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We at Teamhood are evangelists and absolute supporters of Kanban. We believe making work management visual is the key to success. Having said that, we are very concerned about the state of Kanban. We have witnessed so many times people talking about Kanban and saying that it is “just a board” and comparing it to Scrum as a true framework or methodology. One of the reasons is that Kanban has been oversimplified by tool vendors offering basic card and column structures, and missing crucial elements of Kanban System like swimlanes, commitment points, WIP limits, and metrics. This leads to many people getting confused and upset with Kanban when it does not deliver expected results.
Kanban Board has become a widespread term for teamwork management – a way to manage priorities, visualize plans, and track work progress. Managers often think that getting a popular or stylish digital Kanban Board is all it takes to improve their work management. However, there is a big difference between “just a kanban board” and a true Kanban System. This difference ends up in teams achieving different levels of productivity, and engagement. In this article, we will compare these two things and draw a fine line between them. Our ultimate goal here is to help teams get the most value from using the Kanban system.
One can recognize a Kanban Board just by taking a quick peek at it. If it has colorful sticky note-like cards and it has some sort of structure, often columns, then we can already call it a Kanban Board. But it is just that – sticky notes aka cards and some visual layout to resemble process steps.
Mainstream task tools like Trello, Asana, Monday, or Clickup – have a “kanban board” feature but they are extremely limited implementations and cannot be called a Kanban System. To properly illustrate why just “kanban board” usually does not help to visualize work have an example of real use-case Trello board:
As you see, Kanban Board as such can seem like a great thing, but if it cannot become a real Kanban System eventually, then you will hit the wall sooner than you might expect.
Kanban system is a solution for scheduling just in time production. A true Kanban System is comprised of numerous tools which we will discuss in the below section one by one.
Swimlanes or Kanban Classes of service
First of all, the real Kanban system is two-dimensional. It contains columns and swimlanes to offer a complete structure for your process. In most cases, swimlanes represent but are not limited to different classes of service in the Kanban System. Here is a simple two dimensional Kanban board example:
This is how two dimensional Kanban board looks in Teamhood. Dividing items into classes at each stage brings a clearer vizualisation, makes it easier to focus on the items that are relevant at an exact moment.
Kanban WIP limits
Work In Progress (WIP) limits are key to control throughput. Each step in a Kanban System can has a limit, showing how many Kanban cards can be in that step at the same time. In short, this is multi-tasking prevention. Lower the limit higher the throughput! When you are comparing Kanban Board vs Kanban system, this is one of the key differentiators as well. Actually, if Kanban Board does not have WIP limits, you can barely call it a Kanban Board. Below is an example of a Kanban Board with WIP Limits:
A good example of real-world use is this Teamhood Kanban System implementation where WIP is nicely separated from the Input phase. When items go to WIP they should move only towards the output. Also, WIP limits in Teamhood can be configured. When the number of items in the “In progress” column exceeds the agreed WIP limit, the number at the top of the column lights in red.
Kanban Commitment points
Commitment points are like significant steps between different stages in your process. For example, from planning to execution or from engineering to quality assurance. After a work item crosses the commitment point, it should not return back. One can have as many commitment points as he or she likes. Example below:
In this example Delivery point is just another type of commitment point.
Kanban System Queues
Queues in the Kanban system can be special-purpose columns which are like parking spots for Kanban Cards. Remember – Kanban is a pull system, so once someone finishes their work, they can park the card there so that the next person knows where to take work items from. Example of the queue in a Kanban Board:
Kanban System Metrics
Another difference of a Kanban board vs Kanban system is the offer to track metrics. Those come down to: Lead Time, Cycle Time, CFD and Aging.
Here are the visual representations of some metrics for a quick reference:
Kanban Pull System
Last but not least is the overall policy also known as the Pull System. When talking about a Kanban system, the work not be pushed, but pulled instead. And remember, once a Kanban card crosses a commitment point, it shall not return back!
Check this video from Vidas presentation about key differences and visual explanation of Kanban board vs Kanban System.
Another great video from Talks at Google.
The last part to compare are digital and physical alternatives. All in all, actual Kanban tools must work the same, be it physical or digital. On the other hand, digital Kanban System is superior just because it can automate and save a lot of hassle while maintaining boards, calculating metrics and enforcing WIP limits. Read more about Physical and digital Kanban System examples.
After so many visual examples you should have a better idea how to recognize simple Kanban Boards and when to acknowledge that you are looking at a true Kanban System. We recommend exploring and trying all the tools offered by Kanban System to fully understand their use and value. It is only by hands on experience that you can trully grasp the difference of Kanban board vs Kanban system.
If you are interested to try and use a digital Kanban System read more about Teamhood