The word ‘Toyota’ evokes images of world-class cars. It is a Japanese car manufacturer with a global footprint and holds a prominent position in the pantheon of vehicle makers. However, it is also a pioneer in some of the most groundbreaking techniques for improving the quality of work, productivity, efficiency, and collaboration. They include Six Sigma, 7 Wastes, Kaizen, Jidoka, and Kanban.
Among others, Kanban is one of its many notable contributions to the world of management. Kanban began as Toyota’s “just in time” production system in the 1950s. Today, Kanban has seeped into every industry and sector from its inception for manufacturing-specific purposes. It finds diverse applications in construction, software development, architecture, and even personal time management! Moreover, Kanban has risen in popularity by leaps and bounds in recent years with the growth of agile project management.
What Is Kanban?
Kanban refers to cards that visually represent the flow of components and finished products through the production system. It is an easy and ` business owners and project managers to stay organized, increase efficiency and improve continuously. It was formulated in the backdrop of manufacturing that ought to raise pertinent questions, such as its relevance in project management and how to apply it effectively.
What Is a Kanban Card?
A kanban card depicts work items using visuals. It represents a task that has been requested or is already underway. In addition, a kanban card provides details about the assigned work and its status, including the person responsible for the task and timeline for completing it.
What Is a Kanban Board?
In its most rudimentary form, a Kanban board has a handful of columns – that are sometimes called “swim lanes.” These columns or swim lanes can be “Backlog,” “To Do,” “In Progress,” and “Completed.” This system helps track the progress of the work through the project lifecycle. It starts with a list of stages, depicted as columns on the board. After which, each unit of work is represented as a card. Then, the team working on a project moves the card from one lane to the other as the work progresses. These cards are called “user stories” because they describe the job done in sequential, bite-sized thoughts.
A meticulously designed Kanban board allows all team members working on a project to collaborate and stay involved. Usually, a digital Kanban system helps create thoughtful participation and eliminates the need for weekly status reports and tedious and bandwidth-sapping checks.
How Teams Can Use Kanban Cards
The “Backlog” column helps organize the workflow, which is a sorted list of tasks arranged in the order of priority. These tasks are not yet ready to be worked upon by the team. “Backlog” can also include brainstorming cards that can be used in due course. As the team is prepared to undertake the work, the owner of the specific part moves the task from the “Backlog” column to the “To Do” column. You must know that the digital systems allow users to set up different notifications to alert participants when such changes occur on the Kanban board. The tasks are ready to be worked upon by the team when listed in the “To Do” column. Also, administrators can assign cards individual ownership in some systems.
The top-most card is the most important in the Kanban system. Such an arrangement dissipates any confusion about the card that needs to be worked upon next. The users pull the card from the “To Do” column to the “In Progress” column when the work commences. During the journey on the board, the participants can add notes, transfer ownership, and even invite others to participate. This three-sixty-degree view ensures unbridled clarity among everyone involved on how the work is unfolding at any given point in time.
Similarly, team members move the cards from the “Backlog” column onto the various other columns on the board. Finally, team members pull cards from one column to the other. Thus, the “Backlog” column eventually becomes empty, and all the cards move to the “Completed” column, marking the project’s or workflow’s completion. In a Kanban system, the project manager generally maintains a list of work items that must be completed to finalize a project.
It is important to note that digital Kanban systems allow adding any number of columns to depict the organizational workflow. After the board is created, all the required members or participants involved in the business are invited to participate in it, resulting in a small but dynamic working group. For example, you could invite a copywriter, a designer, an editor, SEO professionals, sales development professionals, etc., if your business involves writing blogs to generate leads. Usually, the board participants’ list would include one or more product owners. The product owner can also be the business owner in a small-sized organization. However, project managers would feature as product owners in larger enterprises.
Principles of Kanban
According to various experts, Kanban’s principles vary.
However, Kanban broadly includes the following principles:
Visualize the Workflow
Kanban’s uniqueness lies in its open-ended structure. Kanban does not advocate a specific workflow. Instead, it merely describes all the work required to complete a project, allowing all participants to visualize quickly and seamlessly. Thus, Kanban is a highly efficient tool to visualize projects on a single dashboard. It must have three columns – “To Do,” “Work in Progress,” and “Work Done.” This arrangement offers excellent visibility into the work being undertaken, thereby increasing the scope for enhancing efficiency by addressing improvement areas.
Set up the Work in Progress (WIP) Limit
The most critical element of a Kanban board is moving tasks from one column to the other seamlessly. Therefore, setting a WIP limit helps ensure that not too many tasks accumulate in the “In Progress” stage, stymieing the flow of work, ultimately defeating the purpose of setting up the board. It also helps teams strategize and take up tasks based on the priority order, ensuring a seamless transition of cards through the columns
Paying Attention to the Flow
The third principle underlines the criticality of the workflow. Focusing on how the work moves from one swim lane to the other helps understand and address likely bottlenecks before they impact the deliverables. This process enables business owners or project managers to control their deliverables and lends a pre-emptive touch.
The scope for improvement always exists unless teams are working at the highest possible efficiencies. Unfortunately, such situations are usually far and few. Therefore, Kanban’s fourth principle pertains to regularly adjusting the course of work to attain the best possible agility with the highest possible quality.
Kanban: Understanding the Concept
Let us take a more granular look at how Kanban works through a step-by-step process.
Setting up the Kanban Board
The first prerequisite to setting up a Kanban board is detailing the stages relevant to your process. For example, you may want to include a “Backlog” or “Waiting” stage at the start. You may also have a few progress stages, such as “Analysis,” “Development,” and “Testing.” (These examples are more relevant for software development, and they will vary depending on the work for which you are setting up the board.) You can also add a “Completed” stage and, perhaps, an “Abandoned” or “Discarded” stage. These columns help task owners understand the workflow, breaking down any large-scale engagement into smaller chunks.
