The Kanban MethodUnlocking Efficiency in Six Steps

In complex work environments, teams often struggle to manage tasks efficiently, which leads to process bottlenecks, wasted resources, decreased productivity, and a lack of accountability and predictability. The inability to foresee task completion dates can leave both the team and customers feeling uneasy and limit the customers' trust in your team. Fortunately, there is a straightforward, tried and tested solution to address these issues: the Kanban method.

A tablet with a Kanban Tool visual process board

What is the Kanban Method?

Kanban is an agile workflow management method offering a streamlined approach to task execution. This collaborative system is based on the principles of Just-In-Time (JIT) production, which emphasizes flexibility and responsiveness to changing customer needs. Importantly, using Kanban can work towards process efficiency increase while maintaining your existing workflow structure; it offers a visual representation of work progress and team members' capacity through a unique tool—the Kanban board.

A critical aspect of Kanban is its reliance on a pull system. New tasks are initiated only when ongoing ones are completed, ensuring the team can focus on one task at a time, reducing the pressure of multiple assignments. Combined with Work in Progress (WIP) limits, this approach enhances work quality and aligns demand with capacity.

By implementing Kanban, companies can optimize processes, maximize efficiency, and reduce waste, quickly delivering high-quality results. This article provides a comprehensive overview of Kanban, including its principles, benefits, and implementation techniques.

The Kanban Board as a Central Tool

A simple Kanban Tool board with WIP limits

The Kanban board serves as the compass for teams using the Kanban method. In its simplest form, the Kanban board consists of three columns: To Do, In Progress, and Done. For larger teams, or sets of teams, boards can feature numerous columns and rows. Task cards on the board are typically assigned to team members, and they travel from the left side to the far right as work advances.

While physical Kanban boards, often made of sticky notes on a whiteboard, are favored by some teams, virtual boards are more common. They automatically track all actions and enable collaboration, particularly for geographically dispersed teams.

The Evolution of Kanban

The Kanban method—as we know it today—originated at Toyota in the 1950s as a production control system. Taiichi Ōno, an engineer at Toyota, used Kanban cards to signal material demand, revolutionizing the automotive giant's production process and pioneering just-in-time production, which later evolved into lean manufacturing.

Despite the origins in manufacturing, Kanban principles, including Kanban cards and WIP limits, have found their way into knowledge-based work. In the early 2000s, software development teams began transitioning from Scrum to Kanban boards to streamline workflows. This success story expanded its adoption to various knowledge-based industries such as IT operations, marketing, sales, HR, finance, education, and government.


Taiichi Ōno in 1958,

How to Implement Kanban?

Getting started with Kanban does not demand drastic changes—you can continue running the process flow you already have, but map it out on a visual board with WIP limits. The method's low initial requirements are part of the reason for its popularity; for as long as you can define the steps in your process, you can apply Kanban to virtually any kind of work and make incremental changes to it as you go. However, to fully leverage Kanban's strengths, it will be vital to steadily apply all of its elements to your process with time.

Step 1: Visualize the Workflow

To facilitate comprehensive understanding of the process: its stages, involved stakeholders, and individual tasks, all relevant information is presented on a visual Kanban board, accessible to every team member to reduce unnecessary communication. Transparency is paramount, achieved by breaking down tasks into small, actionable units and processing them step-by-step to enhance prioritization. This approach effectively mitigates the perception of urgency often associated with a bulk presentation of assignments.

Step 2: Limit Work-in-Progress

Kanban Tool board with a WIP limit visibly exceeded in the Doing column

Ebracing Work in Progress (WIP) limits is pivotal, as it constrains the maximum number of simultaneously undertaken tasks. This constraint naturally boosts the completion rate, as new tasks cannot commence until ongoing ones are concluded. WIP limits can be established for individual employees or the entire process, encompassing the whole Kanban board. Generally, a lower limit leads to greater efficiency, with a widely accepted guideline of restricting each individual to no more than three concurrent tasks. Exceeding these limits may serve as an early warning signal, indicating potential performance issues or bottlenecks, including insufficient data or delays caused by preceding stages in the process. The rationale behind WIP limits lies in eliminating distractions, multitasking, and the associated context-switching, ultimately elevating overall team productivity.

Step 3: Manage the Flow

While visualizing work on a board is essential, monitoring how items move through the process is equally important. Vigilantly measuring the pace at which tasks progress through the system and pinpointing stages where unplanned interruptions or delays occur most frequently is vital. Identifying these weak points in the process can be addressed by assigning additional resources or reviewing the status at which items reach these critical stages. The outcome is a highly predictable flow of tasks, reinforcing adherence to stipulated delivery timelines. A crucial aspect of this practice is its role in fostering positive client relationships, as knowing what to anticipate from the process hinges on consistent observation, analysis, and an unwavering commitment to process enhancement.

