No matter how much (or little) work agile software teams have to accomplish each day, they will ultimately need to use a tool or method to control their flow of tasks. More and more apps help us manage our work and make our processes easier. One of such methods is Kanban which accompanies many teams in their daily assignments and workflows.
The following article will describe the fascinating history and methodology of Kanban. We will show you the most popular practices and elements of the board. You’ll also find out why the Kanban board might be beneficial for you and how you can implement it with your team. Let’s dive in!
History of Kanban
Everything started in the early 1950s when the production of cars increased rapidly, and a process was required to help control work and measure employee performance. That way, Taiichi Ohno, the Industrial Engineer and Businessman for Toyota automotive in Japan, developed the first Kanban system to improve manufacturing efficiency. The Kanban method functioned as a planning system that helped to control and manage work and inventory at every production stage.
The word “kanban” comes from Japanese and means “a virtual board”, “a sign”, or “a billboard”. It initially emerged as a scheduling system for lean manufacturing, but then Toyota introduced the “just-in-time” method. The new approach represented the pull system based on the customer demand, and the company stopped following the standard push practice. The goal was to minimize waste during work and not to sacrifice the employees’ productivity.
Toyota introduced and developed the Kanban method because of the flawed productivity and inefficiencies that were not apparent among its American rivals. With the new system, the company could achieve more flexible and efficient production control, and the employees could improve their performance. Additionally, Toyota could start manufacturing more valuable products without generating more costs.
The Kanban system controlled the entire production chain, starting from the supplier, through people working at the factory, and ending with the ultimate customer. It helped to avoid supply disruptions and overstocking goods at any stage of the manufacturing process. Kanban also required constant monitoring of the procedures, paying particular attention to bottlenecks slowing down production and exposing the supplier to delays or additional costs.
What is Kanban today?
Only a couple of years ago, in 2004, David J. Anderson was the first to apply the Kanban concept to IT or software development. Thanks to him, people started to capitalize the word “Kanban” and it gained a new meaning. Today, it is associated with pull systems, flows, or queuing theory.
Kanban is a popular framework that can help teams implement agile and DevOps software development methods. This project management tool is used to visually represent work items and allow all team members to see the state of the projects, tasks, or any other pieces of work at any time. The everyday communication between the teammates will help keep the Kanban board always up to date and have full transparency of everyone’s work.
Kanban can also help users check the exact stage of specific tasks in the flow, limit the work in progress, and maximize efficiency. Overall, Kanban is a process that will gradually help you improve whatever you do. You can implement its methodology to IT, recruitment, marketing, or even sales teams. The truth is, anyone can use Kanban, and any business can benefit from applying its principles.
What are the Kanban principles?
The Kanban method consists of principles to manage and improve the flow of everyday work. It is an evolutionary method that promotes step-by-step improvements to an organization’s processes rather than fast and rapid changes. Following its principles might help use Kanban successfully and maximize benefits — improving the flow, limiting the items in progress, or increasing the product’s value.
The principles of Kanban methodology can pertain to the following concepts:
- Visualize your workflow
Start with what you’re working on now. The Kanban method emphasizes that you don’t need to make any rapid changes to your existing processes or setups, but you can do it one step at a time. You apply Kanban directly to your workflow, so the small incremental modifications need to occur gradually and at a pace your team is comfortable with.
The first Kanban principle relates to the visualization of your work and projects. Kanban doesn’t force you to prescribe the entire workflow you’re currently using. It requires you to document all work items in a way that all team members can easily visualize. The board should display all tasks currently in backlog, in progress, or completed.
Depending on the complexity of your processes and tasks, your Kanban board can either be very simple or very elaborate. The visibility of your operations is extremely important when identifying areas where there’s still a need for improvement. Most important is that it’s clear for everybody how to visualize work and redesign it any time there are some hiccups.
- Limit the work in progress
Kanban boards help move every piece of work from one operation to another in a very structured way. To avoid the accumulation of tasks and bottlenecks, you can set limits to work in progress (also known as WIP). The limits should be equal to what your team can perform in a specific time frame and ensure you identify the top priority tasks.