Determining the Work in Progress Limit
Not every task mentioned in the “In Progress” column can be WIP. That can overwhelm even a resource-rich team, derailing tasks and causing avoidable delays. Therefore, you will need to determine the WIP limit carefully. Here, you must assess whether the number of tasks in any swim lane or column is more than the team’s ability to manage. The work pipeline is likely to be blocked if there are more tasks than what a team can handle. The task would get blocked, and new tasks entering the “In Progress” stage can get stuck. Therefore, we recommend setting a limit to the quantum of WIP that you would allow in each stage. The team can collectively agree upon and understand the limitations to ensure there is no confusion.
Creating a Card for Each Stage
You need a card for each task that flows through the process. You may add more information to the cards as they move. These details could include the task owner (who is handling it), estimated duration to complete it, etc. Organizations also use color-coding. This arrangement helps them understand the quantum of work completed and the tasks on which the task owners are working. For instance, a yellow card may represent that the work is underway, and a red card may suggest that the work is stuck for some reason.
Letting Team Members Work on the Tasks
Team members take charge at this step of the process. As a business owner or a project manager, you must let the team work on their respective tasks. Let your team members bring a card onto the board and undertake their part of the work. They can move the card to the next swim lane or column when they complete the tasks assigned to them.
The caveat here is to have some ground rules about how resources are applied to the cards. Let us understand this with an example. If a task owner completes a stage for one task, can he or she move the card to the next swim lane without handing over the responsibility?
- Or whether that resource must find someone willing to take over the task? This means that the new resource now must move that card. If he or she is not responsible for moving the card, then who must do it?
- Or would you allow the card to stay there until someone picks it and moves it?
- How would you deal with the situation if no one wanted to take charge and move the card?
These are the challenges why we highly recommend setting some ground rules to which every team member abides and concurs.
Measure and Improve Continuously
Continuous improvement requires a regular assessment of what is working and what is not. Therefore, maximizing Kanban’s possibilities needs a better understanding of the generated data and more frequent and frank discussions. It would help if you gauged the following:
As mentioned, too much work in the WIP column can negatively affect the project’s output. It can also choke the workflow, sometimes forcing resources to work on multiple deliverables simultaneously. A generally accepted rule is to divide the number of resources with the total WIP to obtain an average. You may then make an informed decision, weighing whether the obtained outcome is too much for the team to handle or not.
Blockers are items that are stuck in a column for more time than planned due to unresolved issues. (Note: Blockers are different from WIPs as a WIP usually occurs because resources cannot allocate the time required to complete that task.) It means that the work item is not moving onto the next stage. You must assess whether such blockers pop up too frequently and what can be done to minimize their occurrence if you cannot eliminate them entirely.
Throughput is defined as the number of items completed in a certain period. Therefore, you must assess at a pre-defined interval (usually every week or fortnightly) the number of tasks that move to the “Completed” column. Tracking it for a sustained duration will help you evaluate how altering your Kanban system impacts the quantum of work completed. You can then course-correct accordingly.
The time needed for a card to move from the first column to the last column on the board is defined as lead time. You can note the start date and the end date for each card and calculate an average to understand whether it is taking longer than desired or not. This revelation can help you realign resources or make necessary changes.
Advantages and Benefits of Kanban
Kanban proffers several advantages. We have listed some of them below.
Ease of Use
Kanban is an easy concept and does not require technical expertise. Therefore, organizations can employ the concept for all levels of employees without worrying about their ability to understand complex processes and systems. It is one of the reasons why Kanban is useful for organizations operating in diverse industries and sectors and has found such vast acceptance.
Getting the maximum possible work done without overburdening teams is critical for any organizational operation. It is equally valid for project management. Kanban board’s ability to help teams visualize the job at hand allows spotting inefficiencies and bottlenecks easily.
Resultantly, teams can address them quickly, improving the overall speed, which reflects in improved profit margins.
Kanban enables teams to collaborate more regularly by providing an uncluttered picture of which team member has what task to accomplish. Besides, it also encourages team members to share their views on how to improve continually. Such a setup fosters a well-oiled team that works in one direction and enables one another.
Kanban lends an exemplary focus on finishing the work rather than starting it. Cycle time and throughput (key Kanban metrics) help measure the time taken for a task to undergo the process and the number of tasks undertaken in a specific timeframe. These facets provide a holistic overview of productivity during a project. (The quicker a task moves through the cycle, the quicker the team can accomplish more tasks). These insights empower teams to improve their productivity levels considerably.
Maximizing Resource Utilization
Wastage of resources refers to employing more professionals than required for a task. Again, Kanban leaves nothing in the realm of speculation. There is clear visibility into the tasks allocated, the time needed to accomplish them, and the bottlenecks in achieving them. This clarity helps project managers or business owners take the desired corrective measures if their resources are underperforming.
A Healthier Company Culture
A wholesome company culture does not happen by accident. It must be nurtured through better collaboration among various stakeholders. Kanban is an empowering tool that unleashes creativity and independence, letting individuals own the tasks that they are responsible for, creating a team of highly motivated professionals. All this contributes to a healthier company culture. Besides, the entire ecosystem is fixated on improving continually, which breeds excellence.
Kanban started as an in-house intervention. However, its utility, flexibility, and ease of use are central pillars that have led to its global adoption from its Japanese origins. Today’s markets are full of tools that promise to simplify workflows and lend efficiency and agility to processes. However, Kanban has stood the test of time and ranks as one of the favorites among organizational owners and project managers alike.