The Kanban Method has exploded in popularity, largely because of its simplicity. Kanban is used to improve team productivity and workflow efficiency. It is designed to be flexible to the needs of your projects. There are six Kanban practices that are essential to successful implementation and form the foundation of Kanban workflows.

Kanban process steps

Visualise Workflow

The first and most important Kanban practice is visualisation, going back to its origins on the factory floor. The English translation of Kanban is “signboard” or “billboard” – at first, this was a visual signal in the form of a card showing that a product, part or component had run out and needed replenishing. Kanban boards began to be used to represent workflows early in the history of the method.

Each process state in a workflow is represented by a vertical column and each task or work item by a card. Cards are moved from one state to the next until the task is completed. The Kanban board lets the team easily see what is being worked on, how work is progressing and if bottlenecks are forming.

Kanban board

Visualisation is also an important part of analysing progress. Kanban charts such as cycle time scatterplot, throughput histogram and cumulative flow diagram let project managers assess project performance and make accurate estimations.

Limit Work in Progress

As customer requests and deadlines pile up, teams can easily get overwhelmed with new work – while existing tasks get pushed aside and neglected. To stop this from happening, Kanban practices suggest applying limits on work in progress (WIP). Once the WIP limit is reached for a process state, no new tasks are allowed to enter this state until an outstanding task has been completed.

WIP limits keep the team focused, reduce time wasted by context-switching and multitasking and stop bottlenecks from getting out of hand. When no new work can be started, team efforts must be spent on moving existing tasks forward and resolving obstacles.

Manage Flow

A streamlined workflow requires consistent management to keep tasks entering the stream in a smooth manner. Making sure incoming tasks are all of a similar size means delivery times can be predicted more accurately, and stops large tasks from causing a bottleneck.

In large teams and teams with specialised roles, swimlanes are often used to segment the process states (and their WIP limit). For example, imagine a team where helpdesk team members and developers are working on the same Kanban board. The Ongoing state has a WIP limit of 3 – if all three work in progress items are development tasks, our helpdesk team members are left with nothing to do. By segmenting the process state with swimlanes, you can set a helpdesk WIP limit of 1 for helpdesk and 2 for development. The total WIP will still be limited to 3, but the tasks are better divided amongst your team.

Kanban board with swimlanes

Managing the flow also means removing obstacles and eliminating bottlenecks. Idle team members should be encouraged to collaborate with other team members and “swarm” outstanding tasks to complete them.

Make Policies Explicit

Every policy should be made explicit – from how tasks enter the workflow, how they are treated to when they are considered completed. It is crucial that everyone on the team understands the criteria for task progression – when a task is ready to move to the next process state.

Some projects treat all tasks in the same way. However, for large and complex projects this can result in cluttered, confusing Kanban boards and low priority tasks getting neglected. Classes of Service (CoS) can be used to set policies according to task priority – the policies in place for an emergency will be quite different to those for routine maintenance.

Implement Feedback Loops

While visualising workflows alone can improve team productivity, one of the Kanban practices relies on building feedback loops to monitor progress. Tracking Kanban metrics like cycle time and throughput allow project managers to instantly see when performance is slipping, identify problems as they form and make changes to stay on track.

These metrics give project managers rapid feedback on team performance and work delivery rates. For the big picture view, Kanban meetings are used to direct the project on a daily, weekly, and long-term basis. Each meeting incorporates feedback from other meetings to make informative decisions.

Kanban cadences

Improve Collaboratively

Kanban practices focus on improvement via incremental, iterative changes. Remember, your project and team have unique needs – be flexible! The explicit policies that work best for a development team could be totally unsuitable for a publishing house. For example, try different WIP limits, different swimlanes, different ways of prioritising emergencies.

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While it’s easy to get caught up in the details when looking for areas to improve, remember to stay focused on wider company goals. We recommend creating a Kanban roadmap to lay out business strategies and direction.

The advantage of Kanban is that the effect of these changes can quickly be seen in charts like the cumulative flow diagram. We recommend experimenting to find the best Kanban implementation for your needs. These improvements shouldn’t just be issued from management – encourage team members of all levels to give their suggestions.

Many teams turn to Kanban precisely because it improves productivity and efficiency without the big structural changes required by other Agile methodologies. Simply focus on these six Kanban practices and start seeing the benefits – reduced lead times, streamlined workflows and improved customer satisfaction.

Which practice has had the most effect on your projects? Which was hardest/easiest for your team to implement? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

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