What Is Kanban?

Software engineering has seen a lot of revolution, which means that there have been plenty of developments that help implement methods to improve the delivery of products and services. One competitive framework that I will be introducing you to is the Kanban Method.

The Kanban Method suggests managing workflow better while continuously improving your team, products, and services. It does so by designing, managing, and improving the flow system of knowledge work.
The framework initially worked to manage ‘Just in Time’ manufacturing processes, but now it lets the users enjoy many great benefits.

You must be wondering where the word Kanban comes from or what it means? Well, Kanban is a Japanese word that means ‘visual signals.’ They were these cards that communicated what actions should be taken and when. So, the same principle applies to this methodology’s use in different industries.

Fun fact: the idea behind Kanban methodology stems from supermarket restocking techniques! The supermarket technique was that customers ordered new stock only after the previous one ran out and not on a timely schedule. Applying it to products and services in software engineering increased production levels and efficiency and contributed to reduced wastage.
This method was initially observed and followed by Toyota’s industrial engineer, Taiichi Ohno. Back in the 1940s, Toyota was in heavy competition with its American rivals. So, to stay on top, Taiichi Ohno managed the production in the same manner. After seeing its colossal success, Ohno published a book that rose to fame titled “Toyota Production System – Beyond Large-Scale Production”, bringing along with it the common use of the Kanban Methodology

Afterward, the Kanban system went from factory usage to knowledge work worldwide, thanks to David J Anderson. In 2004, after developing Microsoft’s pull system, he found that these systems could work as a virtual Kanban system and labeled them the Kanban Methodology. Many of his colleagues added improvements in the system, but the version we use today was last updated in 2007.
This updated version caught the eye of Agile and Scrum teams, where this method fits as perfectly as Cinderella’s shoes. Kanban exploded in popularity from then onwards, becoming a part of every Scrum Team or Knowledge Work team. Now you cannot find a single industry that does not rely on this methodology.

The reason Kanban works so efficiently is that the teams implementing it follow specific values. Let us briefly touch upon them:

  • Transparency: The flow of business improves tremendously when information is openly shared.
  • Balance: There should be a balance between team members’ different viewpoints, and their assignments should be a perfect match for their individual capabilities.
  • Collaboration: The entire focus of Kanban was to improve collective working. Hence, collaborating with members and colleagues is essential.
  • Customer Focus: Kanban systems seek to maximize the flow of value to customers who are external entities of the system but also be internal or external to the company where the system is implemented.
  • Flow: Work should be continuous.
  • Leadership: Leaders should inspire and motivate team members. It is necessary at all levels to ensure the ideal results of the Kanban system.
  • Understanding: To improve and excel, individual and organizational self-knowledge is vital to understand.
  • Agreement: If every team member agrees, it will be easy to move forward with the goals.
  • Respect: Every member should value, respect, and show consideration for their colleagues.

These values are the backbone of the success of the Principles and Practices of the Kanban Methodology. The same principles and practices that David J. Anderson deemed fundamental for the proper implementation of the methodology.

There are two principles that he explained. Firstly, let us learn about the Change Management Principles. These principles show how to blend in with an already established process without causing a lot of disruption.

  •   Principle 1: Assess Your Current Situation
    The Kanban method is quite undisruptive. It is because they do not try to change the existing workflows, systems, and processes. The method understands that existing processes are of value and worth preserving. Over time, the issues in the operations come forward, and then only they are changed, and new procedures implemented. Through this technique, the Kanban method remains as less disruptive as possible.  
  • Principle 2: Adopt a Gradual Positive Change
    The Kanban methodology is intended to receive as little opposition as possible. Introducing cooperation and feedback forms promotes continual minor incremental and evolutionary modifications to the current process. It would help to avoid large-scale changes since they often bring some fear or uncertainty.  
  • Principle 3: Encourage Leadership
    The ideal way of improving working and reaching optimal performance in any department or team arrives through leadership at all levels. It is not something that dropped down from the management level down the pipes. The presence of an avid leader in any department is always quite beneficial for the whole company.  

