Introduction to Kanban Project Management

Kanban Project Management: An Introductory Overview

What is Kanban project management?

Kanban is a visual approach to project management at all levels, whether that be an individual, team, or organizational level. Pronounced “Kahn-Bahn,” the term comes from the Japanese term for “visual signal” or “card”.

Kanban project management differs from other workflow management systems that typically force change from the very beginning. Unlike other workflow management systems, Kanban is based on evolution, not revolution. Kanban revolves around the idea that you must know where you are before you can get to your desired destination.

You can apply the Kanban system to virtually any type of workflow that follows a repeatable process. If your project follows a pattern of “to do”, “doing” and “done,” then a Kanban board is the right tool for the job.

What is a Kanban project management board?

Before venturing into the inner workings of Kanban, it is essential to discuss the layout of a Kanban board. A standard Kanban project management board is quite simple. Imagine a whiteboard, divided into vertical lanes. In most applications, each “lane” represents a step in your process. The most basic Kanban board format transitions from “To Do,” to “Doing,” to “Done.”

In the world of Kanban, everything starts on the left side of the board. You will place tasks that have not yet been started in the far left-hand lane and the lane on the opposite side of the board is where you place tasks that you have completed.

Kanban project management board layout
The layout of a standard Kanban board

A Kanban board provides an excellent visual representation of the steps in your process. Furthermore, Kanban project management boards also provide insights into other matters, such as process policies and work-in-progress limits.

What is a Kanban card?

A Kanban card is a visual representation of a work item on a Kanban board. Most Kanban users employ the classic sticky note or magnetic cards to represent their tasks.

Kanban Cards
Here the user employs sticky notes as their Kanban cards.

How Kanban boards and cards work

Now it’s time to illustrate how exactly a Kanban board works. Let’s say you want to use your Kanban board to visualize the training regiment for Rudy, your new puppy! Most dog owners will agree that there are a handful of core commands or “tricks” that every dog should know. Some of these more common tricks include sit, stay, down, come, and shake. For this project, the standard three-lane set-up (“to do”, “doing”, and “done”) will do the trick.

To represent the tasks on your Kanban board, you would create a card for each of the tricks:

  • #1: Teach Rudy “sit”
  • #2: Teach Rudy “stay”
  • #3: Teach Rudy “down”
  • #4: Teach Rudy “come”
  • #5: Teach Rudy “shake”

We’ve just brought Rudy home from the rescue shelter, so it’s safe to assume that we haven’t started training. Naturally, all of the task cards are in the “to do” lane on the far left-hand side of the board. When you begin working on a trick you’ll move it to the “doing” lane. After Rudy has mastered a trick, you’ll then move the respective card to the “done” lane.

Digital Kanban boards

Digital Kanban Boards

Sticky notes and magnets are great for when you first start using a Kanban project management system. However, they do not hold a candle to a digital Kanban board. Digital Kanban boards allow you to add notes, attach files and links, and provide progress updates to your team.

If you’re sharing the responsibility of training Rudy,  you likely include notes and/or additional details on each card. For instance, you may include the following notes within the digital ‘Teach Rudy “sit”‘ card:

  • Definition of “done”: Rudy successfully sits when the verbal command is issued without having to repeat the command.
  • Instruction: Use a closed fist above his head in tandem with the verbal “sit” command.
  • Instruction: Give Rudy one treat every time he successfully sits.
  • Update: practiced for 15 minutes today; Rudy sat on the first try about 50% of the time when a treat was present. He seems to respond better to beef-flavored treats more than peanut butter flavored treats.

Your Kanban board will provide a clear illustration of Rudy’s progress throughout the training process. You can quickly see how many of the tricks he’s mastered, how many he’s working on, and how many he has yet to begin. Furthermore, you can also review any notes that your partner may have left when they worked with Rudy without you.

The origins of the Kanban project management method

Toyota Kanban

Toyota pioneered the Kanban method in order to streamline their automotive manufacturing processes. Inspired by the “just in time” (JIT) ordering practices seen in grocery stores, Toyota line-workers used a physical card to signal steps in their manufacturing process.

The original forms of Kanban were primarily analog – physical cards that were manually updated. Since then, Kanban has gone digital.

