Introduction to Kanban

The Kanban method was originally invented as a part of the famous Toyota Production System in the 1940s. In the 2000s, Kanban was adopted into software development when Microsoft’s software development team wanted a better system for fixing bugs in their product. Today, Kanban helps teams manage both daily tasks, big projects, bug tracking, editorial workflows, hiring processes, marketing scheduling, UX design and much more. 

What Is Kanban?


Kanban is a popular framework for managing your workflow in a visual way. The underlying concept of Kanban is that all work starts as «To-do» and ends up as «Done».

The word Kanban (かんばん) is Japanese and means «Visible card» or «Signal card». In manufacturing, a fixed number of cards was set in circulation based on capacity. Each card was then attached to a physical work item. When this piece of work was finished, the card was detached and recycled, freeing up capacity for starting a new work item from the queue. In other words, work is pulled from the queue and into the system only when there is free capacity, which is known as a pull-system.

In software development and knowledge work,  the cards are the actual work items, and they’re not used a a signal card attached to physical items. The cards are usually placed on a Kanban board, with different columns representing the different stages of the work. This lets you visualize your entire workflow. The signal to move a card from “To do” to “In progress” incurs when the visual quantity of work in progress is less than a set capacity.

Advantages of using Kanban

  1. Visual boards provides more information than just text
  2. Kanban is intuitive and easy to use
  3. Can be adapted to fit almost any process
  4. Increase productivity and reduce workload stress
  5. Improve team communication and collaboration
  6. Eliminate bottlenecks and optimize everyone’s capacity

How To Get Started with Kanban

5 steps - kanban

In his book, “Kanban – Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business”, David Anderson identified five key properties for a successful implementation of Kanban:

1. Visualize Your Workflow:
A workflow is a representation of the different stages in your work work from start to finish. A typical workflow is “To do”, “In progress” and “Completed”. Some people prefer to have several stages between “To do” and “Completed”, for example plan, test and deploy. This visualization helps you see the big picture, enabling better decision-making and increased effectiveness.

2. Limit Work In Progress(WIP):
A WIP-limit is the amount of tasks you can handle at once. Start with a number that is realistic, and adjust as you go. If your WIP-limit is 3, you should never have more than 3 tasks in the “in progress”-column.  Limiting work in progress enables you to focus on the tasks at hand and increases your efficiency.

3. Manage the Flow of Work:
By flow, we mean the movement of work items between the various stages of your process. The flow should be fast, smooth and predictable. The goal is to maximize value delivery, minimize risks and avoiding delays. Identifying and addressing bottlenecks and blockers are therefore important aspects of managing flow.

4. Make Process Policies Explicit:
It’s key that there is a common understanding of how works gets done in the various stages of the process. This makes it easier to discuss issues and come to an agreement on what needs improving. Examples of policies include: the definition of done, capacity allocation and WIP-limits.

5. Improve Collaboratively:
When everyone focus on the workflow, ideas about improvement will start popping up, especially if the WIP-limit is reached. It forces the team to focus on resolving issues regarding bottlenecks and blockers that impede the flow of work.

Digitize your Kanban Board with an Online Tool

Product Image
Screenshot from Upwave

In our modern day world, where employees are scattered in different locations, we need digital solutions for collaboration. There are a lot of tools based on the Kanban method, that lets you create the workflow that fits your need, collaborate on cards in real-time, and drag and drop cards between columns to represent progress. One of these tools is Upwave, which lets you create beautiful Kanban boards customized with your favorite colors and background images.  Get started for free with our 14 day trial!

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