The Kanban Method: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide!
Delivering work in a quick and efficient way could be a challenge. The Kanban Method suggests an approach of managing the flow of work with an emphasis on continuous improvement without overburdening the development team that focuses on productivity and efficiency.
Kanban was initially invented as a way of managing Just in Time (JIT) manufacturing processes. The next chapter in Kanban’s history introduced new principles and practices to make it more efficient for knowledge workers.
It is a method designed to help you optimize workflow and use your team’s full capacity. In this article, we will discuss what is the Kanban Method, how to implement it, and what are the most important Kanban analytics charts.
The Kanban Method Fundamentals
The Kanban method is a pull system – this means that work is pulled into the system when the team has capacity for it, rather than tasks being assigned from the top. Kanban can be used to improve processes and workflow efficiency without making any changes to your team structure.
Prior to applying the Kanban Method within your business, it is important to first understand and adopt its fundamental principles:
- Start with what you are doing now – Kanban doesn’t require a particular setup and can be applied directly to your current workflow. This makes it easy to implement since there is no need to change your existing processes. The benefits of Kanban are gradual, and any process improvement is adopted over time.
- Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change – Sweeping changes can unsettle teams, disrupt flow and damage performance. Kanban is designed to incur minimal resistance by encouraging continuous, incremental and evolutionary changes.
- Respect the current process, roles, and responsibilities – There should be no organizational changes at the outset. Kanban recognizes that existing processes, roles, and responsibilities may have value and are worth preserving. Instead, Kanban encourages incremental change to avoid emotional resistance.
- Encourage acts of leadership at all levels – Kanban promotes leadership and decision making between all members. If the lowest-ranked team member has a bright idea, it should be acknowledged and embraced. Everyone should be fostering a mindset of continuous improvement (Kaizen) – in order for your workers to reach optimal performance.
Although adopting the Kanban philosophy is the most important step, there are six core practices you need to observe for successful Kanban implementation.
- Visualize workflow – The first and most important task is to understand the current flow of work – what is the sequence of steps to execute in order to move an item from request to a deliverable product. This is done using a Kanban board with cards and columns: each column represents a step in your workflow, and each card represents a work item. Every item moves through the flow from start to end. By observing this process, you can easily track progress and identify bottlenecks in real-time.
- Limit Work in Progress (WIP) – Loss of focus can seriously harm your team’s performance, so this practice centers around eliminating interruptions by setting limits on the work in progress. By applying limits to WIP, teams focus on finishing outstanding work before starting new work. Limiting WIP is critical for the successful implementation of Kanban.
- Manage flow – By observing and analyzing flow efficiency, you can identify any problem areas. The main goal of implementing Kanban is to create a smooth workflow by improving the lead times and avoiding delays. You should always strive to make your process more efficient.
- Make process policies explicit – The process should be clearly defined, published, and confirmed for everyone in the team: people won’t feel motivated to be part of something unless they think it will be useful. When everyone is aware of the explicit policies, each person can suggest improvements that will improve your performance.
- Use feedback loops – In order for the positive change to occur, regular meetings are necessary to provide essential feedback to the entire team. The frequency of these meetings varies, but the idea is that they are regular, at a fixed time, and that they get straight to the point.
- Improve collaboratively – Kanban requires constant evaluation, analysis, and improvement. When teams have a shared understanding of the process, they are more likely to reach a consensus should any problems arise. The Kanban Method suggests that various models of scientific approach are used to implement continuous, incremental, and evolutionary changes.
Which Projects Benefit Most From Kanban
Kanban is likely to be a good method for your team if your project meets some or all of the following criteria:
- Your workflows essentially function but could be smoother and more efficient
- You are experiencing backlogs of stalled work
- Your organization prefers to improve existing processes incrementally rather than imposing a radical new system
- Your team’s priorities can change on short notice
- The top priority is being responsive to customer needs
How To Implement Kanban
Remember the very first step when it comes to Kanban?
Make work visible. The way teams do this is by creating a Kanban board, with columns and cards. At its most basic, we could say there are 4 columns:
- Backlog – The product backlog.
- To Do – All tasks which have not yet started.
- Ongoing – Tasks that have started.
- Done – Completed tasks.
Every task occupies a Kanban card and is moved across the board as it progresses through each state. In the ideal case, tasks move smoothly between states. In reality, there are bottlenecks and impairments to flow.
Implement a pull system. Very often, team overburden and delayed work in your workflow springs up when work is pushed down the line by management. As more and more work has been started, nothing actually gets finished due to constant multitasking and context-switching.
Implementing a Kanban pull system is a good way to address this issue.
