Kanban Method: what is it?
November 10, 2022
To optimize teamwork during a project, there are several management methods to choose from. They can be classified into two categories: agile methods and linear methods. The Kanban method belongs to the first, and it is perhaps the best known to date. Its operation and usefulness are explained in the guide below.
Kanban was invented in Toyota factories during the 1950s. The automaker was then looking to compete with its competitors across the Pacific. For this, he commissioned Taiichi Ōno, an industrial engineer, to rethink his work organization using an innovative method . The Kanban method was born.
“Kanban”, pronounced “Ka”-“n”-“ba”-“n”, means “label in Japanese. Indeed, the Kanban method is based above all on the use of tables which make it possible to visualize the tasks of a workflow in the form of labels (or equivalent objects such as post-its or magnetic cards).
Today, the Kanban method is recognized as one of the most effective project management methodologies in existence.
It is no longer used only by the automotive industry: it has been exported to many sectors. Its simplicity and its very visual nature partly explain its success, especially in certain circles such as marketing teams.
The Kanban method is based on the idea of making the products designed immediately functional , so it is part of the agile methods. The development phase then follows an incremental logic rather than aiming for assembly at the end of the project. This incremental logic makes it possible to develop a project taking into account the evolution of a market and its needs. projects evolve in real time.
The Kanban method can be compared to the Scrum method, with which it shares many similarities. Like Scrum, Kanban involves daily meetings, carried out in small teams and preferably standing.
Team members are encouraged to be autonomous and to adopt transparent communication. These two points facilitate collaboration between technicians with different skills . Which is essential for developing features without going through a full-fledged assembly step. Specific to the classic organization of work in silos.
However, unlike Scrum, Kanban is suitable for day-to-day management. Indeed, the Kanban method was a response to Toyota’s request for an effective lean management solution . “Lean management” is the fact of producing objects just in time, to adapt to the real evolution of the demand emanating from the market. Unlike Scrum, in the Kanban methodological framework, the intermediary role of the Product Owner does not exist.
The Kanban system is made to adapt directly to the market, and not to a customer. This means that in the classic Kanban method, there is no specific meeting scheduled with the customer or his representative to report back. The notion of sprints spanning several weeks and giving rise to a report therefore does not exist in the Kanban method either.
However, the opposition between these two methods is to be moderated, because in practice, it is common to see project managers adopting a hybrid model . The cyclical and iterative dimension of Scrum is then transposed, so as to give regular reports to a Product Owner, and at the same time, a Kanban board is used to act as a Burndown Chart (in other words to optimize the management of daily workflow).
Indeed, the Kanban board, even when used outside the Kanban methodological framework, is a remarkably effective tool for managing workflows. It allows us to represent the tasks in a visual way , and to classify them by progress and by order of priority. With a Kanban board, you can visualize at a glance the work in progress and estimate the degree of progress of a project.
As we mentioned earlier, we must be careful not to confuse the Kanban board, which is a tool used to manage a workflow, with the Kanban system, which is a project management solution in its own right.
In this section, we will summarize the four principles of the Kanban method as thought of by its inventor Taiichi Ōno.
The Kanban process promotes pragmatism, flexibility and adaptability. Above all, the Kanban method aims for immediate profitability. We must therefore not transpose the state of mind conditioned by our habit of linear methods to the Kanban method.
The method should fit your business, not the other way around. In other words, don’t change your current workflow, and keep your development plan if you already have one. Start by getting your teams used to Kanban boards and daily meetings, then you can consider full adoption of the method as part of a future project.
Similarly, if your teams have long been accustomed to linear project management, you may encounter resistance by abruptly wanting them to change their method. Once again, let us specify that in the spirit of Taiichi Ōno, the method must adapt to the company and not the reverse .
Even if it must take the time of several projects, do not hesitate to think about a progressive and evolutionary adoption of the Kanban method.
Collaborate with your teams and project managers, and encourage step-by-step change rather than radical disruption.
Also, the Kanban process is less strict than other methods when it comes to role distribution. It is therefore possible to preserve the current organization chart, knowing that organizational upheavals are sources of confusion and stress for most people who work in companies.
Finally, the Kanban method must encourage initiative, and in particular that which emanates from the development teams. This is a crucial point of Kanban. Knowing that unlike its counterpart the Scrum method, there is no Product Owner to play the role of third party vis-à-vis the project manager. He must therefore rely on his team to help him take a step back from some of his decisions, or some of his omissions.
The success of the Kanban method is based on 6 basic practices.
Once the objective has been defined , it must be broken down into achievable tasks. These tasks are symbolized by labels. These labels will feed the Kanban board.
