by Sarah K. White

What is Kanban? Workflow management simplified

Jan 11, 20227 mins
Agile DevelopmentIT Governance FrameworksProject Management

Kanban helps organizations focus on specific tasks until completion. This simple workflow management system is an effective method for fostering collaboration and productivity.

diverse team collaboration and leadership planning strategy and project management
Credit: Thinkstock

Kanban definition

Kanban is a simplified workflow management system aimed at achieving efficiency and agility in the production and development process by minimizing waste, eliminating redundancies, and reducing costs. While it is commonly used in software development, Kanban focuses on gradual improvement in every area of the business — not just IT. Developed in Japan by Toyota in the early 1940s, Kanban is not designed to replace project management or act as a development methodology. Instead, it is focused on improving processes already in place by creating a better workflow structure.

Kanban also helps your organization limit the amount of works-in-progress (WIPs) in your backlog. It aims to support strong leadership, organizational transparency, teamwork, open communication, and collaboration in the company. With Kanban, organizations can visualize tasks that aren’t tangible, which keeps priorities from falling through the cracks, aids in the decision-making process, and helps see where they are in the development process.

Kanban board and Kanban cards

A Kanban board is the primary tool for a Kanban strategy. It can be a physical board, like a whiteboard, or a virtual board that helps your department track tasks and visualize progress. Progress is tracked using Kanban cards, which can be as simple as sticky notes that can be moved or virtual cards that can be dragged and dropped into various columns on your Kanban board.

Each stage is represented by a column on the Kanban board. For example, the first column might contain a “backlog” of tasks that need to get done, with another column for “today” or “this week” where you can pull out tasks to focus on right now. Tasks on Kanban cards should be small enough that they don’t take weeks to complete, but not be broken down to the point where the board becomes cluttered with cards. Common Kanban board categories include sections for ideas, which can then be moved into a column for selected ideas or one for discarded ideas. From there, tasks can be categorized as “in progress” or moved to “ready” once they’re complete enough to move onto the next step.

Kanban methodology

The Kanban methodology centers on stages, which when created for a Kanban board, should be simple enough to avoid overcomplicating the steps required to complete each task. While every organization is free to choose their own categories for each column, most Kanban boards will include the following stages:

  • Waiting: This column typically includes the backlog of tasks that are lying in wait for free time to open up — once it does, the task can be shifted to a column for today’s specific tasks or shifted into the “in-progress” column.
  • In-progress: This column holds all the tasks that are currently being worked on. This is also sometimes referenced as the “doing” column. As soon as you pick a new task to work on, it will be moved into this column as long as you are working on it.
  • Completed: Once a task is done it is moved to a final “completed” column.
  • Blocked: If a task can’t be completed or its progress is halted or paused for any reason, it’s moved to a “blocked” or “hold” category until it can be picked up again.

Each category or column in your Kanban board should have its own established policies or “done rules” — requirements that must be met before an item is moved to another column on the board. These rules keep the board structured and ensure everyone is on the same page about when to move items to another column. For example, you might create a policy for one column that nothing can move past it unless it’s been tested by a specific team or until it’s been seen by specific people in the company.

Six rules of Kanban

Toyota has established six main rules of Kanban that the company still follows today. These rules will help keep your company in the mindset needed for successful product management:

  1. Never pass on defective products: Catching defects as early as possible is paramount to waste management. Pulling a product before it can move further down the development process will ensure that any defects found can be remedied quickly and at the lowest cost possible.
  2. Take only what is needed: It’s important to produce only what is requested to help avoid waste. A strong understanding of requirements before heading into development is necessary to accomplish this.
  3. Produce the exact quantity required: To avoid waste, you should create only the number of products, services, or resources specifically needed for the next step. Creating any more unnecessarily depletes your inventory; making too little creates delays in the process, which can cost the company money.
  4. Level the production: A main goal of Kanban is to consistently create the amount of goods to meet customer demand at a constant and predictable rate. Leveling production can help ensure you’ll be able to consistently meet customer demands without overproducing or creating waste in the process.
  5. Fine-tune production: Process improvement is never done, so you’ll need to constantly assess how processes can be fine-tuned to eliminate waste, increase speed, and ensure consistency. You should always look for ways to tweak processes to make them leaner and more efficient.
  6. Stabilize and rationalize the process: Once you’ve established the most efficient process possible, it’s important to document those standards and ensure the process remains stable and predictable as the process loops.

Kanban vs. Scrum

As workflow improvement strategies, Kanban and Scrum share similarities — both are built on “pull” systems, which focus on getting items out of the backlog and completed as fast as possible. But once tasks are pulled from the backlog, Kanban and Scrum differ significantly.

Scrum focuses on “sprints,” which begin with a planning meeting to decide which tasks are priorities for that two-week work period. Development and product teams are only allowed to focus on the items pulled during the planning meeting for that two-week sprint; anything else is tabled until the sprint is completed. At the end, there’s a review of the sprint to see what worked and what needs to be changed. Then the process starts again with new requirements or tasks set aside during the last planning meeting.

Kanban uses a pull method and also involves regular evaluations and retrospectives, but it doesn’t follow the two-week sprint that Scrum uses; instead Kanban is an ongoing process in which tasks are pulled anytime the team has the bandwidth to take on another task. There are also predetermined limits for how many “works in-progress” a team can have, typically based on the number of people and resources available.

Kanban tools and software

There are plenty of Kanban tools and software available for businesses that want to virtually manage their Kanban workflow. Your organization might use these in place of a physical Kanban board or in conjunction with one. These tools help teams keep track of how initiatives are progressing and can help everyone visualize tasks step by step. There are several options available on the market, but some of the more popular Kanban tools include:

  • Asana
  • GitScrum
  • KanbanFlow
  • Kanbanize
  • com
  • nTask Board
  • Odoo
  • Trello
  • Workzone
  • Workfront
  • Wrike
  • ZenHub

Kanban jobs and salaries

The average salary for employees who report having Kanban skills is $117,000 per year, according to data from PayScale. Kanban is a relevant skill for a range of jobs in project and product management. According to PayScale, here are the average reported salaries for popular job titles with Kanban skills:

  • Software product manager: $80,000
  • Scum master: $84,000
  • Software developer: $90,000
  • IT project manager: $113,300
  • Scrum coach: $117,000
  • Agile coach: $123,333