Kanban (看板)  means “board”, “card” or “visual sign” in Japanese. As a methodology, it’s roots go back to 1940’s when Toyota changed the world with its Toyota Production System which evolved later into Just in Time manufacturing. The idea was simple but revolutionary:  produce and deliver the manufacturing needs only when there is a real need shown by written cards. Supported with participation  by all employees, quality at all levels and amplifying learning through the whole company, Kanban brought value to Toyota, Japan and the world.

After being used for more than 50 years in production, thanks to David Anderson, now it is much more popular in software development and other industries including finance, sales, education and more.

In fact, it is extremely easy to start doing Kanban since it has only three principles: (1) visualize, (2) apply Work-in-Progress limits and (3) optimize the flow. Still, similar to Scrum, it takes time to master. Beside these principles, it does not describe any events and roles –  which shows that it is not mandatory to change existing roles in the organization solely to adapt Kanban. Also, it does not mean that there are no roles. With the mindset of empiricism, teams and organizations should make their own experiments to find better and better ways of working with this framework. Let’s  have a quick overview about the three principles of Kanban.

Visualization is the easiest part with immediate effect. Just creating a Kanban Board on the wall is the best start.

The moment  in which all work of the team is visible on the board, every member and stakeholder will understand the current picture much better. If it seems unnecessary for you, try not to use a navigation application when going to a place that you have not been before. No need to say, most projects we accomplish are unique.

Work-in-Progress (WIP)
are the number of jobs being worked on at any given time. If you are working on many tasks at the same time, you probably are  blocking some of them and focusing just on one. In case you need to handle another task before completing your active one, you spend time to shift your mind to the other task even if you disregard preparation times. This is a waste of time and efficiency. So, limiting WIP will reduce waste, help finish more tasks and decrease lead times. A team applying Kanban has WIP limits which may be personal, for a type of task, for the station the task is being handled at or for a whole board. Experiment yourself to find the best WIP limit. .

Optimizing the flow is the final principle. The flow of any task is more important than efficiency of the team and individuals’ workload. The team needs to focus on the flow in a Kanban Board. If there is a task being blocked, then this task is more important than any other task waiting in  queue (or backlog)  – the problem needs to be solved immediately. How can the team understand whether their flow is at the optimal point? To answer this question, the team needs some baselines on the agreed metrics such as Lead Time, Throughput, Queue Length, etc… This leads to continuous improvements. Once the team has some metrics, they can experiment to solve the pain points and review how well they are doing.

Kanban does not end with these principles, it is more like a journey together with Agile Culture and Lean Philosophy.


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