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The 4 Core Kanban Principles and 6 Practices 

Since Kanban was first developed as a project management framework in the 1940s in Japan, its use has evolved. Initially used specifically in the context of ‘just in time’ manufacturing and waste control, it is popular with all kinds of industries and applications today. 

Because technology has moved on, so has the way we use Kanban. In particular, as well as developing specific Kanban team roles and responsibilities, it has developed a series of Kanban principles and practices. Its foundation lies in six core principles as a guiding framework for managing change and delivering exceptional services.

By understanding modern Kanban principles and practices, you’ll be able to work more effectively when using Kanban and distribute takes to your colleagues, team members, and subordinates. This article will also provide visual examples of how these Kanban principles and practices look in Teamhood.

Learn more about Kanban using our Kanban resources.

kanban boards

What Is Kanban?

Kanban is a popular Agile project management framework and methodology. It represents projects visually via a series of cards displayed on the Kanban board. Many people find this approach intuitive and easy to use. Kanban emphasizes delivery and can help teams improve their efficiency and increase output by helping to identify and resolve potential bottlenecks and resource issues.

Kanban is a Japanese word that literally means ‘visual sign,’ ‘visual card,’ or ‘signboard.’ Japanese industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno developed Kanban at the end of the 1940s. Ohno worked at Toyota, the car maker, and had been looking for ways to optimize manufacturing processes at the firm. 

It was used initially for managing inventory and minimizing waste by ordering stock when items dropped below a certain threshold. Since then, Kanban has been applied as a Lean project management methodology to various sectors and is particularly popular today with software developers. 

Kanban principles and practices have been successfully implemented across various industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, project management, marketing, advertising, and education. Organizations have achieved greater efficiency, reduced waste, and improved overall outcomes by visualizing workflows, limiting work in progress, and focusing on continuous improvement.

David J Anderson pioneered the broader adoption of the Kanban methodology to reflect technological advancements, project management, and new industries. His 2010 book Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business defined five core properties that he thought characterized successful Kanban implementations. Since then, these five properties have expanded into four fundamental Kanban principles and six practices. 

Discover the basics of Kanban, its principles, and essential tools like project visualization, WIP limits, and feedback loops in the Ultimate Kanban Project Management Guide.

The 5 core properties of Kanban

David Anderson’s initial five core Kanban properties are:

  1. Visualize the workflow
  2. Limit Work in Progress (WIP)
  3. Manage flow
  4. Make process policies explicit
  5. Improve collaboratively

We mention them here because it is interesting to see how these formed the basis of – and evolved into – the six practices we will explore in more detail below. 

The 4 Kanban principles

The four principles of Kanban are: 

1. Start with what you do now

Kanban recognizes the value of your existing processes and practices. At the start of any project, change management professionals will conduct a discovery phase to highlight any issues hindering processes and outcomes. 

Using Kanban in this way enables you to review your workflow, roles, responsibilities, titles, communications, and more. This allows you to maximize efficiencies and cost savings and to focus on where improvements need to be made.

Because Kanban improves transparency, you can quantify ROI over time and estimate the impact of any process improvements. The transparency and ability to improve quality also make collaborating with other managers and teams easier because they can easily understand the need for change. 

2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change

The concept of continuous improvement is critical to Kanban and is a quality it shares with Agile and Scrum methodologies. Delivering change in small, steady increments is also shared by these project management approaches. Doing so helps minimize disruption and make the change process more manageable. 

Significant changes are more challenging to implement and likely to meet internal resistance. Senior management may be concerned about costs, while project teams may feel that changes to working practices may impede their productivity. Kanban recognizes this, emphasizing small, continuous, incremental change. 

lean kanban
Image created by story set –

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

Being respectful helps reinforce the idea that Kanban will not be overly disruptive or completely change established operating models. This is particularly important if those models are effective. This approach positions Kanban as a compromising and collaborative means of improving legacy processes without fundamentally disrupting an organization’s operations. 

This whole approach helps to gain support for Kanban in an environment where various teams are attached to established practices. It is beneficial in larger organizations where change is slower, and there are more people to convince. 

4. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels in your organization

As part of Kanban’s emphasis on collaboration, anyone can take ownership of and address an issue. With the transparency Kanban provides, any team member should be able to take action and justify it with solid data to back them up. This encouraging culture helps to empower team members to take the lead, take risks, and grow professionally and personally. 

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Visual kanban board

The 6 Kanban practices

In contrast to a time-limited Agile methodology like Scrum, where sprints follow strict schedules, Kanban operates on a pull system, meaning that you only start work when there is demand for a specific deliverable. From this concept – and David Anderson’s five core properties – we now have the following six Kanban practices: 

1. Visualize (the work, the workflow, and the business risks)

Improving visibility in your workflow is crucial for identifying areas needing improvement. Kanban boards display which work items are in process, which are done, and which have not started. This helps you and your team to understand what it takes to get an item from request to completion and to uncover where you need to make adjustments to optimize your workflow. 

Kanban boards are similar in concept to dashboards for project work, where the intention is to give visibility to as much information as possible in a format that is easy to understand. Here is how a digital Kanban board looks in Teamhood:

online kanban board

2. Limit Work in Progress (WIP)

The ultimate goal of using Kanban boards is to help make projects as efficient as possible by cutting out wasted time and resources. Kanban WIP limits are vital because they set the maximum amount of work that can exist in a workflow. WIP stands for “Work In Progress” and limits the number of work items in progress. 

This enables a pull system where new work is only ‘pulled’ in when there is enough capacity to handle it. WIP limits are represented as numbers on Kanban board statuses (columns) as in this example below:

wip limit

3. Manage flow

The Kanban board enables you to observe how work moves from one column to the next. Focusing on the flow of tasks through the columns on the board highlights any potential bottlenecks. It allows managers to focus on smoothing interruptions in the normal flow and seeing where more resources may be needed, for example. 

kanban flow

4. Make policies explicit

Define, publish, and share your processes and policies. That way, everyone on the team understands how work is done and your goals. This helps ensure everyone is moving in the same direction when suggesting improvements. 

Doing this should also help to keep team discussions more dispassionate and objective, preventing emotion and subjective views from influencing the decision process.

5. Implement feedback loops

The Kanban method encourages small, continuous, incremental, and evolutionary changes. Knowing which changes are needed depends on establishing reliable feedback loops.

In Kanban, feedback is gathered at different stages of a project. This can be during meetings or at delivery, operational, and risk reviews. Exactly where to collect input and how frequently is usually defined by the nature of the project and what is likely to work best for your team. 

6. Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally

We know that collaborative improvement and evolution are essential concepts for Kanban. In his book, David Anderson discusses how important it is for teams to have shared knowledge and understanding of problems. He recommends adopting a scientific model of experimentation, analysis, and improvement. 

The models he suggests considering include:

  • The Theory of Constraints
  • The Theory of Profound Knowledge
  • The Lean Economic Model

Using one of these proven models makes it easier to measure outcomes and mitigate change risks.

Implementing Kanban successfully in your organization

Understanding these Kanban principles and practices is a great way to help see how you could effectively implement Kanban in your organization. However, you probably have more questions if you’re just starting with Kanban. 

One of the best places to start is by browsing our fast-growing selection of Kanban resources and research.

Alternatively, find out more about how Teamhood’s flexible Kanban system works, or book a demo to see how it could work for you:

Visual Kanban Board for High-performing Teams

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release kanban board
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