Articles | April 28, 2022

A Kanban 101 for Beginners

If you work in software development, you’re always looking for ways to deliver work faster. If you’re still getting your head around agile, you’ve probably come across the Japanese-inspired workflow method, Kanban. By the end of this article, we promise you that you’ll be an absolute pro when it comes to the Kanban methodology. We’ll look at what it is, what makes it so great, and discover how you can implement Kanban into your agile software development teams straight away! Let’s get into it!

Kanban

What is Kanban? History & Explanation

Let’s take you back to the 1950s when Kanban was first born!

A Brief History of Kanban

The word Kanban roughly translates as ‘visual board’ in Japanese and has been associated with workflow management since the 1950s. Around this time, Toyota was trailblazing their ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing process, moving their focus to efficiently producing goods exactly when their customers needed them. 

At the time, Kanban laid the foundation of Lean manufacturing, or as it’s known now, Lean – a framework for maximizing team productivity while minimizing waste.

The key to this efficiency relied on breaking work down into bite-sized chunks, with team members responsible for a particular phase of a process ‘pulling’ tasks onto their to-do lists, completing them, and then passing them on.

This Kanban technique led to Toyota becoming one of the leading car manufacturers of the 1900s and is the secret behind the success they still enjoy today!

Kanban board
Kanban board

Kanban Explained for Beginners

But how is that useful for you? Kanban principles allow teams of all shapes and sizes to get more work done while focusing on continuous improvement.

For those reading this from a project management or software development background, the first thing to remember is that, in its purest form, Kanban isn’t a project delivery framework.

Instead, Kanban is a continuous workflow methodology, helping teams manage flow, visualize work, and boost team collaboration by breaking work down into small manageable tasks.

Unlike other management methods, Kanban operates a ‘pull system’ rather than a ‘push system’. This means that team members pull tasks into their to-do lists rather than being assigned work by a manager.

An Overview of the Kanban Method for Software Development

So, how did Kanban work its way into software development?

As the Kanban method became more and more popular, other industries, including IT, R&D, and procurement, began to take notice.

It quickly became apparent that Kanban wasn’t just useful for the manufacturing process but was a great way for teams across all sectors to deliver their work more effectively.

This was when the commonly known ‘Kanban methodology’ was born, with project teams harnessing the efficiency and simplicity of Kanban to structure their deliveries.

A Kanban Board in Action
A Kanban Board in Action

The Modern Day Kanban Board

In the corporate world, Kanban is deployed as a visual system to help teams manage software development projects. Office-based teams center their work around physical Kanban boards, creating a dedicated place for team members to collaborate on their work.

Crucially, these Kanban boards help visualize the end-to-end process (or workflow), giving the whole team visibility of the work that has been completed and the work still to come.

Gathering teams together around a central Kanban board helps to create feedback loops within the team, better manage flow, and promotes a culture of continuous improvement.

Especially since the pandemic, Kanban boards have moved online. There are now hundreds of Kanban software tools on the market. So, whether you’re a project manager, software developer, tester, or a designer, you’ll have the opportunity to collaborate around a virtual Kanban board – more on those later!

Is Kanban Right For My Software Development Team?

In modern software development, Kanban is primarily used for three reasons:

  1. Development teams are in a cycle of Business as Usual (BAU), working on a large backlog of items rather than a particular project/initiative.
  2. The development team is struggling to collaborate and needs to see the work, and the work of the wider team, in an easy, visual way.
  3. You’re working with a small development team whose resource is precious. As we’ve seen, the Kanban method delivers just-in-time (JIT) development. That means work is delivered just at the time it is required, meaning that no costly development effort is wasted.

So, if any of those sound like you and your team, read on to find out how a Kanban system works in action.

So, What is a Kanban Board, and How Do I Use One?

Kanban boards are incredibly useful to organize a team or a project efficiently. Because they only have three key components, they’re super easy to use. Let’s look at each element of a Kanban board in turn.

The Kanban Board

The Kanban board is more than just a simple board. A Kanban board has many columns to represent the different stages of a workflow.

These columns/stages aren’t fixed, but the general rule of thumb is to try and keep them as simple and easy to understand as possible.

For basic workflows, Kanban boards may simply have 3 columns – To-Do, In Progress, and Done.

In more complex software development workflows, Kanban boards may include more stages such as – Design, Develop, Test, Release, and Done.

This example from Kanban Tool shows a slightly more complex software development Kanban board in action.

Ultimately, the Kanban board, and its associated stages, need to work for you and your team, so adjust them to suit you!

An advanced Kanban board for software development teams
An advanced Kanban board for software development teams

Kanban Cards / Tasks

Kanban cards are used to show the detail about the task or work item that needs to be completed.

