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What Is Kanban? Everything You Always Wanted To Know

Learn more about Kanban terminology and methodology and set up your own productivity tool with our helpful tips.

Nicky Liedtke
by Nicky Liedtke | August 31, 2022 | Reading time: 6 minutes

What is Kanban?

Kanban is the Japanese term for “visual board” or “sign” and has been used to describe a scheduling technique that was part of the development of lean techniques in manufacturing in the Toyota Production System (TPS). There, a precursor of Kanban was used to schedule tasks during the Just-in-Time manufacturing process.

Ideally encompassing the entire value chain of a product or service, from supplier to consumer, Kanban is designed to monitor all processes at all times in order to avoid disruptions, bottlenecks or overstocking and establish a demand-pull rather than a supply-push strategy.

On the manufacturing floor of Toyota in the 1940s this translated to so-called Kanban cards, actual pieces of paper or cardstock then, that were attached to each and every finished product. Once a product sold, the card would be returned to the production floor, signalling a demand for said item that would then be produced again. The same system was not only applied to finished goods but to materials as well. As soon as stocks diminished the card would be returned and supplies would be replenished.

While Taiichi Ōno is considered the originator of the system in production, David J. Anderson was the first to apply the technique to IT and software development and his 2010 book Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business is one of the most comprehensive resources on the Kanban method.

Through Anderson, Kanban has not only become a popular tool within the software industry, but a general technique for managing knowledge work in many different sectors, including project management, for example. This way Kanban went from a tool for mainly deskless workers to a tool that can be used to manage processes in almost every industry imaginable.

Kanban does not rely on paper clippings anymore that are attached to a specific product or material. Instead, little cards track work progress in a visual manner on a so-called Kanban board in order to keep everyone up to date and hold them accountable as well.

Read our guide to find out more about:

1. The most important Kanban tools & terminology

2. The 4 Kanban principles

3. Why you should use Kanban

4. How a Kanban software can support your needs

3 Post-It Notes with the words To-Do, Doing, Done written on them

Kanban Tools & Terminology

As Kanban is an established and popular system, it has many terms associated with it that you should be familiar with if you want to start using Kanban. Here are some of the most important terminologies and concepts explained:

Kanban Board

Kanban boards have become staples in project management and many are familiar with the visual project management tool that can be used both in a physical form as well as digitally. But what is a Kanban board?

In its most basic manifestation, a Kanban board is divided into three stages that visualize a process:

  1. To-Do
  2. In Progress/WIP
  3. Completed

Of course, many teams opt to add more stages or shuffle them around according to their needs, but whatever sequence you choose will make up the workflow of a project. This way tasks can be managed and moved across the vertical and horizontal planes of a board in order to be executed.

Kanban Card

Within the Kanban framework, tasks are represented by Kanban cards that, same as the board, are either physical or virtual. These cards collect information about tasks, describe them, have due dates attached and are often assigned to a specific executing group or person.

Columns & Swimlanes

In order to structure the board appropriately, Kanban boards are divided into vertical and horizontal planes, also known as columns and swimlanes.

Columns, as the name suggests, divide a board vertically and structure the different steps and statuses from To-Do to Completed with however many other stages you wish to include.

The horizontal planes of a Kanban board are referred to as swimlanes and essentially serve to group different tasks together or seperate them according to their type, owner, etc.

WIP Limits

WIP stands for Work-In-Progress and encompasses every task that has been started and is one of the three most important Kanban metrics. In order to avoid a too high workload WIP limits can help you control what is being worked on and avoid overworking simultaneously.


One of the three Kanban metrics, the throughput of your team is defined by the number of completed accomplishments within a process and therefore measures your team’s productivity over a certain period of time.

Lead Time

The last of the three important Kanban metrics is the so-called Lead Time, which measures how much time it takes for a task to be completed.

Cycle Time

Each time a new activity is registered in the In Process/WIP part of your workflow, a new cycle time begins. This time only ends once the Completed/Done stage is reached.

Little’s Law

Combining the three metrics and variables lead time, throughput and WIP, Little’s Law is a theorem that is popularly applied to Kanban in order to relate the three metrics to one another and gain valuable isights.

As such, WIP = Throughput x Lead Time for example, just as Throughput = WIP/Lead Time and Lead Time = WIP/Throughput.

7 Kanban Cadences

Regular and repeated meetings, also known as the Kanban cadences help review your processes, drive change and coordinate the workflow in a steady manner.

These meetings take place daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly, depending on the topics they address. And are generally grouped into the categories of service delivery and improvement or evolution.


  1. Kanban Meeting
  2. Replenishment Meeting
  3. Delivery Planning


  1. Service Delivery Review
  2. Risk review
  3. Operations Review
  4. Strategy Review

The 4 Principles of Kanban Explained

Even though Kanban is a fairly flexible tool that you can customize to your own needs, the technique still relies on a number of rules, principles and practices. Kanban’s goal, as for all of the lean management techniques, is continuous improvement. Adhering to the four basic Kanban principles supports this goal and helps improve your processes.


Kanban calls for visualization as it is the core idea behind the method. This is where the previously discussed Kanban board comes into play and is used as a visual guideline in either physical or virtual manifestation.

