[ INTRODUCTION ]

What is Kanban?
A beginner’s guide

To do…doing…done!
Here’s how the visual workflow management method of Kanban ensures effective implementation of Agile & DevOps software development as well as improved team performance.

Piyasi Mitra

June 2, 2021

Guide

You’ve had your introduction with  Agile and its basic concepts, and now it’s time to move on to the real-life application bit where teams implement various Agile methodologies to achieve business benefits and excel in performances. In this article, we’ll explore how organizations benefit from the Kanban method.

What is Kanban?

Trundl Kanban

Kanban is a methodology used to implement Agile and DevOps software development. Real-time communication of capacity and complete transparency of work are the cornerstones of this system where task items are represented visually on a Kanban board. This gives team members the advantage of  staying updated about the progress of any task, any time.

Kanban: Origin and concept

Who would’ve thought that a simple yet highly effective supermarket restocking technique would influence project management in years ahead?

In the late 1940s, Japanese automotive manufacturer Toyota began optimizing its engineering processes inspired by a unique model that supermarkets were using to stock their shelves. Usually, supermarkets reserve just the right amount of product to meet consumer demands, a practice that efficiently optimizes the flow between the supermarket and the consumer. By virtue of this practice, inventory levels complement customer demand trends, and the supermarket manages to control the amount of excess stock it must hold at any given time. The entire system is designed to ensure that the product customers need is always in stock.

When Toyota replicated this system in its factory set-up, the goal was to better align their massive inventory levels with the actual consumption of materials. To communicate real-time capacity status on the factory floor (and to suppliers), workers would pass a signed card between teams.

Kanban-a Japanese term for “visual signal” or “sign board’- is built upon the concept that visual management is effective in establishing clear communication.

When a bin of materials being used on the production line was emptied, a ‘Kanban’ was passed to the warehouse specifying what material was needed, along with the quantity required and other relevant details.

While the signaling technology of this process has evolved since the 1940s, its essence of being a “just in time” (or JIT) is intact even in modern settings.

What is a Kanban board?

A Kanban board is a tool used to visualize work and optimize the flow of the work amongst team members. Physical boards are widely used, while virtual boards have also gained popularity across agile software development teams for advantages of traceability, easier collaboration and accessibility from multiple and/or remote locations.

How to use a Kanban board?

Irrespective of physical or digital Kanban boards, the objective is to ensure the team’s work is visualized, their workflow  standardized, and all blockers and dependencies  immediately identified and resolved.

 A basic Kanban board has a three-step workflow:

  • To Do
  • In Progress
  • Done

However, depending on a team’s size, structure, and objectives, the workflow can be customized to meet the unique requirements.

Kanban cards: The purpose of representing work as a card on the Kanban board is to allow team members to track its progress  through a workflow in a highly visual manner. Kanban cards feature critical information about specific work items, giving the entire team full visibility into who is responsible for it, technical details, attachments related to the concerned job, estimated duration of its completion, etc.

Cycle time: Cycle time is the duration it takes for a unit of work to travel through the team’s workflow–from the initiation of work to the moment it ships. By optimizing cycle time, the team gets better at forecasting the delivery of future work.

Kanban: The 4 Core Principles

David J Anderson-a stalwart in the field of Lean/ Kanban for knowledge work-formulated the Kanban method as an approach to incremental, evolutionary process and systems change for knowledge work organizations. The basic concepts can be simplified into four  principles:

Principle 1: Start with what you do now

As David states in his blog, “The Kanban Method does not ask you to change your process. It is based on the concept that you evolve your current process.” Kanban’s flexibility allows it to be applied to existing workflows, systems, and processes without disrupting what is already successfully being done. The goal is to help assess and plan changes by avoiding major disruption in implementation as much as possible.
Kanban’s versatility allows you to introduce it incrementally to a team without the need to make overwhelming changes in the preliminary phase.