The second principle explained is Service Delivery Principles. These principles are dependent on how accurately you understand the customer’s needs and how you create a system of services that continuously evolves.

  • Principle 1: What Customers Expect
    Providing the client with a valuable product should be the center of each organization’s attention. It is essential to understand the customers’ needs and manage their expectations, provided that the value and quality will not decrease.  
  • Principle 2: Manage the Work
    Empowering your employees or team members to become more self-organized about their work is the ideal way of managing the work. Using this technique means that you and your team can focus on the desired result without tackling the difficulties that come with micro-managing people or constantly nagging them.  
  • Principle 3: Review the Wholeness of Service Networks
    You rightfully demand a perfect customer service experience for your clients; a service-oriented strategy requires regular review. Kanban supports improved outcomes by conducting frequent evaluations of the network of services and analyzing the work policies in use.  

Knowing these principles means practical implementation of the practices. The Kanban methodology is only helpful at optimal performance and if the procedures are adopted. Many organizations have switched to using this method and continue to do so because of its tremendous results.
Even though every organization would aim to master these practices, it is more beneficial to understand that it is an evolving process. Let us take a closer look:


Visualize the Workflow

The visualization of the workflow will divide the work and let you know its status as well. Using cards and columns, you can create a board that will represent your workflow. It will be easy to understand which team member is working on which task, whether it is in progress or completed.

Typical look of a Kanban Board

The provided image can help you understand what kind of format to use for the organization.
The first and most crucial step for you is understanding what it takes to turn demand into a deliverable product—recognizing how workflows through your system can put you on the road to quality management by allowing you to make well-observed and essential adjustments.
As the work progresses, you can shift the columns to update their status—an easy and effective way of staying on top of all the work.


Limit Work in Progress (WIP)

If there is no limit to your work-in-progress, you are not adopting Kanban. The primary function of Kanban is to ensure that there are not multiple active projects. If there are, you are potentially harming the process and creating an environment of inefficiency and high wastage.
Limiting your work-in-progress means implementing a pull system. Doing so will quickly highlight any problems or constraints in the workflow so you can resolve them timely.


Manage Flow

Managing workflow is about managing the work items through the production process, not the people working on it. Rather than focusing on micro-managing people to keep them busy, the focus should be on smoothing out the work process. The goal is a product of higher value and quality and not faster delivery.


Making Process Policies Explicit

The work process needs to be clearly defined, understood, and communicated to every team member. You cannot improve something you do not understand, and you will not bother to if it is not something you believe. Hence you need to ensure that all your team members are fully involved and invested.
When every team member is aware of the same goal, they will collaborate and make decisions that will benefit them. Work policies that are brief, transparent, well-defined, and open to change have the potential to improve people’s self-organization.


Feedback Loops

Implementing feedback loops is a must-do for teams and businesses looking to become more efficient. They guarantee that companies adapt appropriately to anticipated changes and facilitate information sharing among stakeholders.
Kanban suggests the use of two distinct kinds of feedback loops or cadences.
Team-Level Cadence will be like daily meetings. This meeting ensures that everyone is up to speed on the product process/delivery process. And it is also a wonderful way of identifying room for improvement or preventing problems.
Service-Oriented Cadences come into action when it is essential to get the team and work in sync to ensure delivery service. It helps you identify any blockages that might be slowing down the delivery process and helps in decision-making regarding delivery-related improvements.
It is ideal for keeping these meetings short. However, they should still cover all necessary topics of discussion.


Improve Collaboratively

You can achieve impeccable quality management and long-term change within your organization by jointly making improvements based on scientifically established approaches, feedback, and statistics. Creating an environment where every method has negative and positive effects is essential for keeping your mind focused on positive change within the organization.

Now that you know the values, principles, and practices of Kanban methodology, it should be easy to implement it into your own organization slowly, especially since it does not require hiring new managers to do so.
The implementation is easy because there are no new roles that need hiring. The roles that have emerged through this approach can be adopted by those already working in the organization.