A Kanban board can be as simple or as complex as it serves you. In order to visualize your processes successfully, you need to break down your workflow to its tiniest detail, assign tasks or figure out who is responsible for what in order to then create Kanban cards. Make use of swimlanes and columns to structure your workflows and manage multiple projects or interconnected tasks at the same time.


As Kanban operates on a pull-based system, limiting the amount of tasks that can be worked on at a time is vital to ensure a steady and fluid Kanban workflow. This way task lists are not overcrowded, there is no risk of overworking and everything gets done in time.

A WIP limit essentially means that a new kanban card can only enter the In Progress column when the card you are working on right now has been moved to the Review or Done column. This way you pull new work in based on demand.


As you are striving for continuous improvement, it is important to to monitor your workflow and keep a look out for any bottlenecks or other issues. How fast does your work move from the To-Do to the Done column? Can the flow be improved? It is important that you

  • address blockages swiftly
  • measure your team’s performance by tracking the cycle time
  • track lead times


Kanban is a moving, living and breathing system and an evolutionary concept that is designed to keep you adapting and evolving in order to constantly create and respond to change.

Always strive to improve your flow, tweak and modify and create a management of change culture.

Evaluate your processes carefully and collect data in order to drive improvements scientifically and watch your organization flourish.

Mock up of a Kanban board depicting cards, columns and swimlanes

The Benefits of Kanban

If you are striving for lean structures and systems, you should give Kanban a go in order to improve your workflows, create smart feedback loops for continuous improvement and be more efficient.

Kanban is a flexible system that can be set up as complicated or as simple as you like and empowers you to fully take charge of your processes, see the big picture and create a holistic productivity approach.

Here are some of the benefits you can expect from implementing Kanban into your organization’s structures:

1. Increase Efficiency

It is in the very nature of Kanban to break down processes in order to make them as efficient as possible. By using a visual board and implementing WIP limits, you can ensure that your team is working on all that they can handle and keep the flow going smoothly instead of clogging it up with too many tasks.

2. More Productivity

By employing the Kanban metrics cycle time and throughput, you can successfully and tangibly measure productivity across the entire workflow. This helps you identify issues and focus on areas that need improvement.

3. Manage Workloads

Mental health in the workplace is an important topic that has gained more and more attention in recent years, and rightly so. Using Kanban to introduce or improve a pull system lessens the burden for workers and WIP limits ensure that they do not take on more than they can handle to protect them from burn out or other work-related health issues.

4. More Collaboration

Feedback loops and regular meetings, as encouraged by the 7 Kanban cadences, help employees and managers to collaborate more frequently and more efficiently, resulting in even faster problem solving and process improvement.

5. Less Waste

As Kanban is a lean tool, one of the many benefits of implementing the system into your organization to manage your workflows is that you automatically reduce waste. By cutting out unnecessary steps, keeping a close eye on bottlenecks, distractions or other wasteful activities, you can run a much more efficient and sustainable business – in every sense of the word.

The Digital Age: Kanban Software

Kanban is a tool from which both employers and employees can benefit tremendously. But how to best introduce Kanban into your organization? Especially if you work in a predominantly or exclusively digital environment, such as software development or network engineering where you cannot attach tiny paper slips to products?

Ever since Kanban has been adapted from the manufacturing floor to other kinds of task management, the physical cardboard cut-outs and boards have been overhauled. In a small office or within a small team, it may still make sense to hang up an actual board to work with, however as working from home has become a viable option – and in some cases even a requirement during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – such an approach is no longer possible.

That is why many different Kanban tools have been created and developed over the years that allow companies to create digital Kanban boards via a software that everyone can access from any remote location. Virtual boards are further beneficial because

  • virtual Kanban cards are saved for documentation, whereas paper slips get lost more easily.
  • virtual cards have more information “storage” and can include many details about tasks that would not fit on a paper card.
  • paper Kanban cards are not as durable as virtual cards.
  • most Kanban softwares feature reminders and other automated tools that signal when a card is overdue or ready to start.
  • WIP limits can be automated and tasks can be set as “dependant on one another. This means that certain tasks can only be added to the WIP column as soon as other tasks are completed.

A hand  with red nailpolish writes the word "Done" on a pink post it note

Kanban FAQ

What are the six rules of Kanban?

As per Toyota's application, the six rules of Kanban are as follows: 1) Never pass on defective products 2) Take only what you need 3) Produce only the required quantity 4) Level the production 5) Fine-tune production 6) Stabilize and rationalize the process.

What is the key purpose of Kanban?

The main purpose that Kanban sets out to serve is to identify potential points of congestion (aka, bottlenecks) in your workflow, and to correct them so the production is cost-effective and operating at an optimal speed or throughput.

What does Kanban mean?

The word Kanban comes from Japan and roughly translates to “card you can see.”

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Nicky Liedtke

Nicky Liedtke

Passionate about literature and writing of any kind, Nicky graduated with a master’s degree in cultural and literary studies in German, English and French and is now putting her writing and research skills to the test at Lumiform, growing and learning together with the company.

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