Limiting WIP can encourage your team to complete the current task first before taking up a new one. If the work issues in one column exceed the limitations, you should be alerted about the amount of work one has taken on. Collaboratively decide which tasks should be postponed or paused, so your coworkers will not feel overwhelmed, and you will prevent their burnout.
Initially, setting up the WIP limits might be challenging, especially if your team is just starting to use the Kanban method. So, why don’t you try to start with no limits? As Donald Reinertsen suggested during one of his Lean Kanban conferences, you can start with no limits, but you must observe the work in progress as your team continues to use Kanban. Once you have sufficient knowledge or peers’ feedback, define the limits for each stage of the workflow and adapt small changes on the go.
Typically, many teams start with two tasks per person for the WIP limit. Such limitations on the board can help your teammates finish what they are doing first before focusing on new stuff. It also communicates to your customers or stakeholders that there’s a specific, limited capacity to do work within your team. Thus, any planning sessions need to be conducted carefully and responsibly before asking your team for help.
- Focus on the flow
Managing and improving the flow of your Kanban method is another essential principle after implementing the beforementioned practices.
With Kanban, you can control the path of the tasks, highlight various stages of your workflow, and see the status of your team’s work. Depending on how your flow and WIP limits are defined for your team, you can observe either a smooth flow within those limits or work piling up in each column. All of this can affect the performance of your team if something gets stuck or starts to hold up the capacity. In that scenario, you need to analyze the system and adjust it to improve the flow.
The key to successful Kanban implementation is observing the work your team needs to do and resolving (and then eliminating) the bottlenecks along the way. Take a look at all work items that seem to be stuck forever in the “waiting stages” — they can be named “Paused” or “Stuck”. You will notice that if you help to push tasks from these wait stages, you will reduce the cycle time of your projects!
As you improve the flow, the work delivery will become much smoother and more predictable. It will help your team make reliable commitments to deadlines, and you’ll be able to estimate the work’s completion to your customers or stakeholders more accurately. Improving the ability to forecast achievable target dates is a big part of Kanban as well!
- Constantly and continuously improve
Last but not least. Kanban is an evolutionary improvement process. With this method, you can gradually adopt small changes to your workflow at a pace that your entire team or organization can easily handle. It encourages you to try new ways of work and continuously enhance them if needed.
Each time you make a change on the Kanban board, you can observe and even measure the team’s performance. You can also evaluate if the changes are helping you or not. After analyzing whether the execution of tasks improves or drops, you can decide whether to keep working that way or try something new with your teammates.
What elements can be found on the Kanban board?
According to Atlassian, Kanban boards can consist of five components: visual signals, columns, work-in-progress limits, commitment point, and delivery point. Let’s break it down:
- Visual signals
The first thing you’ll notice about a Kanban board are its components, for example, sticky notes, Jira issues, or any other work items. These can be written out by team members and include individual tasks, milestones, and even user stories in the case of agile teams. Once they are on the Kanban, they help everyone understand what exactly the team is working on at any given time. It is especially useful when communicating with customers or stakeholders.
Another distinctive feature of the Kanban board are numerous columns. Each of them represents a particular activity, and together, they compose a workflow that the team should follow. The cards are moved from one column to another until their completion. The workflow can be as simple as “To do”, “In progress”, or “Done”, but there are certainly much more complex ones, depending on the needs of the team.
- Work in progress (WIP)
Work-in-progress limits are the maximum number of virtual cards that can be in one column or per person at a time. A given column on the Kanban board cannot consist of more cards than the team agreed to. When one column is already full, the team should analyze those cards and move them to the appropriate stage before taking up any new tasks.
Such limits are highly critical for spotting any bottlenecks in the workflow and maximizing the flow. They will serve as an early warning that you and your team have taken on too much.
- Commitment point
A lot of teams gather their ideas in a backlog on their board. These are tasks that the team doesn’t need to start working on immediately, but it is worthwhile to keep them in the back of your mind. The backlog column is a segment where customers and teammates can put their ideas, and the appropriate team can pick them up when they’re ready. The moment when an idea is picked up by the team and the work on the project starts is the commitment point.
