What is Kanban?
Put simply, Kanban is an Agile framework that focuses on flow and eliminating waste. It relies on complete transparency, not only in terms of communication, but work as well. Kanban is probably the biggest reason Post-it Notes are so tightly associated with Agile approaches. This is because at the core of the framework is the Kanban Board, a highly visible and accurate representation of work items and their current state. In the early days, these boards were created using sticky notes and markers, however, these days there are a significant number of digital tools to choose from.
Want to know more about Agile before diving into Kanban? Check out my Intro to Agile article.
Quick bit of history!
The Kanban methodology started over 50 years ago in the car industry. Toyota began optimising their production line using a model inspired by how supermarkets maintain stock levels. If you think about it, supermarkets stock just enough to meet demand. It’s an approach that maximises the efficiency between consumer needs/wants and inventory. The goal is to minimise waste (products that don’t sell).
Toyota applied this approach to manage their inventory of vehicle parts and how they’re used in the production process. They hoped to better align what they stored vs what was being used. Toyota did this by introducing a system involving highly visible cards that staff would physically move between teams capturing what was being used, when, and how often. This visibility helped the warehouse crew and suppliers predict what was needed, when and in what quantities. To summarise, Toyota wanted just enough, just in time and to minimise waste.
An original Kanban board. Source: TOYOTA Global Website
These days, applying Kanban is a lot easier than what Toyota had to do in the 1940s. Because we’re dealing in the virtual space, we don’t have to worry about physical adjustments, coordinating deliveries, or moving heavy bins of car parts around!
At the heart of Kanban is the Kanban board. It visualises work and how it flows across the team. My personal favourite is a physical board, however virtual boards are available.
The reason Kanban boards are so integral to a smooth functioning team is their ability to visualise not just the team’s work, but where each piece of work sits in their overall workflow. It surfaces impediments and cross-dependencies, allowing them to be resolved in a timely manner.
When implementing a Kanban board for the first time, it’s best to keep it as simple as possible. Generally, you would start with three columns: To Do, In Progress, and Done. As you progress and start to use the board as a norm, you may identify areas to expand on depending on the workflow or processes of any particular team.
Example Kanban Board
… and Kanban Cards!
‘Kanban’ is a Japanese word that loosely means “billboard.” This is apt, as the Kanban process is highly visible! Working with Kanban boards means that every item of work has its own card. It is important that each individual task has its own card as the purpose is to allow each team member to track the progress of work through to completion in a visual manner. It provides a high fidelity overview of responsibility. Who is working on what? What is the capacity of each team member?
The cards themselves should feature critical information such as a brief description of the work, an estimate on how long to complete, etc. Other key details could be diagrams or acceptance criteria, and other technical details valuable to the assignee.
Using the Kanban Board with cards as billboards and allowing the team members to see the state of every work item at any given point in time, including the associated details, promotes increased focus and alignment, full traceability, and fast identification of blockers and dependencies.
Consider what is the minimum amount of information needed on the card. Kanban is all about promoting flow and reducing waste. Take time periodically to review your card layout and see if there’s anything that needs to be added or removed. As a starting point, we’d recommend considering:
- Name/very short description – to identify what the work item is
- Owner – who is working on this card?
- Due date – where relevant
- Effort – this can be as simple as a t-shirt size (XS, S, M, L, XL) or story points.
- Value – this could be a dollar value or a simple scale such as low, medium, high.
Example Kanban card
Capturing effort and value helps with prioritisation as a simpler item could be prioritised before a more complex item if the business value is the same.
Why use Kanban?
Kanban is incredibly simple yet very effective, making it a common framework adopted by Agile teams across a variety of industries. Kanban offers several advantages to task planning and throughput for teams of all sizes.
A Kanban team is only focused on the work that’s actively in progress. Once the team completes a work item, they pluck the next work item off the top of the backlog. The product owner, who is responsible for delivering business value, is free to reprioritise work in the backlog without disrupting the team. As long as the product owner keeps the most important work items on top of the backlog, the development team is assured they are delivering maximum value back to the business. So there’s no need for the fixed-length Sprints you find in Scrum.
Cycle times are a key metric for Kanban teams. Cycle time is the amount of time it takes for a unit of work to travel through the team’s workflow–from the moment work starts to the moment it ships. By keeping the workflow hyper visible, teams can take full advantage of any opportunities to optimise cycle time. The team can also forecast the delivery of future work with greater confidence.
Overlapping skill sets found in a cross-functional Agile team can lead to smaller cycle times. When only one person holds a skill set, that person becomes a bottleneck in the workflow, so teams employ basic best practices like code review and mentoring to spread knowledge. For instance, testing isn’t only done by QA engineers. Developers pitch in, too.
In the Kanban framework, it’s the entire team‘s responsibility to ensure work is moving smoothly through the process.
Reduce Multitasking/Context Switching
Without a doubt, multitasking kills efficiency! The more work items in flight at any given time, the more context switching, which impacts their completion. That’s why a key focus of Kanban is to limit the amount of work-in-progress (WIP). WIP limits highlight bottlenecks and backups in the team’s process due to lack of focus, people, or skill sets.
There are too many tasks in Code Review! One will have to be moved out before anymore work can be taken in.
For example, a team might set up a Kanban board with four workflow states: To Do, In Progress, Code Review, and Done. To ensure the team doesn’t get bogged down in taking on new work, they could choose to set a WIP limit of 2 for the code review state. That forces the team to pay special attention to issues in the review state, and to review others’ work before taking on new work. This promotes flow across the board and prevents tasks stagnating in a particular stage of the workflow. Finish starting and start finishing!
Kanban has been around for years. It’s a tried and proven method of visualising work to improve efficiencies and reduce waste. Part of its charm is its simplicity as there are no real specialised roles, no ceremonies, and it can evolve and adapt to fit a variety of needs. My biggest advice is to start small and build, rather than try to identify every single aspect that needs to be addressed. By taking a scientific approach of trial and error, you’ll end up with a framework that best suits you.
Get in touch with Daniel John
With over 10 years’ delivery experience across a range of different industries, including construction, video games, mobile apps, and government, DJ brings a wealth of knowledge. He is passionate about continuously improving how teams work together and enabling them to deliver great results.Get in touch