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The Essential Introduction to Kanban

Kanban serves as a powerful workflow management approach, empowering organisations to effectively manage and optimise their work systems. By mastering the art of visualising tasks and processes, teams can unlock the full potential of Kanban to enhance overall efficiency and productivity. Delve into the world of Kanban to uncover its transformative impact on streamlining operations and achieving remarkable results.

What Is Kanban?

Kanban, a prominent Lean workflow management method, has earned widespread acclaim for its ability to define, manage, and refine knowledge work services. Through its intuitive approach, it facilitates the visualisation of tasks, propels efficiency to its pinnacle, and fosters a culture of continuous improvement. The utilisation of Kanban boards to portray work empowers organisations to streamline work delivery across diverse teams, enabling the seamless handling of intricate projects within a unified environment. Initially rooted in manufacturing, Kanban’s reach expanded to Agile software development teams, and more recently, it has garnered recognition from diverse business units across various industries.

Where Did Kanban Come From?

Kanban is derived from Japanese and means a visual board

The term “kanban,” derived from Japanese and meaning “visual board” or “sign,” has been used to describe a process definition since the 1950s. Initially employed by Toyota, it served as a scheduling system for their just-in-time manufacturing strategy. On the other hand, the capitalised form “Kanban” is synonymous with the Kanban Method, formally defined in 2007. Originally developed as a scheduling system within lean manufacturing, it originated from the Toyota Production System (TPS) in the late 1940s. At its core, the approach revolves around a pull system, where production aligns with customer demand instead of the traditional push method of producing goods and then pushing them to the market.

Toyota’s revolutionary production system laid the groundwork for Lean manufacturing, also known simply as Lean. The primary objective of Lean is to minimise wasteful activities while maintaining productivity. By doing so, it aims to create more value for customers without incurring additional costs. This holistic approach has since become a cornerstone of process optimisation and efficiency in various industries.

How Has Kanban Evolved?

As the 21st century dawned, the software industry’s key players swiftly recognised the transformative potential of Kanban in revolutionising product and service delivery. Leveraging advancements in computing technology and driven by a heightened focus on efficiency, Kanban transcended its origins in the automotive sector and found successful application in other intricate commercial domains, including IT, software development, and R&D. The Kanban Method, as we know it today, took shape at the outset of 2007, born from years of rigorous testing, experiential learning, and collaborative efforts by luminaries in the Lean and Agile community.

Why Use Kanban?

Increased task visibility is one of the main benefits of using Kanban

Increased Visibility

At the core of Kanban lies the fundamental concept of visualising each element of work. By adopting this approach, the Kanban board evolves into a central hub of information, ensuring that all team members are synchronised and aligned. With all tasks made visible, the risk of items getting lost diminishes, ushering in a new level of transparency across the entire work process. As a result, every team member gains immediate insights into the status of each project or task, facilitating quick updates and fostering effective collaboration.

Improved Delivery Speed

Kanban provides project managers with versatile tools to closely monitor and conduct insightful analyses of work distribution. By obtaining a clear view of completed work items within a specific timeframe, identifying the stages where tasks consume the most time, and pinpointing bottlenecks becomes a straightforward endeavour. Armed with this valuable information, teams are empowered to address these challenges head-on, enhancing their workflow and, in turn, elevating their overall delivery rate.

Aligning Business Goals

Kanban practices foster transparency, promote feedback, and facilitate regular review meetings, effectively aligning the company’s strategic goals with the daily operations of teams. This synchronisation between business direction and execution enhances the organisation’s agility, enabling teams to readily adapt to shifting priorities, market dynamics, or evolving customer requirements. As a result, the organisation becomes more adept at navigating changes and maintaining a responsive approach to meet emerging challenges.

Increased Customer Satisfaction

The essence of the Kanban method lies in its origin—the pull system, which dictates that work is executed in response to actual demand. In simpler terms, Kanban guides you to minimise waste by focusing solely on tasks that are currently required. Moreover, through the strategic use of visualisation techniques and the implementation of work-in-progress limits, you can fine-tune the end results to precisely match your customers’ expectations. This approach enhances efficiency, ensures timely delivery, and optimises resource utilisation, all geared towards meeting and exceeding customer needs.

Improved Estimations

After setting up your Kanban board and populating it with work items, a wealth of insights can be gained through flow metrics, allowing you to grasp your process intricately. By analysing the time tasks spend within your workflow (cycle time), you can enhance your ability to predict future work output. A thorough understanding of your delivery rate consistency (throughput) will further refine your forecasting accuracy, empowering you to make informed decisions based on historical data. With these valuable metrics at your disposal, you can fine-tune your operations, optimise productivity, and make well-founded choices to drive continuous improvement in your workflow.

