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Can Kanban Improve Your IT Workflow?

Published By Team Clarizen

Today’s IT teams face more challenges than ever when it comes to producing quality deliverables quickly. As rapid changes in technology make mid-project changes more and more common, IT teams are turning to Agile methods to help them keep up.

One popular choice is Kanban. This visual workflow management system actually stems from lean methods but is now commonly used on its own, as part of or combined with Agile and other frameworks, such as Scrum.

But can Kanban actually improve your IT workflow? Let’s take a look.

What is Kanban?

The term “kanban” comes from Japanese, meaning roughly “signboard.” In the Kanban method, it refers to visual task cards used to represent a project’s workflow on a Kanban board.

But Kanban is more than just a visual approach to task management. When used for software, IT or other knowledge work, it is a comprehensive system used to design, manage and improve workflow systems in order to deliver value to customers as quickly and efficiently as possible.

How does Kanban achieve this? The Agile Alliance summarizes Kanban methods roughly as:

  • Visualize work as a continuous flow rather than in distinct timeboxes
  • Limit Work in Progress (WIP) through explicit policies
  • Stop “starting” and start “finishing,” ultimately making work more efficient

In Kanban, work is seen as continuously flowing through a system rather than bracketed into predetermined episodes. Kanban practices emphasize the work rather than the people doing the work, instead letting team members self-organize around the workflow.

Thus Kanban, like Agile methods, emphasizes self-motivated teams who equally share responsibility for understanding processes and delivering quality products.

To recap: Kanban aims to respect people and eliminate waste by making workflows more transparent. But to fully understand the philosophy behind Kanban, it helps to understand its history – starting with Japanese car manufacturer Toyota.

The Toyota Production System and Lean Manufacturing

The Toyota Production System, or TPS, is famous for inspiring lean manufacturing and what would later become lean project management. It all started with two fundamental concepts:

Jidoka – Roughly, the relationship between human engineers, human operators and machines. Specifically, it can describe preventative human intervention at the precise moment equipment problems arise. It also refers more broadly to the idea that human engineers can teach machines to work better and better through continuous, incremental improvement.

While the concept of jidoka is tied closely to manufacturing, its emphasis on incremental improvement fits squarely within the Agile philosophy.

Just-in-Time (JIT) Production – Producing only what is needed, when it is needed, in exactly the right amount, while not over- or under-burdening resources (including people).

As part of his development and implementation of the JIT method, Taiichi Ohno created the Kanban system for optimizing workflow while minimizing waste in Toyota’s manufacturing system.

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Kanban for IT Teams

Today, Kanban’s emphasis on incremental improvement, faster delivery of high-quality products and decentralized (shared) responsibility among empowered workers makes it suitable for teams and organizations that want to be more lean, Agile or both, even outside of manufacturing.

Agile Alliance calls Kanban a system for helping teams “work better together,” recommending the system for:

  • Knowledge work environments (including software and IT) in which work requests arrive in unpredictable ways
  • Teams that want to deliver work as soon as it is done, rather than in predetermined time slots

If your IT team needs to operate at breakneck speed, Kanban’s emphasis on workflow transparency, collaboration, empowered teams and customer satisfaction may be a good fit for you.

The best part: Kanban operates from the precise assumption that change is challenging. Instead of uprooting existing processes and starting from scratch, Kanban starts with existing processes and evolves them slowly and collaboratively through built-in feedback loops. In other words, Kanban works for your style, not the other way around.

Whether you’re new to Kanban or a seasoned practitioner, having the right tools to support your work is essential. Kanban is just one of the methods supported by Clarizen’s newest visual task management platform, Clarizen Go. Learn how Clarizen helps teams get work done today.

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Written by Team Clarizen