Kanban Methodology: Achieving Agile Project Success

Kanban is a very simple methodology that can be implemented in almost any industry without limits and improves the efficiency of teams quickly. The main idea behind the philosophy of Kanban is "Stop starting and start finishing!"

kanban pm methodology

Kanban Explained

This method is based on the philosophy that you should gradually improve whatever you’re working on, and progress is expected over time. If you’re a visual thinker, you’ll love Kanban! It helps teams in their planning practices by visualizing and prioritizing elements on boards.

Kanban vs. Agile

Kanban is a methodology that nests under the umbrella of the Agile philosophy. While they are based on the same principles, Kanban is one of the practical ways to implement Agile.

Agile Kanban
Agile is a philosophy
Kanban is an Agile methodology that offers tools and processes to implement Agile
Depends on storyboards
Depends on the Kanban boards
Iterative development is allowed
Allows visual check of the work in progress
Breaks the entire project into smaller pieces
Requires very little organization

Agile Core Values

Kanban Method: Understanding the Basics

Back in the 1940s, a Japanese Toyota engineer Taiichi Ohno was fascinated by the system American grocery stores used to stock their shelves. They stocked only as many items as that day's customers needed.

This inspired him to apply the method in Toyota's production system and deliver the same level of efficiency on their assembly line. Their goal was to keep their inventory low but always adequate to meet the demand for the parts. They named it Kanban (Khan-Ban), also known as the “just in time” system.

Although it was initially gaining popularity in manufacturing industries, it has undergone some changes over the last few years and has been modified by David Anderson. With the rise of IT world and the digital age we are all part of, the Kanban method is usually presented online as visual panels with virtual sticky notes which you can move around to organize tasks and to-do items.

The six rules of Kanban include never passing defective products, taking only what’s needed, producing only the required quantity, leveling the production, fine-tuning the production or process optimization, and stabilizing and rationalizing the process. These rules were laid out by Toyota in their production process and are followed by the book to achieve the Just-in-time production system. If you think of an assembly line, these rules make perfect sense. When you look at them through the prism of Agile principles, they can also be applied to the digital industry.

Never passing on defective products— This rule has much to do with the concept of waste in Agile. The product must meet the standard quality protocols throughout each process stage. Otherwise, the defects will come up later during production and cause the team to take a step back and fix issues, which is much more costly than solving problems immediately before letting the product develop further.

Taking only what’s needed— In the manufacturing business, this rule indicates that you should only employ as much input as needed to produce the necessary quantity. Once again, we refer to the “no waste” principle in Agile, meaning that you shouldn’t employ all the resources at once, but rather adapt to the demanded quantity.

Producing only the required quantity— The Just-in-time concept can be best explained through the example of shelves in a supermarket, which is where Toyota’s industrial engineer and manager, Ohno Taiichi, found the inspirational idea. The concept is to put out only what’s demanded. You’ll display your products on the shelf, but you’ll only restock what’s been bought. You won’t burden yourself with inventory space, outdated products, storage costs, etc. In the digital industry, this would mean working on tasks by their priority and within scope. So, if the client asked for a Valentine’s Day campaign on social media, you shouldn’t throw in a strategy for the entire year as well.

Leveling the production— Leveling means reducing fluctuations. Kanban is a system that consists of sequential stages in the production process. If the output of stage two is overwhelming for stage three or vice versa, you’ll have a bottleneck on your hands. This is one of the most challenging aspects of product development as you need to either reduce the output on one end or increase the capacity at the other. No matter the solution you choose, practicing Lean means you also can’t end up with a surplus or shortage at any point. A useful tool in this decision-making process is WIP (Work In Progress) Limit which will allow you to maintain an uninterrupted and constant workflow.

Fine-tuning the production— Once you start implementing Kanban, it’s not time to congratulate yourself yet. Implementation is only the beginning of the optimization process. You and your team will have to work on discovering pain points and opportunities for improvement through regular feedback. Some metrics can help you with that: lead time, cycle time, and throughput. In time, flow diagrams will also show where the bottlenecks are. You can use all this information to optimize your process, implement the best practices, and reduce waste to a minimum.

Stabilizing and rationalizing the process— After using Kanban for a while, you’ll spot some issues, solve them, and eventually end up in a predictable system that can be standardized. Document your processes and standards and let everyone in the company access them easily. This way, the team will know how to work, and you’ll lay the ground with a solid foundation that will help you overcome future challenges with ease.

Principles of Kanban

Kanban project management is a philosophy that suggests that you can gradually improve whatever you are working on and implement continuous, incremental, and evolutionary changes. To achieve this goal, you need to follow the four basic principles that underlie this revolutionary method:

Start with what you do now— The good thing about Kanban is that you don’t need to make big changes before you implement this methodology. You can simply overlay Kanban properties on your existing workflow, address issues, and make some important changes over time.

Pursue evolutionary change— Encourage small but evolutionary changes to processes and run project management that will meet minimal resistance.

Respect the current roles and responsibilities— While you may be satisfied with how certain elements and processes are working, you also need to seek out a way how to drive out fear to be able to make necessary future changes. By agreeing to respect the current roles, responsibilities, and process, you will gain broader support for the Kanban initiative. This will help you implement the Kanban method more easily.

