How to Use Kanban to Manage Your Next Project

January 18, 2021

Kanban is an agile framework for product development. It is a visual way of managing tasks and workflow at the individual, team, or organizational level.

It helps us visualize our work even when the work is invisible or intangible. Kanban helps the team visualize the work better, share it with others, and keep everyone on the same page. Kanban improves team collaboration. This article will guide you on how to use Kanban to manage your next project.

Background on Kanban

Kanban is a word of Japanese origin, meaning billboard or signboard. Kanban originated in the Toyota factory in 1940. The aim was to manage work while balancing market demands with production capacity. Ever since Kanban has evolved in different generations. Today, Kanban is being used in different industries, including software development. It is applicable in any industry. The software development industry has benefited most from the Kanban framework.

Introduction to Kanban

Kanban is easy to implement and follow. We start using Kanban by creating a Kanban board. The board is filled with Kanban cards, and work in progress limit (WIP limit) is set. Kanban helps get the work done in an organized way.

It does not require teams or organizations to change the way they work. The better part of it is that no new roles are required to start using Kanban. This is one of the Kanban principles. You start with what you currently have. Kanban can also be used at an individual level as a tasks management tool.

Kanban board

A Kanban board is made up of columns and Kanban cards. The columns represent different stages of a process or workflow. Kanban is a pull system. A pull system is a lean manufacturing principle that allows new work to be started based on consumer demand.

Some of the most basic workflows used are:

  • “to do”, “doing” and “done”
  • “waiting”, “in progress” and “completed”
  • “requested”, “in progress” and “done”

The diagram below shows a sample simple Kanban board with three columns.

Simple Kanban board

Image source

Kanban boards can be made on walls, whiteboards, or with digital tools.

This can be divided into two categories:

  • Physical Kanban boards: Created on physical walls or whiteboards.
  • Digital Kanban boards: Created with software tools and are in a digital form.

The diagram below shows the main components of a Kanban board.

Kanban board components

Image source

Kanban cards

Work is divided into smaller tasks. Each task is represented by a card called a Kanban card. A Kanban card has a title, description, and owner. Other details that can be included in the Kanban card are the due date and card history. Card history shows the movement of a card from one stage to another.

Cards on digital Kanban boards can have more details than those on physical Kanban board. The size of the task on a card is crucial. A task should not be too small or too big. For example, it should not take weeks to work on one card. It should also be big enough in such a way that you don’t have to move or change a card every few hours.

Work in progress limit (WIP limit)

Work in progress limit is a value (usually put below the Kanban board columns) that limit the number of work items under a step. WIP limits are used to expose bottlenecks in the workflow and maximize workflow. WIP limit is set based on team capacity. WIP limit reduces the wait time from previous steps and reduces stress on resources.

Commitment point and delivery point

The commitment point is when team members pull a task from the backlog or the customer requests and commit to working on it. The delivery point is the end of the Kanban workflow, and the product is delivered to the customer. The duration between the commitment point and the delivery point is called lead time.

Swimlanes

Swimlanes are horizontal lines on a Kanban board. They are used to visually separate different tasks on the same Kanban board. They help organize similar tasks together. For example, in software development, tasks that involve fixing some bugs can be put in the same swimlane.

Benefits of Kanban

There are numerous advantages of using Kanban to manage your project, including:

  • Planning flexibility: With no fixed roles and processes, Kanban is flexible to adopt market changes.
  • Incremental delivery: The product is delivered to the end-users incrementally. This makes it possible to collect feedback and make adjustments.
  • Improved efficiency: Visualizing work makes it easy to identify bottlenecks. Once the bottlenecks are removed, the process becomes more efficient.
  • Increased productivity within the team: Kanban focuses on finishing work rather than starting work.
  • Reduction of wasted time and resources: Kanban reduces the number of meetings by the development, thus saving time.

Kanban software tools

With technology, you do not have to use physical Kanban boards. In some instances, the team members may be in different locations. Online Kanban tools come in handy in such instances. There are different software tools for implementing Kanban boards.

These tools ensure better collaboration and accessibility from different locations. They also enable future tracing. Most software tools for Kanban are commercial, but some provide a free version with limited features.

Some of commonly used tools are:

How to apply Kanban in a project

It is straightforward to adopt Kanban in your next project. The most crucial requirement is to get your team to understand what Kanban is. Make sure you understand the Kanban principles.

Kanban principles

  • Start with what you have. Changes to the current workflow and process can be introduced incrementally. You don’t have to restructure your team either.

  • Pursue continuous improvement. Minimal incremental changes are encouraged to avoid resistance within the team.

  • Embrace leadership at all levels. Kanban encourages everyone to be a leader by making continuous improvements at a personal level. The team should be self-managing.

  • Follow the current process and roles. You do not have to create new roles or processes. The responsibilities and titles in your team remain the same.

  • Step 1: Get a Kanban board. Choose between a physical board or a digital board. Discuss with your team and decide what fits you best.

  • Step 2: Identify the different states in your existing process and put the workflow on the Kanban board.

  • Step 3: Identify the commitment point and the delivery point.

  • Step 4: Set the Work in Progress Limits.

  • Step 5: Identify the work items. Identify the different tasks and put them on cards.

  • Step 6: Place cards in the appropriate stages of the workflow.

  • Step 7: Work on the cards.

  • Step 8: Identify bottlenecks.

  • Step 9: Work on the bottlenecks and improve continuously.

Kanban vs. Scrum

Both Scrum and Kanban are frameworks used in agile project management. You can learn more about Scrum in the article Introduction to Scrum. The table below shows the core differences between Scrum and Kanban.

Differences between Scrum and Kanban

Scrum Kanban
In Scrum, every person involved has a role and responsibilities. There are no fixed roles and responsibilities.
Scrum is based on durations. For example, a sprint duration must be 2 to 4 weeks Kanban is not based on durations. There is a continuous flow of the development process.
Scrum is best for projects with changing requirements. Kanban is best for projects with minimal requirements changes.
Scrum focuses on time management and better utilization of resources. Focuses on continuous improvement to higher productivity and more efficiency.
The Scrum Master leads the scrum team. Leadership is encouraged at all levels.
Scrum is more suitable appropriate when the product has a long development cycle and goes through several iterations. Kanban is loosely structured. Therefore, it may not be the best for new teams that need a more binding approach. It is more suitable for maintenance work and products with a less complex development process.

Similarities between Scrum and Kanban

  • Both Kanban and Scrum use incremental delivery of the product to the customer.
  • Both involve gathering feedback from the customer and incorporating it into the process.
  • Both are “pull systems”. They ensure work gets from the backlog to the customer within the shortest time possible.

Conclusion

At first, Kanban may seem complex, but you are now ready to implement Kanban in your next project after going through this article. Start now with the baby steps and keep on improving.


Peer Review Contributions by: Saiharsha Balasubramaniam


About the author

Benson Kariuki

Benson Kariuki is a graduate computer science student. He is a passionate and solution-oriented computer scientist. His interests are Web Development with WordPress, Big Data, and Machine Learning.

This article was contributed by a student member of Section's Engineering Education Program. Please report any errors or innaccuracies to enged@section.io.