What is Kanban? Using Kanban to manage work in progress and project delivery

Kanban Boards are a visual way of monitoring the development of products and projects within set time constraints and resources capabilities. It’s a flexible and effective tool, especially when used in conjunction with other project management tools.

I discovered Kanban accidentally while researching an MBA assignment. Being a visual learner I quickly became captivated by the visual method it uses to tracking product development and found its flexible style entirely appropriate to practical day-to-day application.

Do it. Doing it. Done it.

You can get deep into the concepts of Kanban, the culture behind it and the technicalities but at its core is a simple and flexible tool; so I’m going to keep it simple and focus on the core practical aspects that have really made a difference.

What is Kanban?

Kanban is an approach to change management. It isn’t a software development or project management lifecycle or process.”

David Anderson, father of Kanban for software development

The concept behind Kanban is simple: work in progress should be limited to account for capacity in each stage of a development process; new pieces of work should only be started once capacity has been released in the system.

It’s not rocket science but so often theory and reality aren’t on speaking terms; there’s always new pressures and demands that are pushed onto work plans, leaving teams overworked, overburdened and under-resourced.

Like many change management systems and tools, Kanban has its mainstream origins in software development. However, its flexibility makes it extremely adaptable to application in a range of situations.

How does Kanban work?

StackExchange user Kennetner describes 5 core properties of Kanban in the thread What is Kanban (02/10/11):

  1. visualize the workflow
  2. limit work in progress
  3. manage the flow
  4. Make Process Policies Explicit
  5. Improve Collaboratively (using models & the scientific method)

Kanban allows for tracking work through various stages in a development process (or ‘value stream’ in technical jargon). This can be shown visually though ‘kanban boards’ (essentially white boards marked up as a process through which sticky notes can be passed through over time). Each stage in the process is can be assessed for capacity to ensure that a limit to the number of projects within each stage.

An example of this is below:

(Source: Kanban Blog: Kanban Explained)

The great thing about this process is that it’s entirely flexible, all you need to do is identify the various stages in your development process.

It creates a visual and transparent project monitoring system that allows everyone to see where projects sit, where bottlenecks lie and where problems may exist that need to be tackled.

How to Kanban (the short guide)

ScratchManager’s simple 7 stage process to get your Kanban flowing.

  1. Get a whiteboard
  2. Turn it into a Kanban board – split the whiteboard into columns, each representing a stage in your development process. Name each column.
  3. Split your work into various projects – write these individually on sticky notes
  4. Set capacity limits – Decide the capacity you have to manage projects at each stage in the development process. Mark this under the column name.
  5. Set a lead time – identify the time it should take to carry out each stage. Mark this at the bottom of each column.
  6. Track delivery – Stick your sticky notes in the appropriate column on your board at whatever stage they are at.

If you want a more in depth description of Kanban you can find it on the excellently laid out Kanban Blog by David Peterson, which explains how to use Kanban and the benefits of it plain and simple style.

Using Kanban with other tools

The flexibility of Kanban makes it complimentary to other programme development tools such as Scrum and XP.

However, the best thing about Kanban is how it can be adapted to fit any kind of project and product development processes – as is described in my next blog: Kanban in Practice.

There’s an excellent guide to how Kanban and Scrum systems can be used to compliment each other in a free downloadable ebook by Henrik Kniberg & Mattias Skarin available here.



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