The Kanban board is generally made up of three columns named “to do”, “in progress” and “completed” . All task labels are first lined up in the “to do” column, top to bottom in order of priority. Then, the labels will be transposed to the “in progress” column and finally to the “completed” column after their completion.
This board is public. The whole team must participate in updating it during daily meetings, and must be able to consult it during their working time. In practice, it can either be materialized by a board with Post-its, placed in a company’s meeting room, or created virtually in project management software such as Trello or Asana.
In some models derived from the Kanban board , we can admit a 4th column , called “backlog” which will be used to collect ideas that have not yet been transformed into a task, or even a 5th column “in test” corresponding to the phase control of a task about to be accomplished.
To increase the efficiency of the Kanban method , and even more specifically that of the Kanban board used in an agile framework , it is useful to limit the maximum number of tasks being accomplished. Indeed, agile project management involves proceeding in increments.
As soon as a feature can be put into service, it must immediately be checked and added to the product. It is this incremental process that makes it possible to adapt to market and/or customer observations as development progresses.
The risk of a badly exploited Kanban board is to leave a large number of tasks in the current column, to validate them all and to test them in one block, then to make a final assembly of the functionalities which is equivalent to that of the classic linear project management system.
Some companies limit the number of current tasks to 1x or 1.5x of the number of team members by default. Another strategy, advocated by Don Reinertsen, is to start the project with no limit, then after having enough hindsight, set a maximum ongoing task schedule equal to half of the peak that has already been reached.
The Kanban method aims to constantly improve the efficiency of workflows . To do this, you can use the Kanban board to see which recurring tasks remain in the “in progress” column the longest.
These tasks are often opportunities for improvement. We can think of assigning them to another member of the team or rethinking their process of accomplishment to try to save time. Do not hesitate to read our comparison of the best project planning software.
For each task started, the validation criteria must be explicitly detailed by the project manager , if necessary in a document annexed to the table.
This is an essential principle of the Kanban process, the cause of which is simple to understand: this explanation increases the autonomy of each workstation , which thus has the tools to judge the progress of its work. At the same time, it relieves the project manager of certain premature checks.
It is important to remember that unlike the Scrum method , there is no Product Owner in the Kanban method. In the Scrum method, one of the fundamental functions of the Product Owner is to evaluate the response to the User Story provided by the features that have just been created, and to give his opinion at the end of each sprint on the turn of a project.
In an agile approach like the Kanban method, devoid of this external view that is the Product Owner, there is a great risk of working “head in the handlebars” and developing functionalities disconnected from the real needs of users.
It is for this reason that specific tasks must be integrated into the Kanban board as feedback loops, during which a member of the team is responsible for verifying that the development of the project remains coherent and focused on profitability.
Also, a development team learns skills by doing while executing a project. The strength of agile methods is to allow the immediate integration of this new knowledge to maximize productive efficiency.
It is therefore important within the framework of the Kanban method to make reports constantly, and to draw the consequences quickly. If we realize that two tasks can be recorded in one, and that we shorten the way to reach the same goal, then we must integrate this knowledge as quickly as possible.
We find with the Kanban method the classic advantages of agile project management methods .
Agile project management is based on an incremental development strategy. The functionalities of a product are thought out during the development phase, and assembled gradually. Functionality can thus be tested as the project progresses, allowing customer and/or end-user feedback to be taken into account to adapt subsequent workflows.
Agile methods are opposed to linear methods , in which the entire development is planned in advance, operated in silos, for a final assembly of the product made from a block before its delivery.
Like the Kanban method, Scrum is also an agile method of project management . Although similar, these two methods differ in a few key points. Scrum divides the completion of a project into “sprints”. A sprint is a cycle generally lasting 2 to 4 weeks, and the end of which is marked by the holding of a meeting with the company’s client or with his representative (“the Product Owner”).
The Kanban method does not, in its classic model, integrate the Product Owner into the execution of projects. There are also no sprints. The workflow here is continuous. This means that you can add new tasks to the project every day with the Kanban method, whereas Scrum only provides for the addition of new tasks between two sprints.
Moreover, the Scrum method forces the development team to commit to a number of features to be delivered at the end of each sprint. This notion of iterative engagement with the customer does not exist in the Kanban method.
The Kanban board is the support tool of the Kanban method . It is a table in principle separated into three columns entitled “to do”, “in progress” and “completed”. Labels are classified in these three columns that correspond to the tasks to be carried out within the framework of a project. You can rank the priority level of tasks by ranking them from top to bottom in the “to do” or “in progress” column.
In some models derived from the traditional Kanban board, you can add a 4th column entitled “backlog” in which you enter the ideas that have not yet been transformed into a task, or even a 5th column entitled “test”, in which you indicate tasks that are being checked before being completed.
A Kanban board can be physically materialized on company premises, or be represented virtually on management software such as Trello or Notion.