Kanban is a visual production management system. It helps deliver orders on a continuous basis with the most efficient use of resources (time, people, money). It uses typically simple white boards and paper cards or post-it notes. Nowadays it is possible to use Kanban on virtual boards, with software on PCs and tablets.
In this article we want to focus on Kanban usage outside industrial manufacturing and outside the software engineering industry. Kanban became a powerful methodology now used in marketing, design, and other professional services. Its industrial use is as fascinating and widespread, however its rise in other domains is even more important in the 21st century economy.
Kanban (看板) (signboard or billboard in Japanese) is a scheduling system for lean production and just-in-time production [JIT]. Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, developed kanban to improve manufacturing efficiency. Kanban is one method to achieve JIT. The system takes its name from the cards that track production within a factory. For many in the automotive sector, kanban is known as the "Toyota nameplate system".
This system, among others, helped Toyota become the largest auto manufacturer in the world.
In the early 2000s, after the start of the Agile movement, some started to use the Kanban methodology for knowledge workers. Specifically, a variation of Kanban started to rise with the use of Scrum.
The methodology in its canonical form includes a few practices. In the context of professional services, we would consider the following.
1. Visualize the workflow
Kanban is a visual method, by design. It should represent the flow and progress of your services, from request to delivery.
Start with three columns. Each one is a major step in your workflow. The trio is really the shortest Kanban you can create: To-do, In Process, Done.
The meaning of these three columns is very important. To the left is the list of services or actions to deliver. In the middle, it is the work in progress (WIP), what is actually being worked on. The last column on the right is always about deliveries, completed services.
This presentation captures the flow; with one glance anyone can see where the workload is and how balanced it is.
Feel free to rename these columns, but their meaning must not change. For example “to-do” could be “backlog”, but the meaning remain the same.
Once you established these three columns, it is pretty common to subdivide one or more of them to further describe major steps in your particular process. For example, you could split the “in process” column into “started” and “testing” for a total of four columns. If you are using a software Kanban tool you probably should limit the number of columns to four of five, otherwise it becomes difficult to read on all screen sizes. On a wall, with a white board, some use up to eight or ten columns. Just remember that all these columns are part of one and only one of the main three canonical categories.
Then place one card or post-it (or virtual card if you are using a software), in the first column. The card typically describes what is the task to do. It also may include the name of the team member working on the task. When the state of the task changes, for example you start working on it, you should move the card to the next column to the right. The flow is typically always from left to right. That being said, nothing prevents you from moving the card back to the previous column, if that is its actual state!
Note: limit of 2 in the middle board is arbitrary. It illustrates the practice of WIP limiting. You could select 10, 20 or any arbitrary number based on your process.
2. Limit work in progress (WIP)
You should not multitask when using this methodology. Multitasking is very wasteful because of cost of switching from task to task. If you try to handle too many tasks at once, the overhead may be as much as 40% of time spent. A major goal of Kanban, being a lean management system, is to eliminate waste. This overhead is pure waste of time, increases costs and it is not acceptable within the system.
Further, the method encourages you to limit the number of tasks or cards in the middle columns. This is because it is pointless to add more work than what the team can handle. It only introduces confusion and requires constant prioritizing –another waste of time.
Prioritization is important, and you should do it when selecting which card you pull from the first column to place in the middle WIP columns. This also helps visualizing how efficient or overstretched the team is: if the first column is a lot bigger than the middle ones, it means you are falling behind.
Always pay attention to the visual aspect of Kanban. It is there to help everyone get a feel for the current status of your operation.
3. Manage the workflow
The flow in Kanban, as mentioned, goes from left to right. Each card moving from column to column. This makes it very easy to see where the workload is and how it is progressing.
In addition, you should pay attention to blocked cards. These are any task the team cannot proceed with. This could be because some information is missing. It could because a task must wait for another one to be complete first. It is very important to highlight any blocked card. If possible, any preventable blocking should be addressed by constant improvement of your process. Kanban is a great tool to discover these preventable conditions and correct them.
In standard, canonical Kanban, you sometime hear about cycle times and lead times. For professional services, I would probably ignore cycle time as a metric. It measures the total time from starting a job (second column) to completion and delivery (last column). The metric is probably unhelpful for you if each request or project varies widely in duration. There is therefore no point in tracking and comparing your cycle time over any period.
Lead time, on the other hand, is a lot more helpful. It measures the typical or average time between initiation of a request (first column) and its delivery (last column). This is more useful because it is an important indicator you can share with your clients. You can answer, for example, the question: “how long before I can get my order?”.
Lead time is not the actual time to do the work (that is the cycle time). Because of all active tasks and WIP, it is the time it actually takes to complete a job. This can be much longer than it would if the team would only have a single job to work on at a time.