Firstly, there is a need for a Service Request Manager, a role that any product owner or previous manager can adopt. The responsibility of this role taker is to understand the customer’s needs and expectations and deliver the message to the team members.

The second role is of Service Delivery Manager, which the flow manager can adopt. Their only responsibility is to facilitate Kanban Meetings and Delivery Planning and deliver select items to the customer.

Hence, there is not much preparation needed to adopt the Kanban Method and enjoy its benefits.
If this article is not enough to convince you that Kanban methodology has the most positive effects on workflow and delivery, let statistics do the talking.

Statistical Advantages when using Kanban Methodology

There has been increased visibility in the workflow. It means that transparency, collaboration, and constant updates improve the work, product, and delivery flow efficiency while maintaining value and quality.
Kanban’s implementation has also improved the delivery speed. Since project managers can more closely monitor the work and make analyses, the delivery speed has increased. It is easier to identify and tackle challenges once each team member’s role in the process is known. Which benefits the delivery speed. 

Kanban techniques enable integrating the company’s strategic objectives with teams’ daily operations by promoting openness, encouraging feedback, and holding frequent review meetings. This alignment improves an organization’s agility. It enables teams to adjust to shifting priorities and reorganize accordingly.
Once you have created a Kanban system and begun gathering work items on it, you will be able to analyze your workflow in detail using flow metrics. Understanding the time tasks spend in your process will enhance your future predictions of how much work you can deliver.
It also improves the organization’s ability to manage scale and dependencies. Using the visualizing method of the Kanban provides insight on workflows and areas for improvement. It also offers complete visibility for strategic management of the workflow and present team relationships.

Lastly, it increases customer satisfaction. Always aim to improve every aspect of the process and thoroughly understand the customer’s needs and expectations. Eventually, they feel satisfied with the product they are receiving.
Having so many benefits has given Kanban the popularity it enjoys today, reaching heights that make it bump shoulders with Scrum as its competitor. Even though the two share similar concepts, they use different approaches.

Which one is better? We will let you decide.

Both Kanban and Scrum use efficiency-based approaches to improve delivery. They break down complex projects to make them more manageable while keeping every team member in the loop.
However, the primary difference between the two methodologies is in their methods of execution. It is the reason choosing between the two is such a difficult decision for many organizations.
The following table might make it easy to understand the differences between the two.

Scrum Kanban
Cadence Fixed length, for example, two weeks Continuous flow
Release Method The product owner approves it at the end of each sprint There is continuous delivery, according to the team.
Roles Product owner, scrum master, the development team No actual roles are required. Existing managers adopt more responsibility.
Key Metrics Velocity Cycle time
Change Philosophy Teams should make every effort to avoid making changes to the sprint forecast during the sprint. Learnings about estimates are jeopardized as a result. Believes that change can happen anytime.

The thing is, both frameworks work just as well, so the answer to my proposed question is dependent on what your organization requires.
The Kanban Method is one of the least complicated to deploy, as it requires no immediate structural modifications and follows a set of specified procedures. Kanban may offer extraordinary results if you continually examine and control your workflow.

Choosing the correct method becomes the endgame of meeting the precise project requirements and never settle for compromises.
If you are interested in learning more about developmental methodologies, please check our article about one of Kanban’s intricate alternatives – the Waterfall Method.


Andreas Maier | CEO

Andreas is a result-oriented CEO who brings nearly 30 years of experience gained in the high-tech industry. His experience ranges up to leading positions in Fortune 100 companies such as rentalcars.com (PCLN) or Intrasoft International, a leading EU based R&D software vendor. He holds a Ph.D. in Neural Networks from the University of Cologne, Germany.
In the past Andreas has successfully founded and co-founded several startups among others XXL Cloud Inc., eShopLeasing Ltd, and WDS Consulting SA. His expertise is strongly focused on modern headless Commerce and the optimization of processes in IT ecosystems.