Encourage acts of leadership at all levels— You don’t need to be a team leader or an executive to encourage continual improvement and reach optimal results. With Kanban, some of the best leadership comes from everyday acts by common people who are a part of a team.

kanban principles
kanban cards

Kanban Cards

The integral part of the Kanban board is Kanban cards. Each card represents an individual work item or a task, and each consists of important data for that specific task. Cards are placed on the board in a visual way in order to show the current stage of the task, and they are usually color-coded to show what type of task they are.

The Kanban board consists of three sections:
• Waiting
• Work in progress
• Completed work

After the tasks have been delegated, the team will take the cards and move them across the sections as they complete their tasks.

What Is a Kanban Board?

A Kanban board is a field on which Kanban Cards represent the individual tasks in progress which are categorized according to priority and delivery. Simply put, Kanban is an excellent way to keep track of your team’s workflow. Today, Kanban boards are mostly used in Agile or Lean software development teams in the form of online collaboration tools aimed at boosting team productivity and stimulating inspiring ideas.

Keep in mind that a Kanban board can be used in many forms and that today teams use it in different ways to share ideas and manage their workflow. The most straightforward way is the old concept of putting sticky notes on a whiteboard to show the stages of the project development and its progress.

Kanban is based on the pull system. Whether you’re a project manager in a small business or anywhere else on the value chain, pull systems will help you minimize inventories and change what's necessary in the production system as the demand arises. They provide you only with what you need, which consequently reduces costs and waste.

kanban implementation

Implementation of Kanban

As it was mentioned before, Kanban is an approach that will help you make changes to the management that is designed to meet minimal resistance. Therefore, if you have some processes that are working well, Kanban will help you improve over time without massive and radical change.

Kanban is a great solution for projects of different sizes, complexities, and urgencies. Although Kanban works well in most industries, the practice has proven that it works best in the product development environment.

Finally, If you want to build trust within your organization and take productivity to a whole new level, opt for Kanban and see how it works for your business.

Here’s how to implement Kanban in five steps:

Visualize workflow— Get a board, divide it into columns, and stick your team’s tasks on it. It can be a physical whiteboard on a wall or a digital one. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s accessible to everyone.

Limit WIP (Work-In-Progress)— It’s important to focus on one activity at a time. This part is often overlooked even though it ensures the efficiency and productivity Kanban stands for. Limit the number of ongoing activities, and be sure to follow through.

Make policies explicit— Once rules and procedures are set, teams can be sure they're operating consistently at the desired level of quality.

Managing and measuring workflow— Tracking and reviewing Kanban data such as lead time, cycle time, and throughput is essential so the team can keep an eye on their processes.

Optimize scientifically— When you want to make a change, set up a hypothesis, jot down the current results, make the change, and then measure the difference it made. If the results are not satisfactory, switch back.

Kanban Flow: How It Improves the Efficiency of Your Team’s Workflow

Experts say the main reasons for inefficiency are poor communication and lack of transparency. This causes delays, an unsynchronized team, and misunderstandings. Managers are focused on making the team as efficient as possible, but also keeping the activities effective. It’s irrelevant to be efficient if you’re doing the wrong thing! This is one of the reasons Kanban is so important for your workflow.

Visualizing the tasks and their progress helps teams stay focused and in tune. Minimizing the dispersion of efforts on multiple activities means reducing the risk of wasting time on context switching. It’s also easier to identify bottlenecks and remove roadblocks, improving the team’s workflow overall.

Some people still use whiteboards, but the common practices today suggest managers and scrum masters mostly use software to apply project management methodologies. ActiveCollab is a project management app that lets you organize your work and simplifies your processes. The column view in ActiveCollab is also called the Kanban view because it’s best suited for this framework’s implementation. You can name the task lists “To Do”, “In Progress”, and “Done”, and then fill the first column with tasks that you will later drag and drop through their stages. The system is very intuitive, and it lets the team interact and exchange feedback in the comment section within tasks, so information doesn’t get lost in emails.

Benefits of Kanban

Kanban is one of the most popular project management methodologies because it doesn’t require too much extra effort to implement in any kind of organization. This is one of the most simple ways to increase the team’s efficiency. All you need is a board or a free online tool, and you can start organizing tasks through the columns To Do, Doing, and Done.

Kanban prevents miscommunication problems as it’s very visually clear and leaves no room for misunderstandings. The team is synced and focused on one activity at a time. Implementing Kanban is very beneficial for teams who have repetitive tasks on their hands and those that struggle with productivity and inefficiency.

The reason Kanban works best for repetitive and sequential activities probably lies in the origins of this methodology: the assembly line. Nevertheless, we have proved so far that Kanban can be implemented just as effectively in all types of industries. For example, the creative industry is made up of tasks that depend on each other. Publishing a post on social media requires collaboration between social media managers, designers, and video editors. Each has its own step to complete before the next can take over. Publishing a blog post is similar. Planning, drafting, editing, and publishing are all activities that can be easily followed through the columns of a Kanban board!