Kanban 101: Learn the Basics

Kanban is a Lean workflow management methodology that provides visibility and focus to teams and organizations in order to maximize value for the customer. This article will give you an introduction to Kanban as well as an overview of Kanban basics and essentials that can be used for continuous improvement of any process.

Introduction to Kanban

Kanban originates from the Japanese word for “visual signal” or “card.” It was first used by Toyota in the 1940’s to signal steps in the production process. Now, Kanban essentials are widely used amongst Lean teams not only for technology and manufacturing, but for knowledge work as well. The methodology uses physical or digital boards to represent a team or organization’s unique process. The essentials of a Kanban board are as follows:

  • Work items are represented by cards on the board, similar to a sticky note.
  • Each step in the process is represented by a vertical lane or column. The labeling of the columns can be as simple as “To-Do, Doing, and Done”, or can be more specific according to your process.
  • The cards are then moved from left to right across the board to show where each work item is in the process.

Through providing shared visibility, Kanban allows teams to focus and collaborate more effectively. A Kanban board gives a real-time snapshot of backlog and work in progress, making it easy to decipher what work needs to be done and when.

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Kanban Basics

Kanban is not meant to be a prescribed tactic, but rather a methodology that can evolve with your team’s processes. The essentials of Kanban are rooted in four principles. Whether you are looking for an introduction to Kanban or are ready to implement it as your team’s workflow management system, these principles are a good place to start.

Kanban Essentials: Four Principles

Visualize Work

In order to visualize work, a team must first map out their workflow and break it down into its core stages. Each lane in a Kanban board is then configured to match those stages or handoffs. As work items are initiated, they are made into cards and placed in the appropriate lane. By making the workflow visible in this way, teams can observe the flow of work as well as who is working on what. This visibility alone leads to increased communication and collaboration amongst team members. Furthermore, teams and managers can easily identify bottlenecks and queues that may be slowing down the process or preventing the team from working as efficiently as possible.

Limit Work in Progress

One of the benefits of increased visibility, as discussed above, is having one shared view of work in progress. When teams have too many items in the Work in Process (WIP)column, it can lead to task switching, which causes people to lose focus and confuse prioritization. By simply implementing a limit to the amount of work in progress at any given time, you can reduce the time it takes for a work item to move through the process. Not only can this improve the quality of the end product, but it can help teams save significant time and resources overall.

Focus on Flow

In addition to limiting work in progress, Kanban allows teams to focus on process flow in a more visual manner. Being able to see the process in action allows teams to identify elements of the process that may have gone unnoticed without the visual representation. For example, by assigning each card to a team member, managers can see who on the team is working at capacity and who could take on more work items. Other team members can also see who may need help with work items at any given time. They can also see where projects are getting held up in the process so that inefficiencies can be identified.

Continuous Improvement

Kanban helps teams increase their effectiveness by measuring flow, quality, lead time and more. Once measured, teams can then implement changes to the process and prevent problems in the future. This makes Kanban a critical tool for continuous improvement, one of the foundational pillars of Lean methodology.

Beyond the Kanban Basics

Once you implement these Kanban essentials into any process in your organization, you will start to see immediate benefits:

  • Flexibility: With no prescribed phase durations, Kanban allows teams to easily re-prioritize using real-time information. Because everyone shares access to the board, there is no time lost communicating changes in priority or process.
  • Transparency: Kanban allows teams to share one view of work in progress, eliminating the need for questions and daily status updates. This frees up project managers to spend more time improving the process and workflow.
  • Focus: The ability to see up-to-date information makes it easier for team members to focus on what’s most important at any given time, rather than getting sidetracked by competing priorities or status questions from other team members.
  • Productivity: Teams can use Kanban to make immediate and long-term improvements in productivity and efficiency.

Whether through an online platform or a physical board with sticky notes, any organization or team can benefit from implementing Kanban essentials. For Lean teams committed to continuous improvement, it is one of the simplest tools to get started with. Now that you’ve had an introduction to Kanban, download LeanKit’s Kanban Roadmap to get started in just a few easy steps.

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