Kanban methodology explained [+custom templates]

A guide to help you understand the Kanban method and when you should us it.
The Kanban methodology is one of the most popular management techniques companies worldwide and across different industries use to increase overall efficiency while cutting waste.

You likely have questions concerning the Kanban methodology and how it works. This guide will help you answer the following questions:

What is the Kanban methodology?
What are the principles and practices of Kanban?
What are the benefits of using Kanban?
When should you use the Kanban method?
When should you not use Kanban?

We have a lot to cover, so let’s get started.

What is the Kanban methodology?
Kanban is a visualization of the workflow and pieces of work passing through a process. It’s a highly effective workflow management method that reveals bottlenecks in your processes and helps maximize efficiency.

This framework is a subset of the , with some of its principles also found in those that guide Lean management. As a framework, it’s one of the simplest and most effective ways to visualize and streamline the flow of work. Kanban allows the whole team to effectively manage and keep track of projects.

Usually, work items and processes are represented visually on a kanban board that lets all team members see the current state of each piece of work, and the amount of work completed, at a glance.

History of Kanban
The Kanban methodology has been in existence for more than five decades, although it gained widespread acceptance in the 21st century.

In the 1940s, the Japanese auto giant Toyota modeled its production process after that of supermarkets. Toyota’s goal was to match inventory levels with the actual demand of their product — much like stores that stock just enough product to meet the consumer demand while decreasing excess stock held at any given time.

When materials in a bin on the Toyota factory floor were exhausted, they passed a card, or kanban, to the warehouse detailing the exact amount of material needed. The warehouse had this material on standby, which they’d send to the factory floor. And in turn, the warehouse sent a kanban to the supplier, which it would send to the warehouse. This process resulted in reduced waste of materials and increased efficiency.

It wasn’t until the 21st century, though, that certain leaders in the software industry realized the benefits this Just In Time (JIT) manufacturing process could have on the way products and services were made and delivered, especially in terms of ensuring the required work is equal to the team’s capabilities.

What are the principles and practices of Kanban?
David J. Anderson, one of the founding fathers of the Kanban methodology, whose book Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business is an authority on the subject, breaks down the methodology into four principles and six practices.

Principle 1: Start with what you do now.
Kanban doesn’t require an overhaul of existing workflows and processes. Rather, it builds on them, recognizing their inherent value and helping plan changes to ensure smooth implementation.

Principle 2: Pursue incremental, evolutionary change.
Kanban doesn’t call for a drastic overhaul of the status quo. Instead, it encourages small changes over time. Incremental changes will reduce the risk of resistance within the company or team.

Principle 3: Respect the existing roles and responsibilities.
Just as you won’t immediately overhaul processes and workflow, Kanban encourages respect for existing roles and responsibilities. With this methodology, efficiency is improved within an existing arrangement.

Principle 4: Encourage leadership at all levels.
In Kanban, individuals have the freedom to make decisions in real-time. This contrasts with other methodologies where approval is required for even minute tasks. Moreover, Kanban’s freedom grooms team members to improve continuously as they learn from their mistakes.
Practice 1: Visualize the workflow.
The first step is creating a visual representation of the steps used to carry out work.

Using a kanban board, teams visualize each piece of work to do and the current process required to do it. Depending on the type of project, your kanban board can be very simple or elaborate (not complex).

Practice 3: Manage the flow.
The Kanban methodology highlights the different stages of the workflow and the status of each piece of work in each stage.

Tracking the speed and smoothness of workflow will let project managers determine the efficiency of a project and discover any risks and bottlenecks that affect the flow.

Practice 5: Feedback loops.
The customer defines value, so it’s important to hear what they say. In addition, creating a feedback loop will help companies adequately respond to changes. Therefore, it’s prudent to add a column for feedback, either from customers or team members.
Practice 2: Reduction of “work-in-progress.”
Kanban encourages that a manageable number of pieces of work are in progress at any given time. If your board doesn’t have WIP limits, then you’re not doing Kanban.

So, this practice will require using a pull system. No new tasks can be started as long as the limit is achieved.

Practice 4: Make process policies explicit.
Your team members will understand how to work in the system by having explicit policies. In addition, the entire team should know the project’s goal to help them prioritize work that adds value to the project.

Practice 6: Improve collaboration.
The collaborative, incremental changes you make to existing processes should result in a continuous improvement and positive change that ensures maximum throughput. These changes should be based on metrics, feedback, and scientifically proven methods.
What are the benefits of using the Kanban methodology?
Why should you adopt this project management methodology? Let’s see the benefits of Kanban.

More flexibility
Kanban methodology ensures that the Kanban teams are focused only on the work at hand. Then, after completing the piece of work, they move on to the next task on the board.

The flexibility offered is that the product or project manager can reprioritize work in the backlog without
affecting the team.

