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An all-inclusive overview of Kanban, its practices, tools, and when to use it.
Kanban has become one of the most known project management frameworks, offering great visualization of processes and easy collaboration.
At its core, Kanban is built on four fundamental principles that foster effectiveness: starting with what you already know, embracing incremental change, respecting the existing process and roles, and encouraging leadership at all organizational levels.
If you are looking to learn more about what it entails and how to apply the Kanban framework to your team, this article is just right for you.
Kanban is a framework that was first developed in the 1940s in Japan by Taiichi Ohno. The sole purpose of this system was to ensure ‘Just-in-time’ manufacturing practices, which allowed to minimize both the wait times and the amount of ready inventory to be stored by the company.
Since then, the framework evolved and changed to accommodate modern workplace needs. Nowadays, it is known as part of the Agile family and helps teams visualize their processes and control the throughput of tasks to ensure efficiency. Kanban is known for its ease of use and visualization of the process on a Kanban board. That allows for controlling the process and spotting bottlenecks quickly.
The Kanban framework follows 4 main principles to ensure effectiveness:
Contrary to another widely known Agile application Scrum, Kanban does not have strict implementation rules. However, it does offer 6 practices to follow, in order to ease the process of application.
The Kanban board is the main tool used in Kanban project management practices. It helps visualize your workflow, control the process, and maximize results. The board comprises columns, swimlanes, cards, and WIP limits. This helps manage the work processes, eliminates waste, and delivers results faster.
Kanban boards were first introduced as part of the Kanban framework and quickly became the essential tool used by Kanban practitioners. Over the years these boards have become so popular that some even started calling them Agile boards. However, this term is not correct as different Agile frameworks use different variations of the task board.
While Kanban boards are usually created for framework practitioners, they have proven so helpful that some teams implemented them as a standalone solution. With the ability to bring clarity and flexibility to the table, there is little wonder they have become a go-to Agile tool.
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As teams can freely adapt and modify visual boards to fit their needs, the task board has numerous variations. And while these boards are not defined by a specific look, there are 5 key features each of them should hold:
Usually, there are three basic sections – To Do, Doing, and Done or Input, Progress, and Output. This is the setup that most Kanban teams start with, and then expand the workflow with various columns as they continue working on projects. The end goal is to use the such structure as documentation, what kind of statuses a work item needs to go through in order to be successfully finished.
The most common additions to the standard board sections are priority columns and progress steps.
Priority columns visualize high-priority tasks in the To-Do section. As it is up to the team members in Kanban to choose which task they will be working on next, this helps to make sure the most important tasks are completed first.
Progress steps or columns help track task progress in the Doing section. Teams define what process steps each task must go through to be completed and visualize them with columns. These steps differ in every team, for example, they could be – Design, Manufacturing, Testing, and QA.
With Kanban boards like Teamhood, you do not have to worry about immediately figuring out all the process steps. This can be especially tricky if it is your first time using a Kanban-based task board. Instead, you start simple and build and improve your board as the work continues. And if you want to start working immediately, pick one of the predesigned Kanban board templates for your process.
The second integral part of any Kanban board is the task cards. Used to mark all work that is happening within the team, they are added to the task board and moved through the columns to celebrate the progress being made. To make sure the board stays clean and usable, task cards hold just the necessary information like task name, assignee, and due date.
This is great for visualization of the process, but more details may be preferred when it comes to the team using the board. This is where digital Kanban boards have the advantage. You can add a full description, files, comments, and even estimate and track time here. Tasks can be divided into subtasks for those working with more oversized items and tracked separately. Creating a full picture of project progress.
To track and control complex projects, Teamhood offers a variation of the task board called advanced Kanban. Here each column can have sub-columns, meaning each of your process steps can have a separate workflow of its own. As large tasks move through the regular process steps, their subtasks are monitored in the secondary Kanban workflow created for each process step. This can be as simple as Doing and Done or more advanced and comprised out of various stages.
Advanced Kanban is great for teams tracking complex projects within a Kanban board as it allows monitoring the progress of even the most minor tasks.
Columns and cards are great for visualization, but what about limiting work? This is where the work-in-progress (WIP) limits come in handy. To make sure the Kanban team works effectively, the number of tasks that can be pulled into the Doing section is limited. And thus, we have a number that is called a WIP limit.
WIP limits differ from team to team, but the main idea is that each team member should work on no more than one task at a time. Therefore, it is common for the WIP limit to equal the number of people on the Kanban team. Different WIP limits can be set for each progress column to control more complex processes. This is usually the case where tasks must wait for approval from external stakeholders and thus a team member can take on a new assignment.
Limiting work to only one task per team member is great for finishing tasks quicker and making sure any problems are noticed and solved quickly instead of being buried under other schemes.
The fourth information layer on the board comes in the form of swimlanes. Or as you may know them – rows. It may sound simple, but this additional layer is great for larger projects where there is a need to divide tasks. Swimlanes can be used for various purposes – prioritizing tasks, and grouping them according to different projects, goals, or teams.
If you work in a field with a tendency for urgent unplanned tasks to appear, an additional swimlane can prioritize such functions over others. An Expedite lane is added to the top of your Kanban board. Then, if any urgent work arises it is placed there. In this case, even if the WIP limit is reached, the team can take the task on and complete it before the other committed tasks. You can find more on Kanban swimlanes here.
Looking for your solution? Here are the 23 best Kanban board tools to choose from.