You can learn more about the power of Agile estimations here.

Improved Scalability

The core Kanban principle of visualisation extends to the mapping and management of dependencies. By beginning with the current state, you can visually represent existing dependencies and effectively manage their flow. This practice not only offers insights into the present workflow status but also generates ideas for potential improvements. Additionally, managing dependencies brings about complete transparency in strategic workflow management, allowing for a comprehensive view of the interconnections between teams and their collaborative efforts. Through this approach, teams can foster seamless collaboration, identify areas for enhancement, and ensure that work progresses smoothly across the organisation.

The 6 Kanban Principles

Evolutionary change is one of the primary Kanban principles

The Kanban method rests on six fundamental principles that drive change management and service delivery:

  • Start with what you do now: Kanban embraces continuous improvement, but it begins with a thorough understanding of the current processes and workflows in place.
  • Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change: Instead of seeking large-scale transformations all at once, Kanban advocates for small, incremental changes that gradually build upon each other over time.
  • Encourage acts of leadership at all levels: Kanban recognises that leadership is not limited to managers or team leads; everyone involved in the work can take on leadership roles and suggest improvements based on their unique observations.
  • Focus on customer needs and expectations: Kanban places significant emphasis on understanding and meeting the needs and expectations of customers to elevate the quality of services provided and the value created.
  • Manage the work, not the workers: Kanban respects the existing roles and responsibilities of team members, empowering them to self-organise around the work and contribute to its success.
  • Regularly review the network of services: Kanban promotes a collaborative environment, encouraging team members to actively share their observations, ideas, and feedback during regular reviews of the entire network of services.

By adhering to these foundational principles, organisations can foster a culture of continuous improvement, maximise efficiency, and deliver exceptional value to their customers.

The 6 Kanban Practices

Managing project flow is one of the 6 major principles of Kanban

A successful Kanban implementation relies on six essential practices:

  • Visualizing the Workflow: Creating a visual representation of the workflow enables the identification of bottlenecks, visualisation of work progress, and promotes transparency throughout the process.
  • Limiting Work in Progress: By restricting the amount of work in progress, Kanban prevents multitasking and enhances focus on completing tasks one at a time, leading to improved efficiency and reduced lead time.
  • Managing Flow: Kanban aims to optimise flow by closely monitoring flow metrics, proactively addressing bottlenecks, and continually enhancing the workflow.
  • Making Process Policies Explicit: Clearly defining and communicating process policies ensures that everyone comprehends how work should be executed, reducing misunderstandings and fostering consistency.
  • Implementing Feedback Loops: Kanban emphasises the value of gathering feedback from customers, stakeholders, and team members to identify areas for improvement and inform ongoing enhancements. Learn more about how to close the customer feedback loop here.
  • Improving Collaboratively: Kanban fosters a culture of continuous improvement by encouraging collaboration and experimentation, empowering teams to identify and resolve issues, evolve their processes, and better cater to the needs of their customers. Through these practices, Kanban offers a powerful framework for achieving efficiency, agility, and customer-centricity in any work environment.

How Do I Apply Kanban To My Organisation?

Kanban is inherently an adaptive method that can be seamlessly applied across all organisational levels. Leveraging interconnected Kanban boards allows you to effectively map portfolio management and bridge the gap between strategy and execution. Embracing the concept of Portfolio Kanban empowers organisations to harness the advantages of Kanban’s principles and practices throughout various management tiers. The Portfolio Kanban approach comes in four distinct forms, each tailored to different levels of management:

  • Team-level Portfolio Kanban
  • Portfolio Kanban on the Project/Product Level
  • Portfolio Kanban on the Program Level
  • Portfolio Kanban on the Strategic Level

Through these adaptable approaches, Kanban offers a holistic framework that harmonises organisational processes, promotes seamless collaboration, and aligns strategic objectives with operational execution.

