Kanban is one of the most popular Agile project management frameworks around, and for good reason. The Kanban methodology takes a visual approach to project management that many people find intuitive and appealing. Plus, its emphasis on delivery can help teams improve their efficiency and increase their overall output.
If you’re new to Kanban, our ultimate guide includes everything you need to get started. We’ll cover the basics of what Kanban is and isn’t. Then we’ll discuss the benefits of the Kanban methodology, the types of projects it's best suited for, how to successfully implement it, and what tools can help you succeed.
What is Kanban?
Agile is a project methodology that promotes tackling projects by breaking them down into smaller stages. It emphasizes constant collaboration, continuous improvement, and high-levels of customer involvement. There are various frameworks teams can choose to follow to adopt Agile, Kanban being one of them. Think of Agile as being what you want to achieve and Kanban being one recipe for how to achieve it.
Where does Kanban come from?
Kanban originated in the late 1940s in Japan. Toyota was looking for a way to improve their engineering and production processes. Company leadership noticed that grocery stores used a “pull” method of production, where they stocked based on expected customer demand to avoid having too many products on the shelf.
Toyota decided to run with this idea of “just-in-time” production and implemented it in its main factory in 1953. The Kanban process was the result of this adaptation.
“Kanban” is a Japanese word that roughly translates to “card you can see.” Toyota used physical cards to signal separate steps in their manufacturing process. These cards enabled team members to easily see what was completed and what still needed to be done.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Kanban started to take root in project management. David J. Anderson is often credited as being the first to implement Kanban in software development in 2005. His book on Kanban, published in 2010, is still one of the most comprehensive resources out there for technology-focused projects.
Since then, the Kanban Agile methodology has continued to evolve to suit projects across all industries and markets.
What are the fundamentals of Kanban?
Kanban is about more than using cards to help manage just-in-time delivery. The Kanban framework is designed to help teams reduce bottlenecks, improve efficiencies, increase quality, and boost output. Kanban is based on four principles and six core practices.
The 4 principles of Kanban are:
- Start with now. Focus on what you’re doing now. Fully understand the processes already in place, including what works and what doesn’t.
- Take an incremental approach. Look at how to slowly change your processes over time. Avoid implementing radical changes.
- Keep roles. Unlike other frameworks that promote their own unique roles (such as Scrum master), Kanban emphasizes working with the roles your team already has.
- Encourage leadership. Innovation and ideas for improvement should be promoted at all levels. Encourage every employee to act as a leader, regardless of role or title.
Kanban methodology’s six core practices are:
- Visualize the workflow. Kanban requires using a physical or virtual board to visualize how work flows from one stage to the next.
- Limit work in progress. Each project team needs to set a limit to how many tasks are allowed to be in each stage of the workflow at once. If you have five reviewers, you may limit the “Review” stage to having no more than five tasks in it at once.
- Actively manage the workflow. As a project manager, your primary role is to monitor the workflow for bottlenecks and make adjustments to remove roadblocks and improve efficiency.
- Create process guidelines. Have clearly communicated guidelines on how work is completed, what “done” means, etc. This can be a check-list in each column or on each “card” outlining what is required for it to move to each stage.
- Use feedback loops. Use tools and processes to promote early and continual feedback. This can mean multiple review stages, or reports and metrics communicating performance.
- Evolve. As with other Agile frameworks, adapting, evolving, and improving your processes is encouraged. Focus on developing and implementing small changes to improve your workflow and processes.
What is a Kanban board?
The Kanban board is a physical or virtual board that maps out your project’s workflow and how tasks move through it from beginning to completion. A Kanban board ensures the workflow is standardized, and that team members can easily see where each task is in the overall scheme.
The most basic Kanban board only has three workflows: To Do, In Progress, and Complete. But, columns can be added or changed to suit your project.
Each task is represented as a “card” and placed on the board in the column representing its current stage of work. As tasks progress, the card is moved throughout the workflow. Each card will contain information about the task, such as:
- A short description
- The name of the person responsible
- An estimate of how long it will take
- Requirements to move it to the next stage
Virtual cards may also contain other data, including links to relevant documents and supporting files.
How is Kanban methodology different from Scrum?
Scrum is another extremely popular Agile project framework. As both Kanban and Scrum are based on the Agile project methodology, they have similar principles and ideals. Both frameworks encourage collaboration, process improvement, and breaking projects down into phases. However, there are essential differences.
The Kanban process focuses on breaking a project down into workflow stages and managing the flow and volume of tasks through those stages. Scrum revolves around breaking a project down by time (usually 1–2-week “sprints”) and managing tasks completed in each sprint.
Kanban project management isn’t time-based. While cards may have deadlines or estimated times to complete, Kanban is viewed as a continuous flow. It’s often used by IT service desks and other teams who have a never-ending flow of tasks.
