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Kanban Essentials: What It Is and What It Can Do For You

by Todd Cotton, on Apr 1, 2020 11:15:00 AM

Kanban board
The word “Kanban” is Japanese for “signboard” or “billboard.” Though simple, it makes sense once you understand the Kanban method. 

A Kanban board displays a clear message, like a billboard, that shows the status of ongoing projects to your team. 

While there are other ways to approach product management and workflow, at LeanDog we’ve found success with Kanban for specific types of teams.

How Kanban works to visualize flow.

Kanban is a work management solution designed to help visualize work, limit work in progress, and maximize efficiency. As a result, teams accelerate product development, better maintain focus, and increase transparency.

To visualize the process, you start with a Kanban “board.” The board includes columns representing each stage of development. For example, a simple Kanban board could have columns for stages like: waiting, in progress, testing, and complete. 

Visualization of Kanban board

From there, write each work item on a note, or “story card,” and place it in the first column to show the work item is awaiting development. The manager is then tasked with prioritizing work items and decides what items need to be completed first. As projects move through the development phases, notes move across the board until they are complete. Once work items are moved out of the waiting column, the manager fills that spot with the next most valuable item.

How Kanban helps teams thrive... 

Kanban is most effective for teams where each member has a variety of skills, rather than a group of specialists. With Kanban, the entire team is responsible for the quality of a product, and is willing and able to contribute where needed. It’s a group effort.

The Kanban approach is also ideal for smaller-scale projects that have a quicker turnaround—as opposed to scrum, which is ideal for large projects or ongoing work. The team utilizes the Kanban board every day and projects enter and exit the board as they’re completed.

There are several ways Kanban can improve project flow and better your team’s performance.

Kanban brainstorm

Kanban gives you planning flexibility. 

If your team is used to tackling multiple projects at once, Kanban boards can be very beneficial. That’s because Kanban allows you to be flexible. If a higher priority item comes your way, then you can refer to the board and easily determine what story cards need to be adjusted to get the job done. 

Kanban boards visualize how teams function and also allow you to see who has capacity at a glance. Additionally, you’ll have quick insight into a project’s status. This will give managers the ability to reprioritize cards and adjust work in progress to meet deadlines or new requirements.

Kanban increases transparency. 

Transparency is an essential ingredient of Kanban success. It also is a result of effective Kanban. Teams must communicate daily on the status of projects and ensure that each token is in the correct development stage, while work in progress (WIP) limits are maintained. Kanban visualizes multiple projects at once and enables team members to easily check in with one another.

Kanban increases efficiency.

Kanban is an effective way to get team members on the same page and keep work flowing smoothly. You probably notice a theme of “flow” and eliminating waste when researching Kanban. Having a visual representation of work helps teams identify areas that need improvement. With Kanban, teams reduce overproduction and bottlenecks.

The 3 rules of effective kanban implementation.

So far, Kanban seems like a simple solution to visualizing and tracking work, right? 

With proper implementation, it is. 

To unlock the effectiveness of Kanban, we instruct teams to follow these three rules: 

Rule 1: Make work visible.


Make work visible

Visualizing work is a key element of an information radiator–which is a physical board that conveys key information and shows the health of a team. Kanban is one type of board to incorporate in your business’ information radiator.

Two essential elements make up a Kanban board: columns and story cards

  1. To start, determine what stages of development a piece of work goes through before it’s ready to be released. From concept to deployment, identify these steps and place them into columns on your Kanban board. It’s best to keep these simple. For example, standard columns might be waiting, in progress, and complete.
  2. Next, consider any piece of work or task as a “token” or “story card,” and physically write it down. These story cards are placed on a wall in the respective column for everyone to see. Priority cards should be placed at the top of the column, while lower priority cards should be placed lower. This enables you to quickly identify hot projects.

Once the Kanban board is complete, you’ll have an efficient process to track product movement.

Rule 2: Apply limits.

Apply limits with Kanban

With Kanban, it's important to identify your team’s limits and be realistic about available resources. 

By developing rules to limit WIP, you prevent your team from becoming overwhelmed and bogged down with bottlenecks. Instead, you’ll keep progress continuous and steady. WIP limits ensure that your team is focused on priority work items and prevents team members from getting sidetracked.

This enables you to manage the workflow and be prepared for changes.

For example, if you have five testers on the team, and each tester can manage one feature at a time, then the maximum amount of features in testing at one time should be five. Only once the feature is ready to move to the next stage can an additional feature be moved into the testing phase. This keeps work moving and avoids backlog.

Rule 3: Use pull-based thinking.

Use pull-based thinking

If work capacity is filled, you don’t keep packing work on to your team.

With Kanban, teams or individual members should “pull” in work as they can, rather than have work be “pushed” on them regardless of capacity.

With pull-based thinking, you avoid bogging teams down with unrealistic workloads and keep projects flowing through the cycle at a consistent, manageable pace.

See how Kanban can help your team today.

By incorporating Kanban, your team can improve efficiency and complete work at a faster rate. But there is much more to be done to complete the transformation into an agile organization. 

Learn more about improving flow and project management and see how it supports an agile transformation by downloading the Agile Discussion Guide.

Access agile discussion guide 4.0

About the Author

Todd Cotton is a LeanDog agile coach whose passion is to help organizations create more fulfilling work environments that result in happier, satisfied employees. He’s currently an integral part of an agile transformation taking place at a Fortune 500 bank. 

Previously, Todd helped lead a multi-year agile transformation at PNC and National City Bank. In total, he has 30+ years of IT and development experience, has managed multi-million dollar projects, and has led teams of 100+. Todd is an Advanced Certified ScrumMaster (A-CSM) and a SAFe® 4 Certified Agilist.

Read more posts from Todd. Connect with Todd on LinkedIn.

Topics:kanbanAgile Processes