Kanban Glossary

At its essence, Kanban serves as a work method designed to optimise the flow of value through value streams, spanning from ideation to customer delivery. Although it may seem like a straightforward way to improve work processes, Kanban goes beyond mere visualisation. To truly benefit from its application, attention to detail and familiarity with basic Kanban terms and artefacts are essential. Here is a concise Kanban glossary to help you get started:

  • Kanban Board: A fundamental component of the Kanban method, where all work items are visually represented. Typically divided into three columns—Requested, In Progress, and Done—to depict different process stages.
  • Kanban Card: Represents individual work items as they move through the Kanban board. These cards contain crucial task details, such as descriptions, deadlines, sizes, assignees, etc.
  • Columns: Vertically divide the Kanban board, each representing a distinct stage in the workflow. The default columns are Requested, In Progress, and Done, but for complex processes, they can be further divided into smaller sub-columns.
  • Swimlanes: Horizontal lanes on the Kanban board used to visually separate different types of work or to organise similar tasks together within the same board.
  • Cycle Time: The time taken from when a new task enters the In Progress stage until someone actively works on it.
  • Lead Time: The time span starting from when a new task is requested (even if not actively worked on) until its final completion and departure from the system.
  • Throughput: The number of completed work items passing through a system or process within a specific period, serving as a key indicator of team productivity over time.
  • Work in Progress (WIP): Refers to the amount of ongoing, unfinished work that the team is currently handling.
  • WIP Limits: The practice of setting limits on the number of tasks a team can work on simultaneously to prevent overburdening and excessive context-switching.
  • Classes of Service: A set of policies aiding Agile teams in prioritising work items and projects based on specific criteria.
  • Kanban Cadences: Regular meetings that drive evolutionary change and facilitate service delivery tailored to specific needs.
  • Kanban Software: Digital systems enabling the practical application of Kanban principles and practices, accessible to teams and organisations of all sizes.

By mastering these Kanban concepts, teams can streamline their workflows, increase productivity, and achieve greater efficiency in delivering value to their customers.

You can learn more about these and other Agile terminologies in our complete Agile glossary.

Scrum Vs Kanban

What are the differences between Kanban and Scrum?

Below are 10 differences between Scrum and Kanban:

  1. Scrum is a predefined framework with fixed roles, events, and artefacts, while Kanban is more flexible and adaptable.
  2. Scrum works in time-boxed iterations (Sprints), whereas Kanban follows a continuous flow approach.
  3. Scrum emphasizes planning in advance during Sprint planning, while Kanban allows for real-time planning and re-prioritization.
  4. Scrum has a fixed set of ceremonies like Daily Scrum and Sprint Review, whereas Kanban’s meetings are optional and based on need.
  5. Scrum uses Velocity to measure team productivity, while Kanban focuses on Lead Time and Cycle Time to assess process efficiency.
  6. Scrum requires a stable backlog for Sprint planning, while Kanban can start with an existing workflow without a specific backlog.
  7. Scrum limits Work in Progress (WIP) indirectly through Sprint commitment, while Kanban enforces explicit WIP limits on the board.
  8. Scrum teams commit to delivering a set of user stories within a Sprint, while Kanban teams continuously pull new work as capacity allows.
  9. Scrum teams follow defined roles like Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Development Team, whereas Kanban teams may have more flexible roles.
  10. Scrum provides a comprehensive framework for project management, while Kanban is often used as a method to improve an existing process.


What is Kanban?

The term “kanban” translates to “visual signal” in Japanese. In a Kanban team, each work item is visually represented as a separate card on the board. This approach allows team members to easily track the progress of work as it moves through the workflow in a highly visual manner. By employing the Kanban board, teams can maintain clear visibility into their tasks, enabling seamless collaboration and efficient management of the entire process.

What is Kanban in Agile?

Kanban stands as a widely embraced framework for implementing agile and DevOps practices in software development. Central to Kanban is the real-time communication of capacity and complete transparency of work. Visual representation of work items on a Kanban board empowers team members to have a clear view of the status of each task at any given moment. This visual approach enhances collaboration, streamlines workflow management, and fosters an environment of continuous improvement in software development processes.

You can learn more about Agile practices here.

Who is Responsible for Managing the Kanban Portfolio?

The LPM (Lean Portfolio Management) takes charge of the Kanban portfolio, frequently utilised in strategic portfolio reviews and portfolio sync events to oversee and track the flow of epics.

You can learn more about managing projects here.


A Kanban system transcends mere sticky notes on a wall. To truly grasp Kanban, it is essential to embrace its philosophy and integrate it into your daily work. By immersing yourself in its core principles and resonating with its principles, the practical transition will naturally and seamlessly follow. Visualizing workflow, establishing work-in-progress (WIP) limits, optimising flow, defining explicit policies, and embracing continuous improvement will elevate your process far beyond your expectations. Don’t forget to incorporate regular feedback loops into the mix, as these elements together unleash the true power of Kanban, leading to remarkable improvements in your work efficiency and outcomes.

Now that you’re up to speed with the fundamentals of Kanban, take a look at our guides to the Lean methodology and the statistics that you need to empower your Agile team.

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