Article

Intro to Kanban: What It Is, How It Works, Benefits, and Core Principles

May 24, 2024

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Emily May

Kanban is one of those elusive, mysterious terms that gets tossed around among seasoned agile practitioners.

If you’re new to agile, all the fresh terminology and frameworks can be intimidating. However, rest assured, the concept behind kanban is quite simple. 

In this article, we’re providing you with the foundational knowledge you need to understand kanban, how it works, its benefits, and the core principles of the visual project management method.

What Is Kanban?

Kanban is a visual project management method invented by an engineer named Taiichi Ohno in the 1940s to streamline the manufacturing process at Toyota. Although first developed for use in the automotive industry, software engineers began applying the kanban concept to product development in the 2000s. Since then, kanban has been adapted to fit the needs of all sectors and is especially popular among organizations that practice agile ways of working. 

Kanban as an Agile Methodology

Why do many agile teams utilize kanban as their preferred method for project management? Kanban aligns closely with agile methodologies. 

Visual project management enables teams to adhere to several of the principles noted in The Agile Manifesto, such as:

  • Satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software
  • Welcome changing requirements, even late in development
  • Deliver working software frequently
  • Business people and developers must work together
  • Working software is the primary measure of progress
  • Agile processes promote sustainable development
  • The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams
  • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective

What Is a Kanban Board, and How Does it Work?

A kanban board is a visual project management system that allows users to track the progress of their tasks from start to finish. 

The kanban board contains columns that read from left to right, representing the progression of a project or task. For example, at ICAgile, our kanban columns are labeled “to do,” “in progress,” “blocked,” “for review,” and “done.” Many organizations use tools like Jira, Trello, or Asana to host this process. 

Team members create kanban cards representing each project, task, or sub-task that can be pulled into the to-do column on the board according to bandwidth and changing priorities. As the project progresses, team members move their cards along the columns for visual tracking. 

The Benefits of Visual Project Management

Visual project management tools like kanban offer numerous benefits that align with the agile mindset, including:

  • Frequent value delivery
  • Improved teamwork (communication, collaboration, accountability, & transparency)
  • Simple, efficient project tracking & measuring
  • Adaptability
  • Easy workload management
  • Continuous improvement

Understanding the foundational principles of kanban project management is essential to setting your organization up for success and maintaining these benefits. 

The 5 Kanban Principles

While there is no set number of kanban principles, there are a few general best practices to remember when rolling out visual project management within your agile team. Because kanban has been adapted over the years, the themes in this section are inspired by various voices and concepts. 

Visualize Workflow

Kanban boards tell a visual story of projects from start to finish. Rather than track projects in list form, the visual representation of kanban cards (projects) moving along each column (stages in the workflow) provides a straightforward point of view on project status that frees up mental space for team members. 

With a big-picture view of task progress, teams are more informed about the work getting done within their department and across the organization. They can also quickly identify bottlenecks that block a task from moving forward, streamlining collaborative efforts. 

Limit Work in Progress (WIP)

Teams and their leaders should also set reasonable limits on how many projects can be worked on simultaneously and pulled into the “in progress” column on the kanban board. By limiting work in progress (WIP), employees can focus on a reasonable number of tasks at once, complete the projects, and then bring in more work.

WIP helps prevent burnout and context switching, allowing teams to produce quality work and deliver more value to their customers. 

Measure and Manage Flow

Measuring and managing workflow helps teams improve operational efficiency and leverage their kanban board effectively. 

For example, kanban metrics such as cycle time or how long it takes a project to move from the “in progress” column to the “done” column provide insight into how to refine the workflow to improve productivity. 

Teams are empowered to make informed decisions about workflow changes based on their current measurements instead of relying on assumptions. 

Make Process Policies Explicit

Leaders should work with their teams to solidify expectations and instructions on workflow policies. For example, at ICAgile, we list acceptance criteria for each kanban card, and until that acceptance criteria is met, we can not move the card to the “done” column. 

Communicating clear workflow guidelines ensures that all team members utilize the kanban board according to organizational expectations, promoting consistency and transparency. 

Continuous Improvement

Agile teams aren’t strangers to the principle of continuous improvement. A team motivated to improve will regularly analyze the workflow's state, seek kanban training and learning, and adapt the project journey based on metrics. 

Continuous improvement promotes ongoing reflection, improved collaboration, and streamlined project management that mitigates bottlenecks. Further, this optimized workflow supports teams in pushing out their minimum viable products (MVPs) and consistently providing their customers with what they need. 

Conclusion

Are you curious about implementing visual project management within your team? Consider earning a certification that explores kanban and more. 

Our Agile Project and Delivery Management course provides students with the foundational knowledge to plan, monitor, and manage the project management process with agility and efficiency at the forefront. In our Lean Portfolio Management course, you'll learn how to build a visual work management system that delivers more value to your customers and sustains change at every organizational level. 

We look forward to meeting you in a future class. 

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TAGGED AS:
Foundations, Agile Fundamentals, Business Agility Foundations, Agile Project and Delivery Management, Lean Portfolio Management

About the author

Emily May | ICAgile, Marketing Specialist
Emily May is a Marketing Specialist at ICAgile, where she helps educate learners on their agile journey through content. With an eclectic background in communications supporting small business marketing efforts, she hopes to inspire readers to initiate more empathy, productivity, and creativity in the workplace for improved internal and external outcomes.