What is Kanban?
Kanban, a Japanese term meaning “visual board” or “sign,” is a scheduling technique that originated from the Toyota Production System (TPS) in the development of lean manufacturing. Initially used as a precursor to schedule tasks during the Just-in-Time manufacturing process, Kanban is now designed to monitor all processes from supplier to consumer, avoiding disruptions, bottlenecks, and overstocking, and establishing a demand-pull strategy.
In the 1940s, Toyota implemented the Kanban system using cards attached to finished products to signal the need for replenishment. This method was later applied to materials as well. While Taiichi Ōno is considered the originator of the system in production, David J. Anderson applied the technique to IT and software development, making Kanban a popular tool within the software industry and knowledge work in various sectors.
Anderson’s 2010 book Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business provides a comprehensive resource on the Kanban method, which has evolved from a tool for deskless workers to one used to manage processes in almost every imaginable industry.
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.
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The most important 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 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:
- In Progress/WIP
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
SERVICE DELIVERY MEETINGS
- Kanban Meeting
- Replenishment Meeting
- Delivery Planning
- Service Delivery Review
- Risk review
- Operations Review
- Strategy Review
Kanban: 4 Principles to Support Continuous Improvement
Kanban is a flexible tool that you can customize to your needs. However, to achieve the goal of continuous improvement, it relies on a set of rules, principles, and practices. Here are the four basic Kanban principles that can help you improve your processes:
1. WORKFLOW VISUALIZATION
Visualization is at the core of Kanban. A Kanban board, either physical or virtual, serves as a visual guideline for your workflow. To successfully visualize your processes, break them down into tiny details, assign tasks or responsibilities, and create Kanban cards. Use swimlanes and columns to structure workflows and manage multiple projects or interconnected tasks.
2. WIP LIMITATION
Limiting the number of tasks you work on at a time is vital to ensure a steady and fluid Kanban workflow. As Kanban operates on a pull-based system, a new Kanban card can only enter the In Progress column when the card you are currently working on has been moved to the Review or Done column. This way, you pull new work based on demand.
3. FOCUS ON FLOW
Monitoring your workflow is crucial for continuous improvement. Keep an eye out for bottlenecks or other issues and evaluate your team’s performance by tracking the cycle time and lead times. Address blockages swiftly and strive to improve your flow by continuously measuring and analyzing data.
4. CONTINUOUSLY IMPROVE
Kanban is an evolutionary concept designed to keep you adapting and evolving to create and respond to change. Create a culture of change management, always strive to improve your flow, and collect data to drive improvements scientifically. With Kanban, your organization can flourish.
Why you should use 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 methodology 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 methodology into your organization’s structures for continuous improvement:
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 burnout 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, and 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.
How a Kanban software can support your needs
Introducing Kanban to your organization can offer significant benefits for both employers and employees. But if you work in a digital environment like software development or network engineering, you may wonder how to implement Kanban without physical tools like paper slips or boards.
Fortunately, Kanban has evolved beyond its origins in manufacturing to become a versatile task management system. While physical boards may still work for small teams, remote work and the COVID-19 pandemic have made digital solutions essential.
To implement Kanban in a digital environment, you can use software tools that offer Kanban boards, cards, and other visualizations. By choosing the right tools and adapting Kanban principles to your workflow, you can streamline your processes, reduce waste, and continuously improve your team’s productivity.
That is why many different Kanban tools have been created and developed over the years that allow companies to create digital Kanban boards via 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 software 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.