Before diving into what is Kanban methodology and exploring its advantages and core characteristics, it is helpful to take a step back and focus for a moment on a related concept: Agile.
According to the Agile Alliance, which is a global nonprofit member organization committed to supporting people who explore and apply Agile values, principles and practices, Agile is essentially a mindset that is designed to help software development teams create and respond to change. This framework is defined and driven by a set of 4 core values and 12 core principles.
The 4 Core Values of Agile
- Individuals and interactions are valued over processes and tools.
- Working software is valued over comprehensive documentation.
- Customer collaboration is valued over contract negotiation.
- Responding to change is valued over following a plan.
The 12 Core Principles of Agile
- The highest priority is to satisfy customers through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
- Change requirements – even those in later stages of development – are welcome, since the objective is to harness and exploit change to increase each customer’s competitive advantage.
- The goal is to deliver working software frequently, and in some cases within spans of a couple of weeks. Shorter timescales are preferred to larger timescales.
- Business stakeholders and developers should not work in isolation, but instead must collaborate regularly throughout the project.
- The individuals who work on projects must have the support, motivation, trust and environment they need to get the job done.
- It is generally accepted that the most effective and efficient method of conveying information both with and within a development team is face-to-face conversation (which can be facilitated through video conferences when co-location is not geographically possible, not financially feasible, or not permitted due to public health reasons).
- The primary measure of progress is working software.
- All processes and workflows should support sustainable development, and all stakeholders including developers, sponsors and end users should strive to maintain a constant pace over time.
- Both process and product are enhanced by good design and continuous attention to technical excellence.
- Simplicity is essential, and is defined as the art of maximizing the amount of work that does not need to be done.
- Self-organizing teams are best equipped to create the best architectures, requirements and designs.
- At regular intervals, teams should analyze how they can become more efficient and effective.
These values and principles refer to “developers” and “software,” because Agile was introduced to guide and improve software development projects. However, over the years Agile has expanded far beyond the IT space, and is now used by teams in marketing, product development, professional services, and many others.
Now that we have highlighted the basics of Agile, we can switch gears and answer the question: what is Kanban methodology?
The History of Kanban Agile Methodology
Kanban – which is a Japanese word that translates into English as “card you can see” – was introduced by Toyota in the 1940s to support just-in-time inventory management. The approach used simple physical cards to identify distinct steps in a process, so teams could quickly and easily see what work was in progress, what was completed, and what remained to be done.
Over the next several decades, Kanban expanded into the general project management field, and by the early 21st century it was firmly established and widely used as an Agile methodology. While the earliest Kanban adopters and evangelists used it in the software development field, Kanban is now effectively used in a variety of fields and use cases – which is why a growing number or organizations are asking the one that we are currently answering: what is Kanban methodology?
Kanban Project Management Methodology
As a project management methodology, Kanban is built on a set of six core elements: visualizing workflows, work in progress limits, managing workflows, process guidelines, feedback loops, and continuous improvement. Grasping these elements goes a long way towards understanding the fundamentals of what is Kanban methodology.
While much has changed and evolved about Kanban since its introduction in the 1940s, it remains fundamentally rooted in visualizing workflows (i.e. how work transitions from one distinct stage to the next). These days, most organizations – and all large enterprises – use virtual/online boards, which are much more accessible for teams (both co-located and remote), and can be automatically updated to avoid version control issues.
Each board is divided into stages (e.g. To Do, Doing, In Review, Approved, Published), and is populated by tasks that contain basic information such as a brief description, who is responsible, estimated duration, and what’s required to transition it to the next stage. Some solutions also support additional rich and relevant Kanban board data, such as checklists, files, and in-context conversations (i.e. team members communicate using a discussion board that is exclusively linked to a specific task).
Work in Progress Limits
Work in progress (WIP) limits are restrictions that prevent work from moving forward into the next stage, if doing so would create a bottleneck. Of course, WIP limits only deliver benefits if they are optimized. If WIP limits are too low, then workers will be idle and productivity will suffer. If WIP limits are too high, then they will be essentially meaningless. Organizations that use Kanban agile methodology typically need to experiment, in order to calibrate the right WIP levels for various work stages.
Project managers need to constantly monitor workflows, and make adjustments based on a variety of factors such as WIP bottlenecks or excess capacity (as discussed above), changing customer requirements, and so on. Project managers are also responsible for keeping their teams motivated and engaged.
Clear and consistent guidelines are essential for the Kanban process to work. All team members need to understand and accept what it means for work to be (for example) “complete” or “in review.” To avoid confusion, conflict and chaos, many organizations also use checklists that help determine when work can – and cannot – be pushed into the next stage.
The success or failure of Kanban project management methodology is often a tale – or a horror story – about feedback loops. Efficient, organized and continuous feedback loops are absolutely essential for Kanban, since future plans are directly related to current progress and anticipated issues (both positive and negative). Recall that one of the 12 principles of Agile is a preference for shorter timescales vs. longer timescales.
Teams that use Kanban should periodically reflect on “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” and use these lessons learned to make improvements; both small and large. These insights should also be shared across the organization. This is a significant shift from conventional project management, where a lessons learned analysis typically happens only at the end of a project. With Kanban, this effort needs to be ongoing.
Advantages of Kanban Methodology
There are several key advantages of Kanban methodology:
- Greater flexibility, as work is not driven by time, but instead by team capacity (refer to the discussion above on WIP limits).
- Increased visibility, as anyone can view a board and clearly see what is being done – and what isn’t.
- Reduced bottlenecks, which is a major win for both customers and team members.
- Increased efficiency, as project managers (and other executive team members) can analyze how rapidly or slowly tasks usher their way through the process, and make adjustments accordingly – establishing best practices for what is working, and fixing what isn’t.
- Happier customers, who benefit from shorter delivery times.
The Bottom Line on Kanban Project Management
What is Kanban methodology? Well, it is not a magic wand or silver bullet that instantly transforms failure into success. However, when it is developed, deployed, managed and optimized effectively, Kanban can significantly and sustainably increase the number of projects that make it to the finish line on time, in budget, and having achieved all required business objectives.