Kanban is a lean manufacturing framework first developed by Toyota in the late 1940s. The Kanban framework is a means of visualizing work as it moves through identifying potential bottlenecks. It does that through a process called just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing to optimize engineering processes, speed up manufacturing products, and improve the go-to-market strategy.
Understanding the Kanban framework
Like many lean manufacturing processes, the kanban framework was first developed by Toyota in the late 1940s.
Through a process called just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, Toyota began to optimize its engineering processes based on a model supermarkets were using to control inventory levels.
Using this model, supermarkets stock just enough product to meet consumer demand.
As inventory levels respond to consumption patterns, the supermarket avoids holding excess stock and the inefficiencies that result.
Removing these process inefficiencies – or project bottlenecks – is central to the kanban framework.
To identify these bottlenecks and increase transparency and collaboration, the entire project is illustrated on a kanban board.
Kanban boards visually depict:
- Tasks that are completed
- Tasks that are currently being performed.
- Future tasks.
This simple approach to defining projects means that external stakeholders or new team members can quickly get up to speed.
Many businesses utilize physical kanban boards while those in software development use virtual boards.
This facilities better collaboration and increases accessibility from multiple locations.
Four core principles of the kanban framework
Kanban principles are based on:
- An emphasis on small and gradual changes to the existing workflow.
- Limiting existing tasks. Here, the team must not take on too much work such that the project is negatively affected.
- Respect for existing roles and responsibilities. The kanban framework improves efficiency in established systems. It does not require that businesses change their operations or culture.
- Leadership. Traditional project management practices stipulate that a project manager must sign off on every task, no matter how menial. However, the kanban framework affords whoever is working on a task the freedom to make their own decisions. This creates a culture of iterative improvement and creates the next generation of leaders.
Implementing the Kanban framework
To apply kanban principles to almost any scenario, kanban management consultant David J. Anderson identified six core practices:
Visualize the workflow
This begins by creating a kanban board with columns for the three types of tasks mentioned in the introduction.
For each type, kanban cards representing specific work items should be assigned.
Cards should be moved from column to column as work on them progresses.
Limit tasks that are currently being performed by setting constraints
This helps avoid multitasking and subsequent process inefficiencies.
Or the movement of work items through each step of the process.
Many businesses make the mistake of micro-managing staff to keep them constantly busy.
But the kanban framework simply focuses on moving the work through the process as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Make management policies explicit
Members of the project team must understand what they are trying to achieve.
Kanban boards should have a column assigned for daily feedback – whether that be from staff or customers.
This creates agile feedback loops that encourage knowledge transfer between key stakeholders.
With a deeper understanding of the project and potential bottlenecks, organizations using the kanban framework have a collective understanding of problems that need addressing.
Working toward the same goal, they also share a collective vision of future success.
Kanban framework examples
In truth, kanban frameworks take many forms depending on the particular business, industry, or project at hand.
Below we will list some of the most common applications.
Kanban is a favorite of IT operations teams because of the enormous amount of tasks their departments need to deal with.
Boards are used to visualize workflows with columns used to better differentiate flow stages.
Some also use swimlanes to acquire a deeper understanding of the work’s importance and avoid priority conflicts.
In truth, many IT departments seek to process more work than their capacity allows.
The result is invisible work which causes longer lead and cycle times and causes unhappiness among customers and managers alike.
Effective structuring of the kanban board to provide a holistic overview of operation is key.
Kanban boards designed for development teams display workflows comprised of many functional steps and their associated columns.
Swimlanes can also be effective in software development as a way to visually represent the different classes of work.
For example, some tasks will involve work on defects, while others will be related to product features.
Small teams or those that are new to kanban may choose a simple workflow that consists of basic steps such as design, development, code review, testing, and deployment.
More advanced teams may want to combine their workflows with quality assurance or customer support.
Small to medium-sized businesses can use kanban boards to move customers through an entire pipeline – whether that be one related to sales or marketing.
This is an easy way to spot bottlenecks and call upon an Account Executive or SDR to intervene.
Since kanban boards provide a complete overview of the entire customer journey and sales funnel, teams can also avoid sending the same emails twice.
On that note, kanban workflows can illustrate simple sales pipelines with a Qualification, Proposal, and Sale step.
As these workflows become more complex over time, additional steps such as Presentation, Evaluation, Negotiation, and Closing can be added.
Teams who are focused on day-to-day tasks can sometimes become overwhelmed and lose sight of the bigger, strategic-level picture.
Portfolio kanban frameworks help these teams plan long-term activities and strategies and are an ideal way to appreciate the strategic evolution of the team, department, or company itself.
Portfolio boards vary according to the size of the team or the focus of the work.
Product development teams use two swimlanes to prioritize their initiatives, while project management teams break initiatives down into smaller pieces that are represented by small colored squares.
UX teams and designers
Some UX teams and designers use kanban boards that are divided into:
- Design-related tasks – user research, design reviews, etc.
- Administrative tasks – meeting the client, signing a contract, and so forth.
Workflows can also be divided into phases such as Draft, Wireframes, Mockups, and Prototypes.
This allows teams to move individual tasks from the ideation phase through to the final product.
Kanban vs. Scrum
Kanban and Scrum are agile project management methodologies enabling quick iterations, short development cycles, and team productivity.
Thus, both tools are extremely useful and essential in the agile development framework.
Kanban vs. Kaizen
Similarly to Kanban, Kaizen also focussed on removing defects from production.
Though Kanban has found a much wider application also in the software development industry, where it has become a popular tool for project management.
Kaizen moves along a few key principles:
- 1. Small incremental changes
- 2. Employees are active participants and provide ideas and solutions
- 3. Accountability and ownership of new processes/changes
- 4. Feedback, dialogue, open communication
- 5. Active monitoring and measuring of changes – positive or negative impact
- The kanban framework is an illustrative approach to project or product development with a focus on removing bottlenecks.
- The kanban framework analyses project tasks according to whether they are completed, currently being performed, or assigned to a future date. This enables project team members to visualize the workflow and minimize multitasking to prevent bottlenecks.
- The kanban framework is suitable for most industries and does not require that a business change its culture or management practices. The framework also empowers those carrying out the tasks to make important strategic decisions.
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