As with the board design, these cards/tasks can be as high-level or as detailed as your team like, so long as they provide the information needed to progress the work. Information on a Kanban card may include the task description, who it’s assigned to, and when the deadline for that stage is due.

Kanban cards move across the board as the task moves between each stage, clearly showing its progress from inception through to completion.

kanban
kanban

Work-in-Progress (WIP) Limit

The Work-in-Progress (WIP) Limit is a super important part of the Kanban methodology that many project managers and software development teams forget.

For Kanban to work effectively as a delivery method, teams have to ensure they aren’t overloading the system and are pulling through exactly the right amount of work. The WIP limit restricts the maximum amount of tasks in each stage of the workflow. Having a system to limit work in this way helps maximize the team’s productivity and prevents them from getting overwhelmed by an excessive workload.

This example below, from Scrum.org, shows how to limit work in progress effectively. Both the design and testing phases have a WIP limit of 4 tasks, with the development stage limited to 7.

Why are the WIP limits different? Most likely, they’re right-sized to the number of people in the team. For example, this project team may only have one designer (who can manage four tasks at once), but have three developers who can handle one or two tasks each.

Managing WIP limits is where Kanban can really help with the visualization of your project workflow. You’ll easily be able to identify bottlenecks within a certain phase, as tasks will bunch up and exceed the WIP limits you’ve set.

Kanban WIP
Kanban WIP

So, How Do I Actually Use Kanban, and a Kanban Board, With My Team?

Kanban boards are used as ‘information radiators’ by agile teams, whether they operate in the office or remotely. Information radiators become a team’s single source of truth and are used to visualize exactly what’s going on across the entire team or the project.

In day-to-day practice, many teams blend together Scrum and Kanban principles and gather around their Kanban boards during a daily standup. Team members take it in turns to talk about tasks they’ve completed alongside tasks they’ve recently pulled into their workload.

These standups operate as great feedback loops, allowing teams to review their collective workload, assess WIP limits, and look for continuous improvement opportunities.

For project managers or team leaders, the daily Kanban standup helps you distribute and communicate everything you need efficiently without wasting time later on in the day.

How to Run an Impressive Kanban StandUp Meeting?
How to Run an Impressive Kanban StandUp Meeting?

The Benefits of the Kanban Methodology

So, now that you know a little more about Kanban, it’s worth understanding whether it’s the right methodology for you.

Here are some of the key advantages and disadvantages of the Kanban method:

Kanban Advantages

  • Kanban is simple and easy to understand. All you need is a Kanban board, some Kanban cards, and some WIP limits to get started.
  • Kanban has a real focus on continuous improvement by creating regular feedback loops, minimizing waste, and focusing on a simplified end-to-end production process.
  • Kanban fosters a collaborative culture and helps create open team communication. Having a single board for the entire team creates transparency, meaning there are no secrets, and everyone can help each other out.
  • Kanban’s pull system provides more autonomy to the team, allowing them to pull work into them rather than having tasks assigned to them.
  • Kanban is very adaptable and can be used for pretty much any team or any project. The Kanban method is a great tool for any team leader or project manager to use when managing pieces of work.
  • Because of that simplicity, Kanban is also pretty cheap to run within a business. It doesn’t require complex systems or detailed training and can be deployed quickly.

Kanban Disadvantages

  • Kanban isn’t useable for complex projects with lots of dependencies as it doesn’t provide the right level of detail.
  • Kanban only works for static workflows where deliverables always follow the same process. If your work/project is dynamic, it won’t work for you.
  • Kanban isn’t time-boxed. Each stage isn’t time-based, meaning it can be hard to track if items are behind schedule or on plan.
  • Kanban boards can become crowded and confusing for large teams or large projects – defeating the purpose of their simple, easy-to-use nature.
kanban board

Taking Kanban Boards Online with a Digital Kanban System

As we discussed earlier on, in recent times Kanban boards have gone digital. There is now a range of Kanban software packages, Kanban systems, and Kanban tools on the market to help teams deliver their work from anywhere.

Here are three of the best Kanban software tools on the market:

#1 – Trello

Trello is a Kanban board-based task management tool. It’s great for teams that use Kanban or Scrum to manage projects. As a leader in its field, Trello was one of the first Kanban software tools which many competitors have modeled their alternatives from.

Trello Features

  • Visually manage tasks with Kanban boards and cards
  • Link file attachments and checklists to tasks
  • Add custom fields to Kanban cards
  • Automate your team workflows
trello tool
trello tool

#2 – Kanban Tool

If you’re delivering projects using Kanban, then Kanban Tool is the perfect, lightweight Kanban software package for you. Kanban Tool is great for small businesses, SMEs, and large organizations with big names such as Pirelli, Skyscanner, and Siemens using Kanban Tool to manage their deliveries.