- Delivery point
The end of the Kanban team’s workflow is known as the delivery point. It happens when the finished product or service your team has worked on is in the hands of your customer. The goal is to get from the commitment point to the delivery point as fast and with as few obstacles along the way as possible. The time between these two points is called “lead time”, and Kanban teams are constantly working on decreasing it.
What types of Kanban boards can be distinguished?
Many teams can use and adapt Kanban boards, from software development to HR, marketing, and sales teams. The type of work that one team performs often dictates if the employees should use a physical or digital one. However, after two years of the pandemic, we can boldly state that most teams switched to virtual solutions.
- Physical boards
Physical boards with vertical columns are the simplest example of Kanban. Teams working on such boards meet together in the same room and place sticky notes with ideas onto the board. As they start working on specific tasks, they move the notes through the columns and demonstrate the progress of the project.
Such boards can have a lot of advantages. One of them is that physical boards are “always on”. They are extremely simple to set up and manage, their flow is easy to understand, and they streamline the communication between the teams in the office. However, if you’re working remotely, it may be challenging for you to keep up with the status of the tasks and manage such a board altogether.
In such cases, it is worth switching to virtual solutions that can also help us manage our work in the form of Kanban. They’re not only environment friendly — because you don’t need to print out hundreds of stickies — but they can be accessed by anyone from anywhere in the world, which facilitates asynchronous work.
- Digital boards
As we already mentioned earlier in the article, Kanban boards are favored by software and engineering teams, but they gain popularity in other departments as well. Especially now, when remote work is no longer a nice option but normality, digital boards allow thousands of teams to share and supervise their work. Physical boards could only be used in a specific place and within a particular period of time — with digital Kanban boards, you can work both remotely and asynchronously.
The rules are the same. You set a board consisting of columns that indicate a specific stage of your workflow. You can add or delete the columns if you notice they’re not essential for your work or don’t get used at all. All of your tasks are organized as cards, and your teammates move them across the board as they continue to work on the project.
A digital Kanban board can be set up in minutes, if not seconds, if you like to work on ready-to-use templates. Any of your customers or stakeholders can get an access link to your board to check up on the progress of the project by themselves. And last but not least, you can asynchronously track the number of tasks, comments, or conversations as the projects progress.
Nowadays, you will find hundreds of Kanban boards on the market — some might be simple and easy to use, but there are also more robust and advanced solutions. Teams that need to control the WIP limits can opt for more powerful tools like Jira Software. However, if you want to treat Kanban more like a “storage for ideas”, you may look for a simpler solution which we’ll soon discuss.
What is the difference between Scrum and Kanban?
The Kanban vs. Scrum dispute is a discussion about two strategies where you implement the project management and agile development system. Kanban is a continuous workflow, whereas Scrum is based on sprints. The difference between these two is quite subtle but still worth describing.
Scrum teams commit a lot to work incrementation that should be delivered through set intervals (so-called sprints). The goal is to gather customer feedback, which then can be turned into specific tasks that the team will work on in future sprints. Scrum meetings need defined roles like product owner, scrum master, or developer, and the sprints have specific start and end dates.
The tasks on the Scrum board are cleared and recycled after each sprint on a regular basis. Each team member has a specific number of tasks to work on and must complete them before a strict deadline. The ideology behind Scrum is that one learns through experiences, can self-organize and prioritize the work, and can reflect on wins and losses to improve continuously.
Kanban is about visualizing work, limiting work in progress, and maximizing efficiency and flow. The formal roles in Kanban are not defined, but employees do self-organize their work. The board is used throughout the lifecycle of the ongoing processes to reduce a project’s time.
Also, the tasks and timing are much more adaptable on Kanban boards than in the Scrum methodology. Work items can be reprioritized or reassigned depending on the business or market changes. New tasks are simply added to the backlog, and existing ones can be blocked or removed based on prioritization. If the capacity of the team changes, so do the WIP limits. Everything is about flexibility.
