Kanban is a simple method to visualize work and as a result, better manage it. Nowadays, it is applied within various industries making teams more efficient. Let’s discover what Kanban is, how it came about, and how it ultimately helps teams to improve their performance.

Kanban History – From Manufacturing to Knowledge Work

The Kanban methodology was pioneered by Toyota through the leadership of Taiichi Ohno, who is known as the father of the Toyota Production System. Ohno recognized the inefficiencies in their production line and sought ways to better their processes. A car is definitely a complex product to build; with around 30,000 parts and components moving through the assembly line things can get inefficient. Ohno saw how unnecessary inventory and low levels of productivity were apparent in their operations and decided to take action.

The Origins of Kanban

Ohno took a basic idea from the supermarket onto Toyota’s manufacturing process. Think about how you would do your grocery shopping. More often than not, you would only schedule a trip to the supermarket when you’re running low on items. You’d know this upon checking your stock at home and finding an empty pantry. You then go to the store and get your desired items from the grocery shelves. When supermarket crew notice shelves running low on a certain product, that’s when they replenish it. This then ensures that there’s enough stock for upcoming customers.

Visual signals like an empty pantry or supermarket shelf prompt people to pull from preceding processes.

Toyota Production System (TPS)
Toyota Production System (TPS) – source: toyota-global.com

Thinking of it in the same way. Production processes can use pull systems to produce and move parts within the assembly line. In Toyota, they adapted the supermarkets stock concept to help line workers recognize when and in what amount certain parts need to be prepared and transported. The preceding process, who is in charge of making the parts ready, supplies the parts to the next process when they need it and only in the amount needed.

To easily communicate within the shop floor, they used visual signals in the form of cards to signal their need for a component. And this is where Kanban goes into play.

Kanban Definition

Kanban is the Japanese word for “card”. In Toyota, assembly line workers used cards to communicate when they needed something from another department or process. This helped them reduce waste and increase their process efficiency. Kanban provides a visual for both the workflow and the actual work that goes through the workflow. Ever since its creation, it has helped organizations identify potential issues and bottlenecks in the workflow, allowing them to resolve the issue and let work flow efficiently at an optimal pace or throughput.

The Growth of Kanban

What originated from the manufacturing industry is now being used in various businesses. We now see Kanban in knowledge work, quite prominently in software development. It was David J. Anderson, a renowned Lean thinker, who first explored the use and applied Kanban to software development in 2004. He also wrote his own book, Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for your Technology Business, in 2010 and founded Lean Kanban University later on. Anderson clarified that Kanban is not to be mistaken for software development or project management process. He emphasized that Kanban is seen and used as a method or technique to help an existing software development or project management process improve gradually.

Indeed, the application of Kanban is no longer confined to the manufacturing industry. In recent years, we’ve seen Kanban being adapted to Agile Scrum – giving birth to ScrumBan. We now see companies in the SaaS, software development, media, investment, and banking industries reaping the benefits of the Kanban methodology in their operations.

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How to Implement Kanban

These 5 core Kanban properties will guide teams in implementing Kanban in their current process.

1. Visualize the Workflow

The first step to implementing Kanban is to model how the current process operates. Having a visual representation of the process allows teams to examine the flow of work through their Kanban system.

A team can track and improve its processes with the support of a Kanban board, an essential tool for visualizing the workflow. This can be done on a physical board or with the help of Kanban software. Once the team has visualized their workflow, each process step is translated as columns on the board. In the simplest possible form, the Kanban board has three columns – To Do, In Progress, and Done.

You could also use Kanban swimlanes to categorize or group tasks within a step or column in your board, keeping things more organized.

The workflow is tracked by cards moving through the columns. Usually, they contain the task name, who’s assigned to do the job and a detailed description. Cards also contain effort estimates, priority, deadline, size, etc.

Kanban board examples are available on KZ to get you thinking about how you should model your team’s process.

Kanban Zone Board Example

2. Limit Work-in-Progress (WIP)

Controlling the number of work items within each step in the process reduces the cycle time or the amount of time it takes for an item to go through a Kanban system successfully. Limiting WIP also helps teams focus on the task at hand and get it completely done before moving on to the next task.

3. Measure & Manage Flow

With better visibility of the workflow and enforcing WIP limits, teams can better diagnose their process efficiency. They can determine at what step in the process tasks are building up if tasks are being blocked, and whether team members are operating at an optimal capacity or are overburdened. As your teams go through the work, you can collect process metrics, such as cycle time and lead time, to help you analyze what needs improvement in your current process.

Having metrics and a process visual makes it easier for teams to spot weaknesses in their process and implement necessary changes to refine it.

4. Make Process Policies Explicit

Stating process policies explicitly establishes a common understanding within the team on how work should be performed and what the expectations are on the outputs of each step in the process. These policies also act as a checklist for the team to ensure consistency and quality in the application of their work. It is recommended that process policies be displayed on the Kanban board so that team members can easily see and be reminded of them.

5. Use Models to Recognize Improvement Opportunities

Teams should endeavor to analyze their current process and examine areas that can be improved. Value Stream mapping is a modeling technique that teams can use to thoroughly examine their process. Value Stream Mapping helps teams focus on value-adding activities in their process; helping them identify which activities are wasteful and should be removed.

How to make the most out of your Kanban adoption

Following these four foundational Kanban principles will enable teams to fully reap the benefits of this methodology. They allow you to apply Kanban without making significant adjustments to your existing processes. Instead, the principles assist you in gradually improving your approach over time and reaching greater outcomes overall.

1. Start with what you do now

As David J. Anderson put it, “Kanban is not a software development lifecycle methodology or an approach to project management. It requires that some process is already in place so that Kanban can be applied to incrementally change the underlying process.

Teams should not introduce changes to their process right away. With the implementation of Kanban, let the inefficiencies surface and then gradually change your process as you collect data and metrics about your current workflow and team efficiency.

2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change

A desirable characteristic of Kanban is that it does not introduce or require radical changes. Incremental changes allow for lesser resistance from team members and the organization; making it faster to manifest positive change.

3. Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities, and titles

Implementing Kanban does not require a change in team roles and responsibilities or imposition of titles. As mentioned in the first principle. It also does not require an immediate change in the process. It is up to the team to decide what roles would do well for their process, and when a change in their process is needed. Similar to the second principle, this allows teams to easily digest changes as they are more manageable and less intimidating.

4. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels

One thing Kanban amplifies is accountability. With process data and work progress becoming transparent, teams must take it upon themselves to enact changes. The initiative or directive doesn’t need to come from a team leader or manager. Every team member is encouraged to pitch in ideas and lead process improvement initiatives to continuously better their ways of working and consequently, their products and services.

Getting Started on Your Own Kanban Implementation

By understanding how this lightweight but highly effective method works, you are geared up to introduce Kanban to your teams. You can take inspiration from how we’re using Kanban in our own software development team. Also, you could check out these Kanban board examples. Our board examples help you start your journey toward process efficiency and improved team performance.

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Unleash the power of visual management!

Boost traceability, and collaboration across all organizational levels with Kanban Zone!

No credit card | No contract | No risk