Features

  • Manage all of your Kanban tasks with custiomizable boards
  • Monitor progress and cumulative flow with dashboard reports
  • Simple and easy to use interface
Kanban tool
Kanban tool

#3 – Kanbanize

If you’re delivering Kanban at scale, then Kanbanize could be the best tool for you and your team. This Kanban software tool scales up to give an enterprise view of the entire delivery while still providing a simple and easy-to-use Kanban board for individual teams.

Features

  • Simple and easy to use for individual teams
  • Reporting and dashboard scale up for portfolio-level
  • Completely customizable boards and cards

Alongside these dedicated tools, most project management software packages allow you to manage your work using a Kanban board view. These include Jira, Asana, Airtable, Coda, Notion, Monday.com, and ClickUp.

Kanbanize
Kanbanize

Summary

If you’re running a project or software development team, you need ways to keep things moving forwards. Kanban is one of the best and simplest workflow management methodologies out there, helping teams deliver their goals effectively and efficiently.

Rooted in Japanese manufacturing techniques, Kanban’s simple board/card/WIP system boosts collaboration, improves flow, and helps visualize work in a way that’s easy to understand and minimizes waste. Remote teams can not take a basic kanban board into the digital world, with virtual kanban boards delivering amazing capabilities for dispersed teams.

So, if you’re looking for a better way to manage your work or a way to take your project management to the next level, we’d recommend giving Kanban a try in your business.

Kanban Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What’s The Difference Between Kanban and Agile?

In many ways, Kanban can be seen as an agile methodology – well, kind of!

Agile is a broad term for a style of delivery where teams break work up into chunks and progress through their tasks iteratively.

agile methodologies

agile methodologies

As we’ve seen, Kanban is a continuous workflow management methodology, helping teams manage flow, visualize work, and boost team collaboration by breaking work down into small manageable tasks.

The key difference is that Kanban isn’t strictly ‘iterative’ as it’s used to deliver/create individual outputs within a consistent delivery process/model.

Scrum vs. Kanban – What’s the Difference?

Scrum is an iterative agile development framework used by software teams to deliver projects or software development. It has a number of strict team roles, such as a Scrum Master, utilizing set ceremonies to consistently plan, deliver, and review work.

As we’ve seen, Kanban is a continuous workflow management methodology, helping teams manage flow, visualize work, and boost team collaboration by breaking work down into small manageable tasks.

You can find out more about Scrum vs Kanban in our guide here.

What is Lead Time in Kanban?

Lead time is useful for businesses to understand the effectiveness of their deliveries.

Lead time calculates the amount of time between a client/customer asking for a piece of work to it actually being delivered. Essentially, it measures the end-to-end process time of your entire Kanban system.

What is Cycle Time in Kanban?

Cycle time is a great metric for measuring Kanban performance. Cycle time refers to the amount of time a team spends actually working on an item in the Kanban system. Because this is actual working time, it should measure the time between a task entering a ‘working’ phase all the way through to completion. Cycle time should always be less than the lead time as it only covers the actual time the team is working on an item.

How Do I Measure Progress With Kanban?

Both project managers and team leaders want to make sure that Kanban is actually delivering the results their business needs. The most obvious and easiest way to meausre this is to look at the ‘Done’ column on your task board. You will clearly see how many tasks have been completed and how many are left. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Because of this, it’s often asked how you can measure progress using Kanban. There are a number of metrics you can track to do this:

  • Lead time is the time from a request being made by a client to when all work is completed and the request is delivered.
  • The Cycle time is the amount of time that the team spent working on this item itself.
  • The Throughput measures the number of tasks/work completed in a certain time period.
  • WIP Limit % measures the amount of work in a certain phase vs the WIP limit. This shows how close the team is to working at its full capacity.

What is Kaizen and Kanban?

People often assume that Kaizen and Kanban are the same thing. They’re wrong.

Kaizen is the underpinning philosophy of Kanban.

Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning “change for the better” or “continuous improvement. It focuses on continuously improving operations and involves all employees. The explicit aim of the Kaizen business philosophy is to improve productivity by reducing waste and making processes more simple.

Scrum vs Kanban. Which to choose in software development?
Scrum vs Kanban. Which to choose in software development?

As we’ve seen, Kanban is a continuous workflow management methodology, helping teams manage flow, visualize work, and boost team collaboration by breaking work down into small manageable tasks.

Can My Organization Use a Kanban System?

Of course, absolutely anyone can use Kanban within their business. Whether you’re a small business looking for a simple and lightweight way to manage your workflow, or a large organization looking to deliver change at scale, it could be the right system for you,

After all, it’s really simple to implement with a board, cards, and WIP limits, it requires very little training, and thanks to software tools, it can be used by co-located and remote teams.

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