The original forms of Kanban were primarily analog – physical cards that were manually updated. Since then, Kanban has gone digital. Physical Kanban boards and cards are helpful in terms of learning the Kanban system. However, they cannot compete with digital Kanban tools when it comes to flexibility, functionality, and visibility.

Key Kanban project management practices & concepts

Naturally, the above summary of Kanban boards and cards is extremely basic. However, it does illustrate the core concepts in terms of how to best employ the Kanban system. The simple left-to-right movement of the cards and communication of details within the cards allows you to visualize virtually any process at any level within an organization.

Kanban is exceedingly helpful due to its flexibility. However, there are a few key Kanban practices and concepts that you need to understand in order to make the system work for you. Here are a few of the key practices and concepts.

Visualize work

A visual model of your work and process allows you to observe the flow of tasks through the Kanban project management system. Making the work visible, along with visual indications of blockers, bottlenecks, and queues instantly leads to increased communication and collaboration. Doing so helps teams see how fast their work is moving through the system and where there is room for improvement in terms of efficiency.

Introduction to Kanban-Visualize Work

Limit work-in-process (WIP)

You can reduce the time it takes for tasks to progress through the Kanban system by limiting the amount of unfinished WIP. You can also avoid issues created by task switching and reduce the need to frequently reprioritize your tasks. WIP limits truly unlock the full potential of Kanban. Doing so enables teams to deliver quality work faster than ever in a healthier and more sustainable environment.

Focus on flow

Through employing WIP limits and team-driven policies, you can optimize your Kanban management system to:

  • Improve the flow of your work
  • Collect metrics to analyze the flow
  • Get leading indicators of potential future problems

A consistent flow of work is essential for faster and more reliable delivery, which, in turn, delivers greater value to your customers, team, and organization.

Continuous improvement

Once you’ve established your Kanban system, it becomes the cornerstone for a culture focused on continuous improvement. Teams will measure their effectiveness by measuring flow, quality, throughput, lead times, and more.

Experimentation and analysis can change the system to improve the team’s effectiveness. Continuous improvement is a Lean improvement technique that helps streamline workflows, saving time and money across the entire organization.

Kanban project management-Continuous Improvement

What is Kanban project management used for?

If you’re like most of us, you’re likely overwhelmed with tools that just add to your work load. So, you’re likely wondering, “why should I start using Kanban?”

Well, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your brain always feel like it has a million open tabs?
  • Do you feel that you’re jumping between tasks and struggle to focus on one thing to make any real progress?
  • Does it feel like you’re working non-stop, but are never as productive as you’d like to be?
  • Does your team struggle with basic communication, which causes issues such as duplicate effort, defects, rework and more?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, Kanban could very well be the right tool for you.

Why Kanban project management works

The modern workforce is armed with technology straight out of Star Trek and text is literally everywhere. Between emails, Slack messages, and meetings…it’s hard to keep track of what needs to get done and by when.

While text-based information is great in certain situations, it’s not a one size fits all form of communication. Furthermore, its effectiveness is lower than you would think. Why? Well, it all starts with your brain.

The human brains processes visual information 60,000x faster than text-based information. That being said, a picture is literally worth a thousand words!

Furthermore, 40% of all nerve fibers connected to the brain are linked to our retinae. As if that’s not enough, visual information makes up roughly 90% of the data that comes to our brain! This suggests that our neurological pathways could very well prefer images over text.

Kanban project management-Power of Visual

How does Kanban help?

In short, Kanban project management takes word based communications and converts them into brain candy. Through converting all of our “to-dos” into visual cards on a board, Kanban helps identify what’s important. Furthermore, the Kanban process helps you stay focused on the highest-priority tasks first. When applied effectively, the Kanban project management system can reduce the amount of time teams spend in meetings that simply provide status updates. Instead of wasting time in fruitless meetings, teams can devote said time to actually getting their work done. This is far more effective than simply sitting around and talking about getting their work done!

Furthermore, the Kanban project management system also standardizes cues and refines processes. This helps to reduce waste and maximize value. Seeing how your work flows within your team’s process lets you both communicate status and give/receive context for said work.

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