What is Kanplan?
Kanplan is a mix of methodologies and is especially useful for software development. However, as we already emphasized in this article, any team can use this method to manage and control work. Just as Scrumban, it combines features from Scrum and Kanban into a form that is “digestible” for its users. This option will enable teams to still groom their backlog but not force them to work in sprints.
There’s no golden rule that would direct the team to the best method of helping them manage their work. It doesn’t matter whether teams use Kanban, Scrum, or a combination of the two; they still need to figure out by themselves what works and what fails. Every team needs to find a foundation for planning, tracking, and managing day-to-day tasks.
While some teams might prefer to use only Scrum methodology, others will find that Kanban boards are enough for their needs. Thankfully, there’s a solution for people who would like to benefit from both methods simultaneously and keep their tasks sorted out but still have room for some flexibility.
In a case when you don’t know which methodology to choose or you transition from Scrum to Kanban (or the other way around), it might sound like the best solution for you is Scrumban. It’s a mixed methodology where you still work on sprints and keep ideas in backlog, but at the same time also include WIP limits. However, if your team doesn’t want to work iteratively but wants to have control over the next work item on their to-do list, choose Kanplan.
In Kanplan, you can move tasks around the board, but you don’t have to have a sprint in progress. You can also plan your work better because you can enter tasks into your backlog at any time. It promotes a new way of working amongst teams that didn’t feel like Scrum, Kanban, or Scrumban is for them.
By being open to the plan mode on the Kanban board, teams new or familiar with Kanban could find the best way this agile framework works for them instead of forcing practices that may not resonate with everybody. Overall, agile development is about continuous improvement over the best practice.
Benefits of Kanban
As one of the most popular software development methodologies, Kanban can benefit agile teams in many ways. We’ve listed them for you:
- You can plan your work flexibly
All teams that use Kanban boards mainly focus on the work that is already in progress. Once they complete a task, they can pull the next work item from the top of the backlog. The popular push practice will not happen here.
The product owner can freely manage and reprioritize the work items piled up in the backlog. Any changes provided there will not disrupt the team as they happen outside their current tasks and don’t impact their work. When keeping the most crucial tasks on top of the backlog, the team will deliver the maximum value back to the business when taking up the next item to work on. There’s no need here for fixed-length iteration that you can find in Scrum.
- You can shorten time cycles
Cycle time is a metric that Kanban teams use to measure the time one unit of work needs to move through the team’s workflow. It starts from the moment an employee takes up a task to work on it to complete it. When you optimize cycle time, your team can better predict the delivery of your tasks.
Each member of your team provides a unique set of skills to your organization. And when it happens that several people have the knowledge about the same topic, it may lead to shorter cycle times. When only one person holds a specific skill set, they may become a bottleneck in your workflow.
Shared skills mean that team members can support each other and take on the heterogenous work, for instance, during code review. This, in turn, helps with mentoring, spreading the knowledge, and optimizing the cycle time. It also means that if there’s a bottleneck in the project, the entire team can assist you and thus get the process flowing smoothly again. This method is a great option, for example, for testing — it’s not only done by QA engineers, but developers pitch in as well.
- You can prevent bottlenecks
If you feel like a multitasker, you might also be killing your efficiency. Your attention has to be divided between numerous projects at the same time. The more tasks you focus on simultaneously, the more you hinder your path to their completion.
It is why Kanban boards propose a limitation of work items currently in progress (WIP). You can choose to set the WIP limit of two for the “In Progress” or “In Review” columns. It might seem like a low limit, but it can help you spot bottlenecks quicker and back up your team in the process.
Such low limits will encourage your team to pay more attention to work items that are still in progress or already in review. It will also improve team relationships because everybody will know that their work depends on each other. Ultimately, it will reduce the overall cycle time.
- You can use metrics to improve performance
The core value of Kanban is to continuously improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your team every time you iterate your work. You can use two common reports: control charts or cumulative flow diagrams (you can extract such data from Jira if you use this tool).