A pull system means tasks are pulled from the To Do list in your board by team members if and only if they’re at capacity to handle new work.
In a pull system, management defines the priority of a task by assigning classes of service before placing it in the To Do column. Once the delivery team has an empty slot for new work, they pull the task in the process. This is the point of commitment.
This approach enables management to reprioritize work up until the moment it has been started. It’s an effective way to remain adaptive to the market changes, as you’re always working on what’s most important first.
Limit Work In Progress. Work in Progress (WIP) limits in Kanban help you align customer demand with your team’s capacity. They prevent work from piling up and ensure your team concentrates on finishing old work, rather than starting new work.
WIP limits are the antidote which lets you focus on one thing at a time and prevents work from being delayed or abandoned in your process. Proper WIP limits will ensure your team is never overburdened yet always has something to do.
Tools For Getting Started with the Kanban Method
While some businesses prefer to use physical whiteboard-and-stickies Kanban boards, the majority are using online solutions. There are a lot of Kanban tools on the market, as well as project management platforms suitable for its implementation. Some of the simplest and most flexible ones are Trello, Asana, Jira, and Azure DevOps, ideal for building Kanban boards and managing projects.
The best way to see the effectiveness of your Kanban implementation is to go beyond the visualization of your process and start managing your workflow. Tracking key performance indicators is an essential activity for all managers, and is integral to continuous improvement. Here we explain how to measure the three most important flow metrics in Kanban – cycle time, throughput, and work in progress.
There are several Kanban-specific charts used to help you manage the main flow of work.
Cumulative Flow Diagram
The Cumulative Flow Diagram (CFD) is one of the most advanced analytical tools for workflow management. It provides a concise visualization of the most important metrics of your flow.
Its main purpose is to demonstrate how stable your flow is and to show you where to focus in order to make your process smoother. Once you learn how to read CFD, it will give you deep insight into any existing problems.
Cycle Time Scatterplot
Cycle time is a representation of how long it takes to complete individual work items on your Kanban board. The goal of the Cycle Time Scatterplot is to visualize the completion times of your assignments within a predefined time frame.
Through assigning different colors, the scatterplot diagram is used to compare the performance of different types of work items. It also provides a simple method for forecasting the cycle time on future assignments.
Cycle Time Histogram
The Cycle Time Histogram shows the overall distribution of the cycle times of your completed tasks. If the spread of your data is too wide, it means that your process is unstable and there is too much variability.
The Cycle Time Histogram shows the mean, median, and mode average delivery times and how the trends build over time. Measuring your average cycle time lets you assess your team performance. Ideally, the lines should stay even or go down. The faster your cycle time, the better your performance.
The Throughput Histogram allows you to visualize how consistently your team is delivering results.
It is calculating your throughput averages using the mean, median, and mode values of your throughput frequency distribution. And your average throughput over the month is the most important metric you want to discover from this chart. It is a representation of your capacity to deliver.
Over time, you can identify trends in your delivery rates. Ideally, your average throughput should increase smoothly or stay at similar levels.
Throughput Run Chart
Tracking throughput using the Throughput Run Chart helps teams proactively maintain a stable workflow by evaluating their throughput on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis and compare its values over time. The closer the values are, the more predictable your process.
The Aging Chart enables you to track your current tasks in progress. It uses the same visual format as your Kanban board, with each column representing a state in your process.
The Aging Chart extracts data from your Kanban board and provides a concise, visual summary of your flow. The chart gives you an indication of how your team has performed in similar contexts in the past. The higher the cycle time, the larger the chance of delay.
Kanban vs. Scrum
Both Scrum and Kanban offer fast-paced, efficiency-based approaches to improve delivery. Either method allows you to break down large, complex projects into manageable chunks, visualizing their workflow in a way that keeps the entire team in the loop.
However, in terms of execution, each method is fundamentally different from the other. For this reason, many teams carefully analyze both before deciding whether to implement Kanban or Scrum. There is no right or wrong decision, it all depends on your context.
The Kanban Method is one of the simplest to implement, with no immediate structural changes and prescribed ceremonies. As long as you continuously analyze and manage your flow of work, Kanban can enable exceptional results.
Perhaps it already has? If you’ve already adopted the Kanban Method, we’d love to hear what challenges you faced, how you overcame them, and what effect Kanban has had on your business. Let us know in the comments below!
Meet the Author
Sonya Siderova is a passionate product manager and a driving force behind Nave, a Kanban analytics suite that helps teams improve their delivery speed through data-driven decision making. When she's not catering to her two little ones, you might find Sonya absorbed in a good heavyweight boxing match or behind a screen crafting a new blog post.