Lean, Kanban, and How They Work Together

If you’ve been learning about Lean, it’s likely that you’ve stumbled upon the term, “Kanban.” What is Kanban? Kanban is a highly visual workflow management method that is popular among Lean teams. In fact, 83% of teams practicing Lean use Kanban to visualize and actively manage their work. If you’d like to learn more about Lean, Kanban, and how they work together, this post is for you.

What is Lean?

First, let’s align around what we mean by Lean: Lean is a business methodology that’s gaining popularity for its ability to help businesses achieve their goals in a healthier, smarter, more sustainable way. It is a highly flexible, evolving methodology, without rigid guidelines, rules, or methods.

There are two pillars of Lean, which together help businesses achieve the ultimate Lean goal: maximize customer value while eliminating waste: Continuous improvement, and respect for people.

Continuous Improvement

In Lean, waste is defined as anything that does not add value to the customer. It can come in the form of excessive inventory, inefficient meetings, excessive collaboration, ineffective processes, and more. Continuous improvement helps organizations systematically identify and eliminate waste. Practicing continuous improvement also allows organizations to continuously improve by enabling a culture of growth, experimentation, and learning.

The process by which organizations practice continuous improvement is known as the continuous improvement cycle. It has four steps: Identify, Plan, Execute, and Review.

lean kanban

Continuous Improvement Cycle

You might notice the similarities between the continuous improvement cycle and the scientific method. This is quite intentional; this approach is most effective when it is data-driven. Practicing Lean requires everyone in the organization to adopt a testing mindset; to not ask, “What do I think?”, but rather, “What does the customer data say?”

Respect for People

Relying on customer data is just one of many ways Lean organizations practice the second pillar of Lean, respect for people. Respect for people is more complicated in practice than it sounds in theory. Yes, Lean organizations strive to create environments in which kindness and decency win -- but respect goes much deeper than that.

You’ll remember that the ultimate goal of Lean is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. This is how Lean organizations show respect for their customers -- by striving, every day, to get more value into the hands of their customers, as quickly as possible.

In doing so, Lean organizations also strive to create happier, healthier organizational systems with more sustainable practices and better results. This leads to happier, healthier employees. Put simply: When you have what you need to do your job, and you have the freedom to experiment, learn, and evolve with your team, it’s far easier to find satisfaction and fulfillment in your career.

How Kanban Enables Continuous Improvement and Respect for People

Customer satisfaction is accomplished through a disciplined approach to work, which emphasizes transparency, communication, collaboration, and clarity. This is where Kanban comes in. Kanban is a highly visual workflow management method that enables organizations with the visibility, metrics, and focus they need to better manage work and people.

Visibility

Kanban uses physical or digital boards to represent a team or organization’s unique process. Work is represented by cards on the board, which move from left to right through the steps in the process. When using on a daily basis to manage workflow, Kanban boards represent a real-time view of a team or organization’s currently capacity. This provides everyone -- from individual contributors to CEOs -- with a shared, true understanding of capacity, productivity, process efficiency, and more.

Metrics 

Management guru Peter Drucker said, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Visibility is the first step toward continuous improvement -- you have to be able to see your process in order to move work through it, manage it, and optimize it.

The next step toward continuous improvement is to use board data to identify areas for improvement, and optimize the team’s processes (reflected by the board) for better performance.

LeanKit, which is a Lean Kanban tool, collects metrics as cards move across the board, enabling all stakeholders to get data-driven answers to questions like:

  • How quickly do we resolve customer requests?
  • How long does it take us to write and publish a blog post?
  • Where does work get stuck in our process?
  • Is work evenly distributed across the team, or is one person getting a lion’s share of the work?

Using Lean Kanban board metrics, teams can continuously identify ways to optimize their processes for value delivery.

Focus

Kanban arms Lean organizations with the transformative power of focus. This starts with a prioritized backlog: instead of handling work requests ad hoc, teams using Kanban prioritize work requests against existing work, based on the goals established by the team. This helps the team reduce the deadly waste of context switching, which slows productivity and affects work quality.

Teams practicing Lean Kanban also rely on WIP limits -- work-in-process limits -- as a way to constrain how much work the team is collectively tackling at any given time. This forces the team to have important conversations around work priority and distribution, making sure that the right work is being done at the right time by the right people.

Implementing WIP limits also reduces context switching on the individual level -- although Herculean efforts by individuals are often applauded in traditional business contexts, Lean teams know that they aren’t sustainable and don’t make the best use of a team’s collective talent. Implementing WIP limits on the individual level allows each person to move through work at a more sustainable, healthy, and productive pace.

Keep Everyone Aligned with Lean Kanban

Kanban gives Lean teams and organizations the visibility, metrics, and focus they need to practice continuous improvement and respect for people. Visibility aligns everyone in the organization around a shared view of reality. Metrics enable teams and their stakeholders to identify opportunities for improvement, as well as measure the impacts of their improvement efforts. Finally, focus allows everyone to do their best work, and achieve the Lean goal of maximizing value for the customer.

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