Step 4: Eliminate Waste

Streamlining the process by eliminating redundant activities has a two-fold impact—enhancing process efficiency and bolstering profit margins. This strategic approach aligns with lean management principles, from which Kanban derives, emphasizing maximizing value delivered to the customer by minimizing waste and non-value-adding tasks. Central to lean management, stemming from the Toyota Production System, is the doctrine of avoiding waste, characterized as the "7 times no". The seven key waste categories in lean encompass transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over-processing, and defects.

Step 5: Implement Explicit Process Policies

Maintaining fluid workflow and eliminating waste necessitate well-defined objectives at each process stage. Explicitly answering questions regarding when an item is ready to transition to the next step and when work items are considered completed is essential. The same applies to clarifying the points of contact and guidance on handling conflicting interests between parallel tasks. These policies should be consistent across various types or classes of work to avert issues that lead to rework, waste, and delays. Kanban Tool board with a lane policy applied

Step 6: Engage in Continuous Improvement

The perpetual pursuit of improvement is a hallmark of the Kanban method. The tools and elements provided by Kanban, including WIP limits, process visualization, policies, and metrics such as cumulative flow, lead time, and cycle time, facilitate the identification and resolution of inefficiencies. The ongoing refinement is achieved by adjusting the workflow rules, together with use of techniques like the Theory of Constraints or the Deming Cycle, as well as focus on reducing process variation to bring about gradual improvements.

What are the Advantages
of Using Kanban?

  • Reduces workload without compromising performance
  • Enhances team performance through WIP limits, process transparency, and capacity management
  • Shortens lead times for product or service delivery, and improves lead time predictability
  • Facilitates quick responses to evolving customer requirements
  • Accelerates information flow and provides timely insight into bottlenecks and issues
  • Provides information on system bottlenecks and problems the moment they occur
  • Decreases company costs through continuous process improvement
  • Supports implementation in various departments and industries
  • Boosts team motivation, morale, and job satisfaction
Colleagues planning work on a physical Kanban board with sticky notes for task cards

Common Challenges

While Kanban offers significant benefits, teams may face challenges during implementation, such as general resistance to change, lack of task clarity, or setting appropriate WIP limits. To mitigate these difficulties, provide adequate training, communicate the purpose of Kanban, use the recommended explicit policies, and regularly review and adjust the workflow. It's worth keeping in mind that the system is tailored to smooth and gradual introduction, as signified by the Kanban method's four rules: begin with your current workflow, pursue incremental changes, respect current roles and responsibilities, and encourage leadership at all levels.

Kanban and Other Agile Methods

One of Kanban's unique strengths is its adaptability across various organizational levels, from individual tasks to strategic company-wide initiatives. Moreover, it can seamlessly integrate with other lean and agile frameworks, like Scrum or XP, offering teams the flexibility to tailor their workflow to specific needs and make adjustments as necessary.

However, Kanban varies from Scrum and other Agile methodologies in its ties to the whole process and its real-life shape—the Kanban board depicts the reality of a process, not the ideal. Moreover, it sustains the team's completion of work currently in progress rather than just helping them plan future tasks. Also, the method is ideal for managing your process at every stage, from initial idea to production, support, and feedback management—it's not only for the development part, which tends to be the case with, e.g., Scrum.

Kanban Tools and Software

Numerous software tools support the implementation of Kanban, greatly simplifying the process. One of the pioneers in the area is Kanban Tool, with its customizable boards, clear progress visualization, easy team collaboration, and additional features like time tracking and reporting or process automation. Teams can access their shared boards via web browsers or mobile apps, and there's an option for deploying it on a local server for highly regulated industries.

Kanban Tool online software

The Kanban method is a powerful utility for streamlining workflows, enhancing productivity, and promoting continuous improvement. By visualizing tasks, limiting work in progress, and embracing a culture of unending advancement, teams can reduce lead time and deliver high-quality results efficiently. Whether applied to software development, project management, or other industries, Kanban will foster high performance, transparency, and success.

Remember, Kanban is a dynamic approach that you can tailor to fit the specific needs of your team or organization. Embracing the Kanban method entails a shift in mindset, where the focus moves from managing multiple tasks to prioritizing high-value work and continuous process improvement. While setting up a Kanban board and defining WIP limits are essential, the core transformation lies in embracing these principles and practices. With careful implementation and a commitment to continuous growth, Kanban can drive positive change and help companies achieve their goals effectively.

Give it a try today—sign up for a Kanban Tool account and collaborate efficiently with your team!