Kanban is an agile framework that helps teams maximize efficiency through visual workboards. Derived from the Japanese word for “sign,” Kanban involves using boards, either physical or electronic, and colored notes that represent work items.
The simplest Kanban can be divided into three columns: “To do,’’ “Doing,” and “Done.” Sticky notes or cards in different colors are then used to represent either different classes of service or different types of work items, and placed in their respective column. By visually tracking work items on the kanban, teams are able to quickly identify bottlenecks within the system.
While the visual aspect of Kanban is its most defining feature, there is much more to this agile methodology than meets the eye. Matt Philip, former Director of Coaching at Asynchrony, calls this phenomenon the Kanban Iceberg. In his workshops and talks, he explains that card walls are only the tip of the iceberg, and that the majority of Kanban’s value lies beneath the surface.
How can you take advantage of Kanban’s features to improve workflow? Truly get to know the practices, principles, and values that make up the mass of the Kanban system.
How Kanban Works: 6 Practices
Practice 1: Visualize the Workflow
Towards the top of the Kanban Iceberg lies the core practice of Kanban methodology: visualizing the workflow. A Kanban can range from simple to elaborate, depending on the complexity of your process and the different types of work items that you work on and deliver.
When using a Kanban board, it’s crucial to be able to move cards, representing work items, from one column or lane to another. This way, teams can clearly see what work needs to be done, what’s in progress, and what has been completed.
Practice 2: Limit Work in Progress
Limiting Work-in-Progress (WIP) ensures that teams aren’t pulled from one task to another, without seeing projects through before starting another one. Limiting WIP makes Kanban a Pull System, a lean technique that produces based on consumer demand rather than creating supply in excess.
Teams can limit WIP by setting maximum items per stage, ensuring that a card is only placed in the next lane when there is available capacity. This communicates to the client that there is limited capacity in the system, and that work needs to be planned out carefully before it’s ordered.
Practice 3: Manage Flow
Instead of completing deliverables in incremental sprints, as in the Scrum methodology, Kanban runs on a continuous flow cadence. If the workflow is well-defined and the WIP limits are set, the Kanban workflow will be smooth and fast.
By highlighting the various stages of the workflow and where work items are being held up, Kanban pinpoints where there are slowdowns in the system so that they can figure out ways to move it along more efficiently. If work items move through the stages efficiently, you can reduce the average production cycle time and create value quicker.
Practice 4: Make Process Policies Explicit
In order for a Kanban system to flow smoothly, it’s crucial to establish a set of process policies. These rules can define what each column means, when a work item is considered complete, which team member pulls the card when, etc. These process policies must be visible, usually at the top of the board and above each column.
Practice 5: Feedback Loops
Feedback loops are an essential practice in lean philosophy, and help teams to innovate and continuously improve their deliverables. In Kanban, this typically takes the form of a daily standup meeting where each team member shares what they completed the day before and what they’re working on today.
Data is also gathered from the operations review, service delivery review, and risk review.
Practice 6: Improve Collaboratively (using models & the scientific method)
Kanban is a process of gradual and continuous improvement. Applying the scientific method, teams form a hypothesis, test it, and go back to the drawing board or build it out depending on the outcome. Through this process of continual testing and feedback, teams unite on a common vision of better processes and deliverables.
These practices are what allow Kanban to come to life in the form of card walls. Next, we’ll dive even deeper to explore the foundational principles that govern Kanban practices.
What Governs Kanban: 4 Core Principles
Principle 1: Start With What You Do Now
Unlike some agile methodologies, Kanban is designed to accommodate an existing workflow without derailing what is already being done successfully. It can be applied incrementally, helping to highlight issues in the existing process and identify flow optimization opportunities, without causing a “culture shock.”
Principle 2: Agree to Pursue Incremental, Evolutionary Change
Kanban lies on the belief that progress is best made through small, evolutionary changes. Dramatic, sweeping changes are generally discouraged, as they tend to be met with resistance and fear.
Principle 3: Respect the Current Process, Roles & Responsibilities
Consistent with principles 1 and 2, Kanban respects existing processes that are working well and enables necessary changes incrementally. The system encourages teams to constantly evaluate processes and make incremental changes to optimize the workflow.
Principle 4: Encourage Acts of Leadership at All Levels
Kanban encourages every team member to adapt a mindset of continual improvement. Whether that’s a junior member on the front line or a manager, everyone is encouraged to be a leader and suggest improvements to the system.
Without fully understanding the process you’re coming into, you won’t have a foundation for making improvements to it.
Agreement in every step of the Kanban process is essential for collaborative improvement.
Respect not only for each other, but for the existing process and the established Kanban workflow, is what will drive a successful deliverable.
In Kanban, leadership doesn’t just come from the top down. Each team member, regardless of hierarchical status, is encouraged to demonstrate leadership.
Continuous improvement and deliverables are the backbone of Kanban methodology.
Every decision made and action taken in the Kanban process is for the sake of the customer.
Whether it’s regarding policies or the status of a work item, transparency is critical for the successful completion of any Kanban deliverable.
This ties closely with WIP limits. Ensuring that you keep a balance between team capacities and client satisfaction will help to shorten cycle time and delivery rate.
This value is based on the belief that team members should look beyond the department for knowledge that will help achieve incremental organizational improvements.
How to Start Implementing Kanban
So now you have a foundational understanding of Kanban, and it sounds great. Now how do you start implementing it in your current workflow?
Good news: given the flexible nature of Kanban, it can be overlaid over most current workflows with minimal friction. To implement it, you simply need to follow the 6 Kanban practices.
Start by visualizing your workflow using a Kanban board and work item cards. Limit WIP as much as possible, ensuring that team members complete one work item before moving onto the next one. Establish and publicize your policies so that everyone understands how the Kanban methodology works. Make sure to be consistently managing flow, evaluating the process and getting feedback from the team on how to make the process smoother. Don’t forget to always hypothesize, test, and hypothesize again, ensuring a system of continuous improvement.
Kanban is much more than a board with colorful sticky notes. It represents a host of principles, practices, and values that make it a human and self-improving agile methodology. By truly understanding and embodying its core features, you can apply Kanban to any project and achieve workflow success.