Since there is no set phase duration or fixed-length sprints as in Scrum, priorities are re-evaluated without any adverse effect on throughput.

WIP limits for increased team focus
Kanban boards limit work in progress to ensure tasks are completed before starting on something else. With this restriction in place, teams are forced to improve productivity.

Happier customers
Since you only create as much as your customers need, you’ll reduce waste on unimportant tasks. Instead, you’ll focus on exactly what your customer needs and ensure that the final product meets their requirements.

Improved productivity
Doing different things at the same time affects the quality of the outcome. Kanban, through WIP limits, increases productivity and efficiency because team members are focused on just one task at any given time. Therefore, they don’t expend mental energy switching from one task to another.

Encourages continuous delivery
A continuous delivery pipeline is essential for teams that want to ship products faster. Because of the way it works, Kanban enables teams to tackle the challenges of bottlenecks. Solving these bottlenecks improves workflow, cycle time, and delivery rate to customers.

Easy to use
Because it’s mainly a visual methodology, Kanban is easy to understand and use. As a result, teams find it doesn’t take long before they know exactly how to use the kanban board.

Increased visibility
Kanban visualizes the workflow of every task. Therefore, it is a central source of information that’ll keep all team members on the same page. Everyone sees the tasks to be done at a glance.

When should you use the Kanban method?
Kanban project management is used in so many industries today due to its versatility. Therefore, you might be tempted to start using it. However, before you implement this methodology, there are certain factors you should consider.

Use Kanban if:

You want to implement a system without disturbing existing processes.
Kanban is built on existing systems and workflows, so it’s great for not wanting to upset the status quo.

Your team is focused on output.
Kanban focuses on task completion and WIP limits; therefore, it forces teams to focus on completing tasks and thus output before moving to another.

Priorities change on the fly.
Since you can add tasks at any work stage in a Kanban system, it’s great for projects that have changing priorities.

You have a predictable workflow.
If your team has a broad set of repetitive steps for different tasks, then it’s easy to visualize the whole workflow on a kanban board.

When not to use Kanban
Kanban is great for many teams, but it isn’t for everyone. The following factors might make it unwise to implement Kanban.

Projects that vary in scope.
For projects that vary in scope, the need to change processes will scupper any advantages Kanban might have.

Unstable workflows.
If the tasks require varied, non-repetitive steps, it might be tedious to represent the workflow on a kanban board.

Scrum, another cornerstone of Agile methodology can help with unstable workflows since it revolves around fixed-length sprints.

Multitasking teams.
If your teams must multitask, then there’s no way you’ll use a kanban board effectively. Instead, such development teams benefit from the structure Scrum provides mixed with the flexibility and visualization of Kanban. Scrumban, as this combination is called, offers the best of both worlds.

Kanban templates for your next project
If you’re wondering how to create a kanban board, we’ve provided four templates for you.

Customizable kanban board
New to Kanban? Then this is just for you. It’s a great way to visualize your work and develop a very effective workflow.

You can have your tasks as Kanban cards or a grouped table — whichever you find more convenient. Whether as a table or cards, the columns are divided into Not Started, In Progress, and Done.

Kanban board template

Sprint planning kanban board
This helps you to plan and manage your sprints even better by assigning roles and tasks to everyone and making the expectations of the sprint clear.

The Features & Tasks page lets you add backlog items for launching your product. In the Sprint Assignment page, you can define each sprint’s, start and end dates. It also includes a Sprint board page to track the overall progress of each sprint. And if you have several features and tasks, the Team Views page lets you see the status of the tasks for each team.

sprint planning kanban board

Sprint retrospective kanban board
It can be hard setting an agenda for a Sprint retrospective meeting. Use the to make things easier and encourage valuable contributions from your team members.

Sprint retrospective kanban board

Checklists as a kanban board
This is another basic that different teams can use. Use it to track tasks and subtasks easily.
checklist kanban board

Kanban methodology FAQs
How does the Kanban methodology work?
The Kanban methodology is dependent on the Kanban board. The board visualizes current tasks, future tasks, and completed tasks. Work moves from left to right, and the team picks up a new task only when all existing work items are completed or when an urgent task is added to the board.

What is the difference between Kanban and Scrum?
Although Kanban and Scrum focus on product delivery and iteration, they achieve these aims differently. Scrum focuses on fixed-length sprints, and work is done in small batches. On the other hand, Kanban focuses on the continuous workflow process, and tasks are done in an orderly manner.

Is Kanban a tool or methodology?
Kanban, with the capital K, is a methodology adopted by agile teams today. A kanban board is a tool that gives a visual overview of tasks to be done or are complete.

What are some Kanban alternatives?
Alternative frameworks include:
Extreme Programming (XP)
Lean Development
Dynamic Systems Development Method
Feature-driven Development

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