Companies that want to survive in today’s world need innovative products, flexible structures and motivated employees who can work independently. What they definitely don’t need are conventional processes with traditional hierarchies and a project management approach based on planning everything in advance and handing down tasks for employees to complete. These processes are too slow, rigid and uncreative. Agile working can change all that – and Kanban can help companies become agile.
What is Kanban?
Back in the 1940s, Toyota engineer Taiichi Ohno looked for ways to optimise the production process. He wanted to create a smooth flow from the point when a shipment was delivered right through to final assembly. He also wanted to make production more flexible and empower workers on the production line to solve problems themselves as soon as they came up. His method greatly optimised the production process and remains an influential model to this day even outside the automotive industry. It is also known as lean production, just-in-time-production (JIT) and the Toyota Production System (TPS).
Many people are now discovering Kanban for the first time thanks to the work of David J. Anderson, an IT manager and project developer who took the basic structures of the original Kanban system and adapted them to the needs of agile software development and project management for knowledge workers.
Kanban is a Japanese word that roughly translates as “board” or “card”. This name is due to the fact that the key elements of the Kanban method are a board and lots of small cards. Team members write down urgent tasks on cards and put them up on a large board, known as a Kanban board, where everyone can see them. Boards covered in Post-its are the characteristic hallmark of the Kanban system.
How does Kanban work?
The Kanban board gives the whole team an overview of the project. This makes a big difference: everyone can see which tasks still need to be done, which are already in progress and which are complete. Each team member can browse the Kanban cards and choose which task to work on next – an innovative departure from a “push” system, where tasks are assigned, in favour of a “pull” system, where workers pick out tasks themselves.
1.) Visualise the workflowThe first step of the Kanban method is to visualise the workflow. To do this, you need at least three columns:
- In progress
- In review
2.) Define tasksThe team then take Kanban cards and write down all the separate tasks that individual team members need to complete in order to achieve the project goals. As work on the tasks progresses, the cards are moved left to right along the board. The board can also be divided into rows, known as “swimlanes”, that separate different types of activities. Sometimes, a distinction is made between things that should be done at some point (backlog) and tasks that need to be completed now (to-do). Work only begins on the most urgent tasks on the backlog list when they are prioritised and moved to the to-do list.
3.) Identify weaknessesNow the analysis begins, with a process of constant dialogue between the members of the team. Are there too many tasks? Can we manage them in a reasonable timescale? If we don’t have enough capacity, what can we do? Why did that task take so long? Why didn’t we make progress on that point? The Kanban cards sharpen the team’s focus, and the board clearly shows any tasks where progress has stalled. By working together to identify the causes of any hold-ups, the team learns to set priorities, find alternative solutions and resolve problems more quickly.
David J. Anderson, who was also one of the original signatories of the Agile Manifesto in 2001, published his method in his 2010 book Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business. In place of just-in-time materials, he introduced the notion of “work in progress” (WiP), referring to all the tasks a team is currently working on in parallel. The number of such tasks needs to be restricted for a team to be able to efficiently achieve its goals and quickly identify problems. In Kanban terminology, this is referred to as a “WiP limit”.
What are the benefits?
The main benefit of the Kanban system is that it creates transparency for everyone working on a project. Being able to understand the value of each individual task for the client encourages people to work more independently and with greater motivation, since everyone is responsible for both their own task and the overall success of the project. Thanks to the quick feedback and collective problem-solving, everyone is involved and able to learn and improve together. This culture of kaizen – Japanese for “continuous improvement” – is one of the most important results of Kanban
How does it help make companies agile?
Kanban supports a self-organised way of working. Everyone is responsible for the results – for efficiency, quality, innovation. This principle helps bring about more agility. Employees themselves identify errors, hold-ups and bottlenecks in a project, devise solutions and learn from each other. Here too the objective is to produce optimum flow and keep on improving a little at a time.
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How does it differ from other agile methods?
The best-known agile method is Scrum, which requires companies to make fundamental changes to their roles and structures. Kanban, by contrast, does not require organisations that have previously used conventional methods to suddenly make radical upheavals. Instead, there is a process of gradual evolution in parallel with the development of the team and its Kanban practices.
This was precisely David J. Anderson’s intention. He asked why Scrum can sometimes encounter resistance within companies and end up failing, and concluded that people don’t like change, and certainly not radical upheaval. So he sought to structure change in a way that ensured quicker recognition and acceptance of the benefits.
Can the Kanban method be used with digital tools rather than a physical board?
There are advantages to the analogue Kanban method, using a physical board and cards. But the bigger the project, the more impractical this becomes, so there also exist digital solutions (e-Kanban). Some of these solutions are part of other project management and social collaboration tools such as Jira and Merlin. Others are standalone solutions, like Portfolio Kanban and Team Kanban from Kanbanize.
Here are five free e-Kanban tools:
- Trello (https://trello.com/)
- Kanboard (https://kanboard.org/)
- Wekan (https://wekan.github.io/)
- Meistertask (https://www.meistertask.com/de)
- Restyaboard (https://restya.com/board/)
Is Kanban suitable for my company?
The only way to find out is to take the plunge and try it out for yourself. If you want or need to change in order to improve, then Kanban will help kickstart this change process – not with mere words but with concrete actions, and taking small steps that don’t leave anyone behind.
Kanban doesn’t attack or demolish hierarchies or other existing structures, but it does trigger a dynamic within teams and companies that will bring about changes in tasks, roles and mindsets. The most important thing is to give yourself time and take the principles seriously. Only then can Kanban work and bring about positive change.