Scrum also has several unique roles, such as Scrum master, product owner, etc. While Kanban encourages keeping the roles your team already have. Generally, Scrum is better for time-sensitive projects, while Kanban better suits teams with a continuous influx of new tasks. However, many teams are adopting a fairly new framework called Scrumban that attempts to capture the best of both worlds.
What are the benefits of the Kanban process?
The primary benefits of the Kanban methodology are:
- Flexibility. Kanban doesn’t dictate which work occurs when, simply, how many tasks are allowed in each phase at once. This approach makes it incredibly easy to reshuffle work as priorities change.
- Fewer bottlenecks. Kanban boards help you quickly identify bottlenecks in the process so you can discover and resolve what’s slowing down your team.
- Increased efficiency. While Kanban doesn’t have a set schedule, a key metric is often the average time it takes for a task to complete the workflow. This emphasis on how quickly or slowly tasks move through phases can help increase efficiency and speed up output.
- Better quality. By limiting the number of tasks your team can work on at once, you help improve their focus and the quality of their work.
- Faster adoption. Kanban encourages starting with your current processes and roles and making small changes. This approach helps teams embrace the change more easily.
- Visibility. Anyone can look at your Kanban board and quickly see what stage a task is in and who is working on it.
- Continuous delivery. As with other Agile frameworks, Kanban emphasizes delivering workable solutions on a regular basis. This approach shortens delivery times and helps improve customer relationships.
What types of projects is Kanban best for?
Kanban project management is best for projects that have a lot of individual deliverables and an emphasis on workloads over delivery dates. Because an individual card represents each task, projects with a lot of interdependencies may suffer.
However, suppose you’re dealing with a large volume of tasks that have multiple discrete statuses, with a different person responsible for each one. In that case, Kanban can help you effectively monitor each stage of the process.
Some examples of projects that do well with Kanban are:
- A marketing campaign requiring many separate ads
- A content creation project, where each blog, chapter, or story is a separate task
- A service project to resolve bugs and close-out customer tickets
How to introduce Kanban style project management
The principles of Kanban tell you to start with whatever you’re doing now and slowly implement changes over time. To introduce Kanban project management to your project team, you can start slowly incorporating it into what you’re already doing.
Start by documenting your current processes and identifying the work stages your team uses, such as "To Do," "In Draft," "In Review," and "Approved." Next, create a Kanban board to visualize this workflow. You can use our template to help you.
Once you can see your workflow, it’s time to analyze how efficient your team is, look for bottlenecks, and set some limits on work-in-progress. See how many tasks are going through each stage without limits, and where they are getting bogged down. Then, set limits and monitor how they change performance. If you end up with idle people, you can either increase your limits, reallocate work, or look for what’s causing some phases to move faster than others.
If you don’t have clear guidelines already about what each stage means and when it's ready to move on, it’s time to create those outlines. If you’re using Kanban project software, you can create a checklist or overview for each stage of the workflow.
The next step will be to implement short feedback loops. You can do this by introducing daily meetings, review stages, or reports and dashboards showing key metrics, such as cycle time (the average time it takes for a task to complete the workflow).
As your team slowly adopts more Kanban processes, encourage them to speak up about what works well and what could be better. Prompt them for suggestions on how to improve and promote them to take on a leadership mindset.
Finally: evolve. Measure progress and performance and be ready to adapt and change as you and your team discover new and better ways to do things. Kanban is about incremental progress and isn’t meant to be a static framework that stays the same forever.
Features to look out for in Kanban software
While you can implement Kanban using a physical board and cards, Kanban board software offers many benefits:
- It’s easier to update tasks, move phases, and change card owners.
- You don’t have to be physically in the office to see it.
- It can handle larger and more complex workflows.
- You can integrate it with your reports and dashboards.
- Many solutions support automated workflows.
When selecting the best Kanban project management tool for your team, keep in mind that Kanban promotes incremental change. If you can find a solution that supports your current project management framework as well as Kanban, it will make the transition much smoother than a Kanban-only tool.
Other features to look for in Kanban software include:
- The ability to customize workflows and statuses
- Ability to track and report on time cards spent in each phase and the overall cycle
- Automated workflow capability
- Real-time reporting features
- Automatic notifications for card changes and updates
- Late or overdue alerts for cardholders and management
- The ability to modify cards, add checklists and links to supporting documents
- Commenting capability for people to leave notes on cards
Why Wrike is the ultimate Kanban project management tool
Wrike offers multiple project views, including Kanban, Gantt, Task view, and more. You can input project data once and then manage it in whichever format you prefer. So, your team can still use their normal processes and views while you slowly incorporate the Kanban board as well.
With our free Kanban template, you can start incorporating the Kanban methodology right away. Wrike lets you visually manage your project, limit the volume of work in progress, focus on removing bottlenecks and managing workflow, and improve your processes as you go. Plus, our project management software offers all of the essential features you need in a Kanban tool. Sign up for a free trial today!