Graphics by Bhekisisa Kumalo
Pop into an Agile meeting and you’ll probably hear the term Kanban thrown around. Visit a factory or supermarket and you’ll probably see a Kanban board being used, even if they call it something else. And explore Monday.com, Trello or almost any other project management software and you will find a Kanban view. Kanbans are everywhere.
But what are they actually?
Where do they come from?
How do they work?
And perhaps most importantly, are they worth using?
If you want to know more, read on.
In short, a Kanban board is a physical or digital project management tool that visually maps out stages of any process and tracks tasks or items as it moves through said process. Kanban boards range in complexity and size but all do the same thing - they visualize workflows and work systems or processes and essentially help manage work speed, capacity, and output.
The first visual management signaling system that we know of comes from factories during World War 2. These British factories developed what they called a “Two bin system” that streamlined the manufacturing of Spitfire fighter airplanes. The system involved all inventory to be put into two boxes or bins. As one inventory bin was finished, orders were placed to restock the inventory while production continued by using the second bin. By the time the second bin was completed, inventory in the first bin was restocked, providing continuous supply of materials needed. This system, while ensuring that production ‘never’ stopped, also ensured that factories could carry less inventory by ensuring that the right amount was ordered in time.
The two bin system’s ability to keep new inventory flowing was in many ways adopted by supermarkets around the world, allowing fresh produce to be readily available while also reducing waste. And it was this very reduction in waste that saw the birth of Kanbans as we know them today.
During the 1950’s, a Toyota executive by the name of Taiichi Ōno identified and categorized what he saw as 7 kinds of waste in Toyota’s factories. In an effort to reduce this waste, Ōno traveled to the United States and observed how supermarkets used variations of the two bin system to keep shelves stocked with just the right amount of produce.
Returning to Japan, Taiichi Ōno set to work implementing similar systems that would reduce his 7 wastes while also eliminating bottlenecks and improving efficiency. His new system, called the Kanban, used a number of cards attached to finished products. When products were sold, cards were moved to the beginning of the production line where production would only start once a predetermined amount of cards were collected. All production materials and inventory received their own cards, signaling how much stock was held, when stock needed to be replenished, and when various production stages needed stock to be moved from inventory to the factory floor.
By 1963, Ōno’s Kanban system was adopted by Toyota in almost every process the company had. This is also widely credited as being the reason Toyota went from operating at a loss in the 50’s to being one of the largest car manufacturers today. This Kanban system is also the foundation of the now famous Toyota Production System.
Today, Kanban boards are used in a wide variety of management methodologies and are taught at business schools around the world. From Spotify, Microsoft, and Apple to Zara, Jaguar, Nike, Pixar, the Seattle Children’s Hospital and even the United Nations, Kanban boards have become important management tools and are pervasive in many different industries.
The ultimate goal of the Kanban system is to provide its users with accurate information on the state of their workflow, what is working well, what isn’t, and where stuck points are. With this information, processes can be improved, waste reduced, and bottlenecks eliminated. As the tool has become more and more popular, it has evolved in many different ways but its core principles have remained the same. Kanban's core principles are:
This first principle is what creates the board itself. Visualizing the workflow allows you to identify the different stages within your team's flow needed to complete the process, be it production, design, or internal services.
This visualization can result in a very simple Kanban consisting of 3 stages (to-do, doing, done) or more complex boards with 15 stages. Ultimately, any visualization is possible, as long as it allows the user to track individual items as they move through the workflow.
The Kanban method is based on the pull principle of work. This essentially means that work items are pulled from a group of tasks compared to work items that are ‘pushed’ through. This pull system is what allows the Kanban to monitor bottlenecks and improve efficiency.
By limiting Work In Progress (WIP), Kanban users control the amount of work any person in the workflow is doing at any given time. This helps to manage bottlenecks, team capacity, and efficiency.
Upon adoption, users of a Kanban should not limit any Work in Progress and allow the cards to flow as if they are usually working. By observing the Kanban and talking about experiences, decisions can be made regarding how many cards should be in any given stage at any given time. This limitation is what brings improvements to efficiency, bottlenecks, and capacity management.
