When it comes to projects, everyone is on a quest to improve and find the optimal recipe for success. For some it is choosing specific tools, for others empowering the team, or changing the way they operate. As such, there are various project management methods and approaches to choose from. To make your choice easier, let’s take a look at one of the newest and trendiest approaches today – Kanban project management.
Translated from Japanese, the term Kanban means visual sign. It entered the project management world in the 1950s when popularized by the Toyota supply chain. After the initial success, Kanban has been taken on and adopted to various other companies and industries proving it is a versatile nd flexible tool.
The way Kanban worked back then and now is similar and rather easy to explain. Each piece of work (whether it is an actual part of a car or a task that has to be completed for the project) is visualized by a task card that is tracked through the project process steps. These steps can be as simple as To do, Doing and Done, or as elaborate, as your project requires.
All of this is done using a Kanban board. The process steps are visualized using columns and the tasks or products are visualized using Kanban cards that move through the process steps as the team continues to work on them. All of this allows teams to visualize and understand their process from start to finish.
When it comes to talking about Kanban as a project management methodology, there are two camps. Some say it is a project management method as it provides principles and guidelines on how a project should be run. Others argue that Kanban is only suitable for the execution and tracking of tasks and lacks in tools to plan out the project and the ability to set necessary dependencies.
The fact is, that there is some truth to both of these statements. Kanban can be a sufficient project management methodology for projects that don’t require long-term planning and are executed in stages or iterations. However, it will not be sufficient as a sole project management approach in those cases, where there is a need to set multiple task dependencies and monitor them on a strict timeline.
Thus, it is safe to say that Kanban is a project management methodology that can be sufficiently used in specific projects and that may need additional tools in others.
The idea behind Kanban project management is rather simple – visualize your process and continuously improve. To help teams implement this in practice, Kanban defines certain principles you should follow.
Once you decide to start using Kanban, the first thing to do is understand and visualize your current situation. Use the Kanban board to replicate your processes and add your current and planned tasks to see what you have going on.
After you’ve set up the initial board, you should start or continue working. As you do, observe how tasks are moved through the process steps, where do they get stuck, and find ways to improve your initial process. Maybe you need additional process steps to be defined, or is something excessive? Consider your process and find ways to make it better. However, remember this has to be done continuously and is not a finite effort.
As your project gets going, you will see an accumulation of tasks on your Kanban board. To ensure this board stays clear and easy to use, introduce Kanban swimlanes (rows). Initially, Kanban teams used an expedite swimlane at the top of the Kanban board to highlight urgent tasks that should take priority over everything else. However, today the usage of swimlanes is much broader. Kanban teams use them to classify tasks based on various criteria such as classes of service, type, teams, projects, etc. To find the best way to classify your board, consider what task grouping would make the most sense for your project.
With the help of Kanban, all of your processes are clear and transparent. As such, it becomes a lot easier to see what has to be done next and where the team should focus their efforts. Thus, set up priority columns in your backlog (or To-do section), prioritize tasks, and then let your team members pick and choose what they are going to be working on. Encouraging responsibility and motivation to perform.
Kanban project management says, that each team member should be working on one task at a time. Thus, improving concentration and the speed of work. To control the number of in-progress tasks, Kanban teams use WIP limits. Which defines how many tasks can be added to each process step at any time. If this limit is reached, the team members have to move one task to the following process step, before they can start working on a new task. The WIP limit is usually equal to the number of team members, thus allowing each of them to only work on one task at a time.
Another important principle to follow for Kanban project management is measuring how your team is performing. For this, Kanban uses two metrics – lead and cycle time. These metrics measure how long it takes for the team to complete tasks on average and thus indicate issues in the process if this time suddenly extends.
Teams using more Advanced Kanban board tools, can also take advantage of actionable Agile metrics. That uses the lead and cycle time information to identify troublesome tasks on the team’s Kanban board and to suggest where the team should place their focus next.
Lastly, Kanban project management is all about constant improvement. Thus, the process, the tasks and the results have to be reviewed on a regular basis. By doing so the team can ensure they are working on the most important part of the project at all times and doing so in the most effective manner. To enforce this principle, teams hold regular planning, stand-up and review meetings.
Now that you know how Kanban project management works, lets see why you should go through the trouble of implementing it in your team.
One of the biggest benefits Kanban project management brings to the table is visualization. By placing all of your processes on the Kanban board, it becomes very clear what the team is working on and what should be done next. You can classify tasks based on their status, priority, type, tags, or colors, thus creating your own custom workflow and board structure.
As such, there is less need for managing the team, fewer misunderstandings, and it is easier to show your clients what you have achieved as well as what is coming next.
Another benefit or outcome out of Kanban project management is faster work delivery. This is achieved with the help f two factors – WIP limits and clear processes. By limiting WIP, Kanban ensures each team member is only working on one task at a time. Which results in better concentration and a faster outcome. And by visualizing and setting a clear process, there is less time needed to decide what has to be done next. All of which accumulated to faster delivery.
Another benefit of Kanban project management is the ability to react and adapt to changes. Kanban in itself asks the teams to constantly review and improve their process, which works perfectly for when there are third-party or market changes as well. The team knows how to reprioritize tasks and regroup within themselves. Thus, they become more agile and better at handling anything new that is thrown at them.
With an Advanced Kanban board and visualization of the subtask process, it becomes easier to monitor and execute even the smallest tasks. This way, you can expand the complicated process steps and be on top of the task status at all times without making any additional inquiries to the team.
Choosing Kanban project management can also mean there will be fewer meetings for your team to hold. As the process is clearly visualized on the board, checking the project status becomes a lot easier and does not require preparing reports anymore. Moreover, the team can communicate and share project information in the task details, thus promoting asynchronous communication and minimizing the need to discuss tasks live.
Lastly, Kanban project management brings more accountability to the teams using it. Kanban asks the team members to be active in taking on tasks and as such promotes ownership over the work that has to be done. Also, as all tasks are visible on the Kanban board, team members feel more inclined to move them through the process steps instead of having them sit in one place for weeks.
Projects that get the most out of Kanban project management are those that require firm monitoring, breakdown, and classification of work. This is achieved by visualizing work on a Kanban board, iterative planning, and prioritization. Such projects usually are concentrated towards:
1 – Introducing a new product or service. Kanban allows the team to focus on the goals, be reactive to changes and take the project on in certain phases. Thus, avoiding the feeling of being overwhlemed.
2 – Supporting a current product or operations. The visualization and classification of tasks on the Kanban board really shines in this case. It becomes easy to see everything that has to be done and accommodate any urgent tasks without overloading the team.
3 – Quality assurance. Using the priority columns and task classification with Kanban swimlanes, teams can create a smooth process that ensures continuity and efficiency.
Overall, Kanban can accommodate any team or industry. While it is best suited for certain scenarios, this does not mean, other teams or processes will not benefit from work visualization and tracking on a Kanban board. These Kanban board examples show how to use this approach in engineering, accounting, marketing and various other projects.
When it comes to project management, there are various methods teams can use. Kanban project management is a great option for those working in uncertain industries and with complicated processes. It helps visualize what has to be done and ensure the projects are delivered in a clear and timely fashion.
Looking for a Kanban project management tool to try out this approach? Check out Teamhood to visualize and track your projects easily.