The system should be easy enough to allow daily updates of the necessary information. This is of crucial importance because your whole team will depend on statuses and assignments. In some period of time, it will become the de facto source of truth and your team will start saving time on interrupts, organizational questions, and work assignments.
Remember, that a Kanban board must fit and visualize your process. If that process changes, the board should change with it. The rest is about implementing a Kanban system and mindset within your team, not about the task board.
Check our short introductory video below to see how the Kanban board is built and used in real life:
Kanban uses two main metrics to monitor the team’s effectiveness – Lead time and Cycle time. Both of these numbers are calculated as the average for the team and help determine how quickly any task on the team’s backlog will be completed.
Learn how to calculate these metrics in this post – Lead and Cycle time.
With some effort, Kanban practices can be applied to manage a portfolio of projects. As it is not a full project management method, such an approach will require implementing some sort of hybrid project management solution.
Learn more about Portfolio Kanban.
Some might still think – this is all great fun, but how will this help my team perform better? By implementing the Kanban system and tracking your tasks with a Kanban board you will get 4 clear improvements to your process and results.
Having all your processes visualized on one Kanban board provides excellent benefits. It becomes easy to glance at and understand where your team stands at any moment. Also, having the process visible makes it much easier to analyze and improve the workflow. Maybe some steps have become unnecessary, or something else should be added to ensure all tasks go through the same process. This all becomes clear when using a visual task board, making monitoring and improving your operations easy.
Want to see some examples of how Kanban can be used in practice?
Limiting the WIP, helps your Kanban team stay focused on what they are doing instead of spreading out between numerous tasks. This will ensure tasks are completed faster and with more focus. Working on one task at a time will make any issues and bottlenecks appear quicker. Thus, you can instantly know about any problems and solve them immediately instead of dragging them out until the end of the project.
See the best free backlog management tools.
Limiting the WIP has one more benefit: changing the course of action more quickly. As new circumstances appear, task priorities can be reorganized. As soon as a team member finishes a task, they will take the new most important item from the To-Do section. By not working on several tasks simultaneously, Kanban team members can change course and start working on new priorities almost instantly. This cannot be said about other project management approaches.
For those new to Agile, you might still be unsure how the two most popular Agile framework task boards differ. There are two key things to note – form and function.
Lastly, working on a Kanban board, you will start to notice and will be able to estimate your teams’ output. Since the team members work on one task at a time, you can easily see how many tasks they complete in a week or a month. Thus, calculating the Kanban metrics – lead and cycle time.
Knowing the average time it takes your team to complete a task, will let you understand better when a project will be done. This can be achieved by making sure all your Kanban tasks are of a similar size or you estimate their duration.
As discussed above, the basic Kanban board holds three sections – To Do, Doing, and Done. These sections can be enhanced with various columns and are up to the Kanban team to decide.
The Scrum board, on the other hand, must hold a little more information. It contains 4 clearly defined sections:
The Scrum board is managed by the Product Owner and the team separately. The team commits to tasks 1-4 weeks in advance.
The function of a Kanban is to visualize work and limit the WIP. This way it helps the team to deliver the best results. Here the team sets the pace of work and completes tasks based on the changing priorities. At the same time, the function of the Scrum board is to hold the tasks that must be completed in the next iteration. The Scrum board also visualizes the progress, but it serves more as a project plan for the next 1-4 weeks than a guide. Making sure the team meets the commitment during the allocated time.
The differences between Scrum and Kanban boards are based solely on the frameworks’ differences. Kanban’s definition is much more flexible than the one of Scrum. Here is the full comparison of Kanban vs Scrum vs Scrumban.
Still unsure what your board should look like? We have gathered 16 Kanban board examples to spark your creativity. Take a look through and you will surely find something that fits your industry and team needs. There are Kanban boards fit for Engineering, Marketing, Sales, and many others.
Looking for something to keep on your desk for a quick refresher on terms? We have come up with this Kanban Cheat Sheet. It outlines all the terms of the method concisely. So you can quickly look up any term and continue working on your Kanban boards.
Kanban is a visual and informative framework to manage your team and optimize work processes. By visualizing your tasks, you will be able to optimize the workflow, identify bottlenecks, adapt to the changing circumstances, and better estimate the outcome.
Reading is never enough for learning, therefore it is now time to try out Kanban for yourself. Just click below to try out Teamhood – an easy and visual Kanban board for professional teams.
The easiest way is to register for a free Teamhood account and experience the power of Kanban method. Digital method is far superior in terms of maintenance and speed to start. Lastly, digital solution brings modern collaboration features like comments, notifications, file management, automations and more.
We have a great article about our own choice to move from Kanban to Scrum which discusses both methods in depth as well as explains that either needs to be used when Team clearly understand what will be the values of the approach. Lastly it is not about which one is better, but even combining them. Full presentation slides can be found here.
We recommend looking at our library of both physical and digital board examples here. There are many ways how creativity can deliver outstanding results when visualizing work. From post it notes on your office wall to digital solution spanning the whole organization. Lego boards or post it note webbings no longer surprise crafty professionals.
The rule of thumb here is when you need to work on Teams productivity and improve current workflow. You already have evidence that some work is left neglected or forgotten. People tend to become idle in the middle of a work week. The quality of work is not satisfactory. All these issues can be cured by correctly applying the Kanban method. But it will require leadership and knowledge, as well as buy in from everyone in the team.