Kanban is the Japanese word for “Visual signal” and can be defined as “a way to improve flow and provoke system improvement through visualisation and controlling work in progress” (from the Prince2 Agile Handbook, Axelos 2018). An alternative explanation would be an Agile project management tool designed to help visualise work items, limit work-in-progress and maximise efficiency (known as Flow). Essentially it is a visual management system that restricts the number of work items in circulation, creating what is referred to as a “pull system”.

Kanban is pretty commonplace in office vocabulary, especially in the world of project management. You may be already familiar with the concept or you may have heard the phrases banded around but unsure of their meaning. Unbeknownst to you, you may already be using Kanban! Either way, Kanban is a great way to enhance collaboration within teams and visualise work in progress, generate flow in the short-term and potentially long-lasting continual positive organisational change.

What is Kanban?

The term originated in Lean manufacturing; in the late 1940s, Taiichi Ohno used a system of signal cards to deliver the just-in-time element of the Toyota production system. David Anderson’s work also helped define Kanban and bring the concept into the world of software and services.

The method is made up of six core practices:

  1. Visualise: Make work visible so that teams can easily track progress and monitor any bottlenecks
  2. Limit Work in Progress: If you think this would slow down progress, you’d be wrong! Limiting the amount of work that is in progress minimises the amount of task-switching taking place and reduces the pressure. This principle reinforces the ‘pull’ system, allowing work to flow rather than be scheduled for a certain time.
  3. Manage the flow: the objective here is to maximise productivity and minimise delays. The team should be continuously looking to ‘remove waste’ as quickly as possible.
  4. Making policies explicit: the ways of working need to be clearly defined and agreed collaboratively within the team, referred to here as “team rules”.
  5. Implement feedback loops: the team should be constantly looking to shorten the feedback loop from the customer so that the most valuable work is in the Kanban system in order to deliver the most value. Examples of feedback sessions include the stand-up meeting, the service delivery review, the operations review, and the risk review.
  6. Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally: improvement must be a collaborative exercise. It is the responsibility of the entire team to ensure that processes are carefully considered and continually improved (a concept of Kaizen).

The first principle of Kanban is “Start with what you do now”; it should not be seen as an alternative approach to a project management methodology but instead a way to increase agility through improvements in decision making, shortening the time taken to complete a work item and shortening the feedback loop.

What is a Kanban board?

Anderson established Kanban boards as having five components:

  1. Visual signs such as stickers, tickets, post-it-notes – for Agile teams, this could contain one user story.
  2. Columns to categorise the visual signs – standard columns include Backlog, In Progress, Blocked, Completed…or can be much more complex depending on the environment and/or project you are working on.
  3. Work-in-progress limits – the maximum number of cards per column
  4. A commitment point – where an entity moves from an idea to a product or feature
  5. A delivery point – the end of Kanban’s workflow, whereby the product is handed over to the customer

Physical or Online Kanban Boards?

You can create a Kanban board by using a whiteboard (see image to left) and using Post-It-Notes to create the visual signs – this makes it much easier to move items from one column to the next. This works well when teams are located in the same space.

Kanban Desk Whiteboard
Online Kanban Board

Given today’s environment, it is likely that your team will be co-located in which case there are also many different versions of Kanban boards available online – to name a few Microsoft Planner, Trello, Jira. An advantage of an online board is that all team members can easily access it and you can tag colleagues so that they receive notifications/emails. It is also far less likely to be wiped off! They are super easy to create and enhance collaboration across teams.

Kanban can also be adapted to different environments; although traditionally used for software development this technique is used across various industries and projects. All you need to ensure is that the team is self-organised and collaborative in nature, feeling trusted and empowered.

“When teams are asked to work together to analyse problems and design solutions, the quality is higher.”

David J. Anderson, Kanban

You may also have heard the term “Scrumban” mentioned – be careful not to get these two terms confused. Scrum has specific roles, timeboxed work and relates to a specific product, whereas in Kanban work is pulled to create a flow. Scrumban is the application of Kanban in a scrum setting. For example, this may involve the use of Kanban boards to manage the work required within a sprint.

Cumulative Flow Diagram

You can track work items in Kanban via the use of a Cumulative Flow diagram (see diagram). This shows the amount of work in each ‘column’. This graph essentially shows the number of features in each category progressing over time. It’s a useful visual aid to include as part of your Kanban Board. If you’re using an online tool, there is usually software available that can create these graphs depending on which Kanban tool you are using.

If you want to find out more about the method, then please check out the following videos, books and articles:

If you’d like to find out more about how Wellingtone can support you in adopting agile practices and processes or in your project management journey in general, then please do get in touch.

Choose to use Kanban as a method to drive change in your organization, you are subscribing to the view that it is better to optimise what already exists, because that is easier and faster and will meet with less resistance than running a managed, engineered, named-change initiative. Introducing a radical change is harder than incrementally improving an existing one.

David J. Anderson, Kanban

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Monthly Newsletter

By: Emma Arnaz-Pemberton

Emma Arnaz-Pemberton
Consulting Director FAPM, MCMI, MPMI, MIoD PMO-CC, MoR, MSP, PRINCE2

Published: 25 February 2021

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