Kanban has several advantages, as long as it is clear it is a production management system. It is not a strictly a project management system. Often, teams use Kanban within another methodology focused on project management. For example, Scrum is an Agile project management methodology using Kanban as a visualization and task management tool for its production.
Kanban being visual is very good at communication and transparency. The board is there for everyone to see, analyze, and follow your team’s progress.
This also means you can quickly spot trouble, blocked cards, etc.
Kanban is also a very light touch system. It is designed to easily deploy within any organization and almost any management system. This is because it is easy to constrained its deployment to a single department or function. It is even possible for a single person to implement Kanban, for herself or himself, and still have a big impact on the organization.
This flexibility makes it possible to deploy the methodology in stages and where applicable.
For non manufacturing and non software businesses, it is important to remember Kanban is not a project management methodology. It is a production, operation management system.
This article covers specifically knowledge workers, marketing, designers, engineers, product managers, etc.. For you, it is important to use a project management methodology on top of Kanban. Be wary of using Scrum though.
Kanban vs Scrum
Scrum is really a software engineering management methodology. When it comes to Agile and its principles, the vast majority of followers use Scrum. Unfortunately, because of Scrum’s prevalence in IT, most modern businesses will try to implement it, even outside the IT industry. This is unfortunate because Scrum is far from perfect and very difficult to implement successfully –in IT or any other industry.
Even though Scrum uses task boards –really, they are Kanban boards, these methodologies are radically different in their goals and implementations. The only commonality is being both Agile.
Outside IT, you should prefer using Kanban instead of Scrum. This article covers the differences in depth.
Here are the main reasons why Kanban is radically different.
Kanban’s goal is to enable a continuous flow of work, while Scrum focuses on predefined fixed length sprints (e.g. 2 weeks).
Kanban is a continuous delivery system; it delivers outputs any day, as they become ready. Scrum, instead delivers only at the end of each sprint.
Kanban has no required roles within the team; everyone is equally responsible. Scrum has product owners, scrum masters, and comes with many ceremonies and meetings.
With Kanban, change can happen at any time. In Scrum nothing should change once a sprint starts.
In summary, these are the reasons why it is more appropriate and effective to use Kanban for projects in marketing, professional services and other knowledge work beside IT.
Kanban is fantastic in combination with most systems though. That being said, it is even better when combined with an Agile framework. Instead of Scrum, you could use a framework like SAM9000's APM. It uses Kanban as a core element and the software can manage multiple related boards with complex scheduling.
The top level in the picture is the Kanban of all projects. Each card represents a single project. There is a small icon on each one; clicking on it will open the Kanban In the middle. This second Kanban represents a single project.
At the bottom, the third Kanban is a little different. It is the personal dashboard of a single team member. On it, each card is a task coming from, possibly, multiple projects at a higher level.
With APM, you manipulate each Kanban separately, but the project management software keeps everything in sync and reschedules everyone’s dashboard constantly, using Artificial Intelligence.
Another good framework to use on top of Kanban is Scrumban.
This combines some concepts from Scrum with a full Kanban system. Do not confuse Scrum and Scrumban. They are different.
Scrumban is suitable for knowledge workers mentioned in this article. But it is not ideal because Scrumban is still geared towards teams and businesses working on a single project at a time (for example a software company with a single app to manage). It is possible to use Scrumban for multiple projects in parallel, by splitting cards among separate teams or separate projects (one project per board).
It is not ideal, because unlike APM, with Scrum or Scrumban you need to pay very close attention to priorities among all your projects. Each board being separated, you might lose sight of bottlenecks or could forget some tasks to do first.
Introducing Kanban in your business
With Kanban, the idea is always continuous improvements. This should start from the time you introduce it in your organization. You should add it to your flow and processes instead of replace everything and start from scratch.
The goal is to bring gradual changes. Ideally these changes should come from those doing the work, instead of middle or top management.
For example you could start with a global Kanban for your entire organization. It could show all active projects, one per card. You then move them from column to column, as they progress in your existing flow. This board becomes a visual tool to represent what your team is working on. It would have no impact on existing processes, but it would pave the way for the next phase of implementation.
In order to implement Kanban, a lean management system, your organization should shift and become value stream based. Value streams are a component of the business ecosystem that describe how a stakeholder – often a customer – receives value from an organization.
It means your focus should be on capturing customers requests and deliver the value for them, as they perceive it. In this context a customer might be internal, it is not always a client. It is an actor you create value for.
You should also make your policies very clear. How do you intend to create value? How should cards flow within Kanban, what are the rules? How do you intend to constantly improve your process to increase value over time?
This clarity, in addition to Kanban’s transparency, will make your organization stronger, more effective and more efficient. This will result in better resource and time management, as well as increased profitability, all based on constantly focusing on customer satisfaction.