What is the Kanban Method?

Kanban Method

The Kanban method is a systematic approach derived from Lean and Agile, that ensures people pull work items through a process of card utilization, while continuously limiting the amount of work in progress to optimize flow. The Kanban method focuses on pulling because - unlike traditionally used push methods - pulling work offers the best way to determine who does what, and who is available. Pushing items down to a team, so that they can follow the project managers plan deals with the theory, and not the reality. Often the project manager will not know who is available, who is overloaded and who is actually best suited to do the work. A pull method like Kanban helps to ensure that team members don’t sit idly around, but instead are motivated by their own selection of what they’ll work on next.

How does the Kanban Method work?

The Kanban Method uses visual cards on a process board, and the number of cards in each stage equals the agreed capacity of that process stage. A single card represents a single piece of work that has a start and an end state. These cards and their location on the board act as a signalling mechanism - the team can only start work on a new item, once a slot has become available.

The method was derived from a concept that Japanese businessmen learned from American supermarkets. These supermarkets would restock items, based on shelf space that was available, and not based on when items became available from suppliers. This meant that new stock was sourced only when required, which prevented both waste and loss of value on items sitting in stock rooms. Similarly, in knowledge-based businesses, the Kanban method can be utilized, so that e.g. the action of handing over of a report to a client sends a signal for the team to start work on the next report.

Types or classes of work

The Kanban method differentiates between different classes or types of work. Kanban encourages you to understand the various types of work in your process, by asking yourself questions such as:

  • What’s the size of the work?
  • How important is the work?
  • What is the impact if this work is not delivered or is delivered late?
  • Who is requesting the work?
  • What impact does this piece of work have on others?

Different classes of work may require different sets of steps to be processed. It’s beneficial to understand these different steps, and - on that basis - to consider the capacity you have for producing sustainable amounts of the different types of work.

Kanban and meetings?

The Kanban method is often considered the least prescriptive and disruptive of the Agile methodologies, because its implementation begins with how your process currently works. And although there are no required meetings, David Anderson, the founder of the modern Kanban method, does recommend the following meetings to occur:

  • The daily standup meeting
  • Delivery meetings
  • Replenishment meetings
  • Risk meetings
  • Strategy meetings
  • Service meetings.

Anderson emphasizes that these meetings only need to occur if and when they bring value, as opposed to being prescribed in the same way that meetings occur with a Scrum process.

Designated roles

There are no designated roles in Kanban, but in almost all Kanban implementations the following roles do tend to emerge:

  • Manager / Kanban Master or Project Manager
  • Operations Manager / Product Manager or Service Request Manager
  • Delivery Request Manager

The focus of the Kanban method is systemizing the steps you need to take to satisfy your customers. It’s the steps of the employees, partners, support systems and the daily routines of your organization that lead to delighted customers and minimization of waste.