How to Implement a Kanban System

Does your team struggle with communication breakdowns and inefficient collaboration? If so, you aren’t alone. With mounting pressures to rapidly innovate and deliver quality work faster than ever before, most teams are looking for ways to optimize the way they work. Implementing a Kanban system can help your team facilitate more effective communication, enabling you to work in smarter and more efficient ways. If you’re ready to take your team’s productivity and efficiency to the next level, this article is for you.

Here is an overview of the five steps you’ll want to take in order to implement a lasting and effective Kanban system. The steps are:

  • Map Your Current Workflow
  • Visualize Your Work
  • Focus on Flow
  • Limit your WIP
  • Measure and Improve

Map Your Current Workflow

The first step in implementing a Kanban system is to identify the steps in your current workflow. This requires participation from everyone in your team. As a group, talk through how work travels from “To Do” to “Done.” What distinct steps does work go through before it’s completed? Think critically here - where do handoffs occur? Are there any review cycles built into your process?

Try mapping your process out on a whiteboard. Then, talk through how recently completed work items flowed through your process to ensure your map is accurate.

Your workflow will look different depending on your team’s function, size, existing processes, and industry. It might be messy - it could look something like this:

To Do - Research - Planning - Draft - Edit - Rewrite/Rework - Edit - Approval - Build - QA - Deploy

It’s important to remember that there is no “right” or “wrong” workflow here - your goal should be accuracy, not perfection. Map out your existing process, in all its messy glory. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to improve your process in later steps.

Visualize Your Work

Now that you’ve mapped out your process, it’s time to visualize your work. Take all current and upcoming work items and visualize them on your board by creating a card for each of them. During this process, don’t feel pressured to fill out every specific card detail - you can do this later. The goal for this initial card creation exercise is to visualize what your team has in progress.

Remember, the goal for your Kanban system is to own and manage all shared work across the team. Even if something seems like a small task to you, it occupies your time and mental capacity and keeps you from doing other work. Your Kanban system is only helpful if it truly reflects your team’s process and capacity - so even small tasks should be visualized.

Focus on Flow

Flow is a measure of how smoothly work moves through your system. Good flow means that work moves from one step in your process to the next without disruption or delay. Bad flow means that work stops and starts frequently. It spends a lot of time in queues, or wait states.

Before using Kanban, you likely didn’t pay much attention to the way work flowed through your process. Now that you’re seeing your workflow mapped out, it’s likely that you see opportunities for improvement. Maybe one lane seems to always have twice the number of cards as another lane - this might be a bottleneck. Maybe work keeps getting stuck at a specific point in your process - maybe you could automate a part of that step to get progress flowing again.

As a team, identify a few changes you’d like to make to your board, and then - this is important - make them one at a time. If you change too many things at once, you won’t be able to see or measure the impact of your changes. Prioritize optimizations that will have the greatest impact on flow.

Limit your WIP

You’ve built your board, you’re moving work through it, and you’re implementing creative solutions to improve your flow. You’re now ready to adopt one of the most important concepts in Kanban: Limiting WIP.

Limiting WIP, or work-in-progress, is the deliberate practice of controlling how much work is in your system. There are many benefits to limiting your WIP, including:

  • Increased speed
  • Reduced context switching
  • Better work quality
  • Smoother handoffs, and more.

In a Kanban practice, WIP is the number of cards currently in the active (“Doing”) lanes on your board. You can set WIP limits at the team or individual levels - we’d recommend doing both. Limiting WIP at the team level can improve the productivity and efficiency of your team. It can help everyone stay on the same page, ensuring smooth handoffs and clear communication across your team. Limiting WIP at the individual level can help you stay focused on delivering quality work faster, eliminating the distraction of context switching.

You can learn more about WIP limits here and here.

Measure and Improve

Your Kanban board, and your Kanban practice, should be ever-evolving. This isn’t a one-and-done kind of thing: Your board today might reflect your process exactly, but that doesn’t mean it will be equally relevant three months from now. Be flexible and stay open to improvement, so that you can continue to maximize value from your Kanban system.

One way to ensure continuous growth is to measure and analyze your performance as a team. Two basic metrics - lead time and cycle time - can provide you with actionable insights into how to improve your team’s process. You can learn more about Kanban metrics in this article.

Ready to Implement Your Kanban System?

If you’re ready to get started with Kanban, we recommend doing the exercises in the Kanban Roadmap with your team. This comprehensive guide to implementing a Kanban system will walk you and your team through the five steps described in this post.

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