What is Kanban?

Kanban was developed at Toyota by Taiichi Ohno. He was searching for an efficient system which could be used for reaching a higher productivity level. Kanban is a visual Lean Tool and is often applied in combination with JIT (Just-In-Time). Components are only produced when there is a demand. Kanban derives from the Japanese kan, which means ‘visual’ and ban, which means ‘map or board’. By using simple signalling cards (nowadays also digitally possible) one can give a signal whenever something is needed. For instance when ordering specific products.

Kanban in an Agile environment / Software Development

Kanban in an Agile environment and/or software development is derived from Kanban that is used in Lean manufacturing to optimise production processes. Microsoft engineer David J. Anderson realised in 2004 how this method devised by Toyota could become a process applicable to any type of organizational process, and was one of the main drivers behind the development of the Kanban Method in software development.

Principles of Kanban

  • Start with what you do now – evolve your current process, don’t re-invent it.
  • Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change – if the politics are tricky or there is a lot of resistance expected, a more gentle, incremental approach might be the right way, but it needs to be agreed upon to handle it this way.
  • Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities & titles – eliminate initial fears & enable broader support to lower the threshold to change.
  • Encourage acts of leadership at all levels in your organization – individuals who believe improvement is possible must feel empowered to enact it.

General practices of Kanban

  • Visualize (the work, workflow and business risks) – As a general rule, seek to make that which is invisible, visible. Once invisible work, workflows, and business risks can be seen, it is possible to manage them better and to do so collaboratively and with consensus.
  • Limit WIP (Work in Progress) – limiting WIP implies that we implement a pull system on part or all of the workflow. Only pull in new work when there is available capacity. If you limit the amount of items you’re working on, the faster these items will be delivered.
  • Manage Flow – The flow of work items through each state in the workflow should be monitored and reported. Optimised flow means our system is both creating value quickly, which is minimizing risk and avoiding (opportunity) cost of delay and is also doing so in a predictable fashion.
  • Make Policies Explicit – Until the rules for how we perform a creative knowledge work activity such as software development or IT services, are made explicit it is often hard or impossible to hold a more rational, empirical and objective discussion about improving it.
  • Implement Feedback Loops – We want to make process and policy adjustments as a result of the feedback and understanding the current outcomes in comparison with our expectations or desires.
  • 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 which can be agreed by consensus. The use of models allows a team to make a prediction about the affect of a change (or intervention). After the change is implemented the outcome can be observed by measuring the flow and examining the data. The outcome can be compared to the prediction expected from the model and the change can be assessed as an improvement, or not.


Kanban board

The Kanban board, designed for the context in which it is used, can vary considerably and may show work item types, columns delineating workflow activities, explicit policies, and swimlanes (rows crossing several columns, used for grouping user stories by feature here). The aim is to make the general workflow and the progress of individual items clear to participants and stakeholders.

Here are some examples:

And file to download: Kanban boards

If you want to learn more about Kanban, please contact us!

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