Using limitations does not necessarily mean work is forgotten. By adding cards, items, or even ideas to the to-do column of the Kanban, team leaders can prioritize these items and enable their team to pull work from that column as needed.
Kanbans are not a magic cure to problems. They are however a great diagnostic tool. By focusing on the flow of items through the board, Kanban users are able to diagnose issues quickly and direct appropriate resources and attention to solve the issue.
For example, as items move through the board, users establish the average time it takes for cards to progress through a stage. Using the Work In Progress principle, users also ensure this time by controlling the amount of items in the flow. If at any point, cards are moving too slowly or staying in one stage, questions can be asked about why and then appropriate solutions applied.
At the very heart of Kanban is the idea that things can be improved. This was the spirit that its creator, Taiichi Ōno, applied when working at Toyota. What this means is that a Kanban is almost always going to change. Furthermore, the Kanban board could also suggest tangible changes to a workflow and to operations. The data Kanbans generate are therefore only worthwhile if the people using them are open to the idea of continuous iteration and improvement
The Kanban system has many advantages for those who chose to use it. Here are a few of the top advantages.
While Kanbans are great and versatile, they are not always the best solution. Some of the methods limitations are:
Kanbans are not for everybody and they are not suited for every situation. However, if you are interested in using a Kanban board with your team, this is how you can get started.
Often, when people start a new project management system, they try to implement process changes with the new system. While this can work sometimes, it often leads to difficulty in adoption by the team as there are too many changes too quickly. Furthermore, this approach tends to burn everything down, good and bad.
As mentioned earlier, Kanban boards are visual project management systems that track individual items as they pass through the stages of your project. Because of this, your Kanban board should tell you where the problems are in your project flow. It will identify slow and fast points, help create more accurate time estimates, as well as highlight missing stages. But this can only happen if you start with what you currently have and be prepared to change it as the data dictates.
The true magic of a Kanban board is realized when the stages of a process or project is accurately captured. By understanding a process and the individual tasks in that process, your Kanban will be able to track the process through the project.
Please remember that this comes after step 1. If you don't know every stage of your process/project, start with the stages you know. As your team adopts the Kanban, have regular check-ins to see if anything is missing, needs to be added or if something needs to be taken away.
Kanbans visualize projects linearly through time. By mapping out or drawing your project on paper or even on a drawing app helps you identify the stages and get allows for better visualization. Once the drawing is done, the creation of your Kanban will be easier.
By accurately identifying the individual stages/tasks, your team should be able to see regular movement on the Kanban board. This daily movement shows that the work is getting done and helps people prepare for next steps.
The Kanban board also becomes the basis for your weekly check-ins. Items that are stuck and not seeing movement can be addressed and diagnosed. These meetings will also allow you to direct resources as needed and allow the basis for expectation management around completion dates or resource requests.
Top Tip: If a cards/items are taking a long time to move through an individual stage, that is a good indication that the stage/task is too large and actually consists of multiple tasks. If this happens, take a closer look at the stage and potentially break it up into smaller tasks.
I’ve seen many people, myself included, who get so caught up in the Kanban method that we forget that the purpose is better project management. If the Kanban board is not working, don’t be afraid to abandon it and use another method. Methods like the Waterfall Methodology, Critical Path Methodology, or even Lean Sigma 6 are all fundamentally different ways of managing a project effectively if you and your team don’t like Kanbans.
Don't forget it. The Kanban is only as good as the conversations it enables. Without it, your Kanban is a pretty picture. Use your Kanban to draw an outline about what is happening and use the conversations with people to color it in and get the full picture.
If you feel like you and your team are ready to start using a Kanban software, then fear not as there are numerous software applications that allow you to use and create a kanban. The shear number however makes this software solution decision a difficult one. What makes it worse is that most articles comparing solutions are actually written by the companies who sell the software. In an effort to make your decision a little easier and more transparent, the table below compares some of the top solutions and their features.
No matter what software you decide on, there are always trade offs. Solutions with a lot of features tend to be very complicated while other solutions don’t give enough features but are easy to use and implement. It all depends on your unique needs, skill level, time, and budget.
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