Control charts represent the cycle time of each work item and the rolling average for the team. They visualize your team’s improvement process and make sure you spot the bottlenecks in the process and even remove them. The goal is to reduce the amount of time one issue takes to move through your Kanban board. If you notice that the cycle time drops, you might consider it a success!
A cumulative flow diagram represents the number of all issues in each state. You can easily spot blockages and bottlenecks by seeing the increased number of work items. Whenever such accumulation of tasks occurs, try to help your teammates by reviewing their work and pushing the task to the Complete column.
- Deliver your product to your customers continuously
Continuous delivery (CD) is a method of a frequent release of work to your customers. Along with it, you should also bear in mind the continuous integration (CI) method that helps developers build and test their code incrementally. Together they form a CI/CD pipeline that allows development teams to ship software much quicker to customers and maintain high product quality.
The CD method and Kanban complement each other perfectly. Both techniques use the just-in-time and one-at-a-time delivery of value. It helps teams deliver innovations to the market faster, thus making it more competitive in the marketplace. The optimized workflow is one of the Kanban principles that can be achieved with this working method.
Kanban board on Whiteboards
If you’re wondering whether a Kanban board is for you and your team, we encourage you to give it a try. Whiteboards.io offers a countless number of templates that can help you with your Jira tasks, epics, or subtasks. Among them, you will also find the Kanban template to help you assign tasks to your teammates and move them through your workflow.
Open your Whiteboards and create a new board. From the list of available templates, choose Kanban and create a custom workflow that you can also connect with your Jira instance. It will help you manage work items in a much more efficient way.
Once your Kanban board is ready, start uploading Jira issues directly onto your whiteboard. As you begin to work on individual items with your team, move them to appropriate columns until they are fully complete. Remember that you can also create new issues directly on the Kanban board one by one or in bulk if needed.
These following features you will find helpful when working on Whiteboards’ Kanban board:
- Import zones
Thanks to this feature, you can pull work issues from Jira and place them directly on your whiteboard. Specify how the JQL filter should work and how many work items can be pulled on your board. The filter will determine which issues will be imported on the board and will add them to a selected area. You can also decide whether you want the Jira issues to appear on the board horizontally, vertically, or randomly.
- Update zones
Mark as many areas on your board as needed and apply appropriate action types to them. You can choose between assigning, estimating, ranking, updating, transitioning, or creating options from the drop-down menu. Whenever you drop a Jira issue into the update zone, it will automatically update in Jira. And vice versa.
- Convert sticky notes to Jira issues
If you come up with new ideas during a project, you can make short notes on sticky notes. With a single click, you can convert them into a Jira issue. Then, move them to the appropriate column on your Kanban board to know the task’s state — either in Backlog, To Do, or In Progress.
Whenever you want to discuss work issues on the Kanban board, just write a comment next to them. Mention people you want to be involved in the discussion and add your suggestions or remarks. Stay in touch with people working asynchronously from different parts of the world.
- Audio and video chat
Hop on a quick call with your teammates to conduct a meeting, estimation session, or planning event. See your attendees on little avatars or right next to your cursor. Forget about third-party solutions to video chat with your employees. This feature is available only on Whiteboards.io.
- Invite stakeholders and customers to your board
Work with people from different departments or companies and invite them to your board. Decide if they can edit your board by giving them access.
- Save your boards as a personal template
If your Kanban board gets adjusted to the needs of your team, you can save it as your own template. You will not have to create everything from scratch and always have your own Kanban template at your fingertips.
So there you have it!
We’ve just covered what a Kanban board is and how its definition and usage have changed over time. We presented the most essential Kanban principles: visualizing your workflow, limiting the work in progress, focusing on the flow, and constantly improving. In the article, we’ve also discussed Kanban boards’ elements and different types of Kanban boards.
To better understand it, we listed the differences between Kanban and Scrum and mentioned a mix of other methodologies. We also presented how you can flexibly plan your work, shorten cycle times, prevent bottlenecks, and improve performance.
Test Whiteboards yourself!