Principle 2: Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change

The Kanban methodology is designed to meet minimal resistance. It encourages continuous small incremental and evolutionary changes to the existing process.

Principle 3: Respect the current process, roles & responsibilities

Kanban recognizes that existing processes, roles, responsibilities, and titles have value and are, generally, worth preserving. The Kanban method is designed to promote and encourage incremental, logical changes without triggering fear of change itself.

Principle 4: Encourage acts of leadership at all levels

 The idea is to foster a continuous improvement mindset to reach optimal performance on a team/department/company level, and this can’t exclusively be a management level activity. As David puts it, “A culture of safety, must exist, to take action without fear of retribution providing changes can be defended based on logical explanation using models and data.”
Kanban can be used in any knowledge work setting and is particularly applicable in situations in which work arrives in an unpredictable fashion and/or when you want to deploy work as soon as it is ready, rather than waiting for other work items.

Practices of Kanban method

1. Visualize (the work, workflow, and business risks): Once invisible work, workflows, and business risks gain visibility, management and consensual collaboration automatically become easier. It is important to understand how to define and capture requests for work and visualize each request with a card on a Kanban board. Visualize the sequence of knowledge discovery activities performed from when the request is first received until it is completed and ready for delivery to the customer.

2. WIP Limit: Work in Progress Limit or WIP Limit is the number of task items that a team is currently working on. A WIP Limit is a measure of capacity that keeps the development team focused on only a small amount of work at one time.  WIP limits restrict the maximum amount of work items in the different stages (Kanban board columns) of the workflow. This allows teams to complete single work items faster by helping your team focus only on current tasks.

3. Manage Flow: The flow of work items through each stage in the workflow should be monitored and reported – often referred to as Measuring Flow. As per David, “We are interested in the speed of movement and the smoothness of that movement. Fast smooth flow means our system is both creating values quickly, which is minimizing risk and avoiding (opportunity) cost of delay and is also doing so in a predictable fashion.”

4. Explicit Policies: With a precise understanding of how things work and how work is actually done, it is possible to move to a more rational, empirical, objective discussion of issues and facilitate consensus around improvement suggestions.

5. Implement Feedback Loops: When implemented at a service delivery level in companies, Kanban uses four practices for feedback: the stand-up meeting; the service delivery review; the operations review; and the risk review. Feedback loops are critical for ensuring that.

6. Improve Collaboratively, Evolve Experimentally (using models & the scientific method)

When teams have a shared understanding of theories about work, workflow, process, and risk, they are more likely to be able to build a shared comprehension of a problem and suggest improvement actions that are agreed upon consensually.

Benefits of Kanban method

  • Versatile method: Kanban can be implemented by every team in an organization-be it engineering or sales.
  • Visibility for Better Workflow Management: The Kanban board helps teams understand the workflow better and collaborate  effectively.
  • Continuous Improvement: The visual system of project management facilitates easy review processes and make improvement in waste reduction, streamlining workflow, etc.
  • Just-in-time delivery: Using Kanban makes it possible for teams to respond to business needs better.
  • Shortened Cycle Times: WIP limits encourage teams to focus on one task at a time and work together to move tasks to the “Done” column as soon as possible.

Scrum vs Kanban in Agile

While Scrum and Kanban methodologies in Agile are different, remember that both the project management methodologies serve a common purpose: to facilitate the completion of projects faster and more efficiently.

Here’s taking a look at the top factors on which the two differ:

Scrum Kanban
Regular fixed length sprints Continuous flow
Pre-defined roles of Product owner, scrum master, development team No required roles
Focus is primarily
on planning
Receptive to change
at any stage
Onus of problem solving lies with the scrum master Kanban encourages shared responsibility amongst all team members

Conclusion

Did this article inspire you to enhance team performance with a user-friendly visual project management method like Kanban? To make sure you’re getting the most out of Kanban, consider reaching out to experts who’ve guided significant Kanban implementations. If you’re in the Kanban club already, tell us about your team’s experience…we’re all ears!

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