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Agile Approaches

Kanban: Unlocking team productivity

by Simon Buehring
Unlock the full potential of your team with Kanban, a tried-and-tested path to enhanced team efficiency.
Kanban: Unlocking team productivity

Kanban explained

Kanban is a philosophy born out of Toyota’s need for operational efficiency. It offers a path to streamlined workflow management.

This article unveils the foundations and mechanics of Kanban. It equips you with the knowledge to enhance productivity and foster a collaborative team environment. By the end, you’ll understand how Kanban boards, WIP limits, and lean principles can revolutionise your professional practices.

Kanban: Understanding the basics

Kanban is a system created to manage work by balancing demands with available capacity. Kanban improves the handling of system-level bottlenecks. Kanban finds its roots in Lean Manufacturing principles, designed to maximise value, and minimise waste. Using visual management techniques, Kanban teams can see the flow of work and communicate more effectively about the tasks at hand.

History of Kanban

Kanban hails from the Japanese word for ‘signboard,’ and it emerged as a crucial part of the Toyota production system in Japan.

Pioneered by Taiichi Ohno, it was originally conceptualised to improve manufacturing efficiency. It did so by using visual signals to ensure the right amount of inventory at the right time.

This principle has since transcended its automotive origins. Kanban has advanced into knowledge work and Agile software development. Since doing so, it has become recognised for its capacity to enhance productivity and reduce waste.

Key terms in Kanban

At its core, Kanban hinges on a set of fundamental concepts that orchestrate its approach to managing work. The Kanban board is the centrepiece. The Kanban Board is a visual tool that represents the journey of tasks through various stages of a workflow. Typically, the workflow is depicted as columns with labels such as ‘Pending‘, ‘In Progress‘, and ‘Completed’. This visualisation is crucial for maintaining clarity around the status and progress of work items.

Simple Kanban board suitable for any workflow.
Simple Kanban board suitable for any workflow.

The key to preventing task overload and ensuring focus is the concept of WIP (work in progress) limits. These are constraints placed on the number of tasks that can be handled simultaneously within each stage of the workflow. By limiting work in progress, teams are encouraged to complete current tasks before introducing new ones. Doing this streamlines the flow and increases productivity.

The pull system is another integral aspect of Kanban. This system emphasises the initiation of new work only when there is a clear demand and capacity to handle it. This contrasts with push systems, where work is batched and assigned regardless of current workload. Push systems often leading to inefficiency and overburdening.

Each individual task or work item is represented by a Kanban card. As tasks progress, these cards are moved horizontally across the Kanban board, visually tracking the flow from inception to completion. The time taken to move a card from start to finish is known as cycle time, a critical metric for assessing the efficiency of task completion. A shorter cycle time generally indicates a more efficient workflow, contributing to overall flow efficiency.

The philosophy of continuous improvement, or Kaizen, is woven into the Kanban method, encouraging regular reflection and enhancement of processes. Lean principles bolster this by advocating for the minimisation of waste and optimisation of value delivery.

Visual management is maintained throughout. This offers an at-a-glance understanding of work status, promoting accountability and transparency. The lead time is the time from when a task is requested to when it’s delivered. Lead time is closely monitored to ensure responsiveness and customer satisfaction.

Cumulative flow diagrams (CFD) are analytical tools. CFDs represent the number of tasks in various stages over time, which helps spot trends such as bottlenecks. Value stream mapping goes together with this. Value stream mapping analyses the current state and designs a future state for the events that take a product from its beginning through to the customer.

Finally, bottleneck analysis identifies slowdowns in the workflow. This is critical for maintaining a smooth and efficient process. By understanding and managing these key elements, Kanban facilitates a more streamlined approach to workflow management. In turn, this drives productivity and process improvement.

Kanban methodology in detail

Kanban’s methodology is deeply interwoven with the principles of Lean. Kanban shines in its simplicity and impact. It brings to the fore visual cues and limits to maintain a smooth workflow, enabling teams to navigate complex projects deftly.

Visualising work with Kanban boards

Visual management stands at the heart of Kanban, with the primary tool being the Kanban board. Here, tasks are represented as Kanban cards, and columns reflect different stages of the process. These boards create a physical or digital space where the status of each item is openly visible to all team members. Doing this enables transparency and collective understanding of project progress.

The visual aspect ensures that everyone is aware of the work being done, work that is queued, and what is yet to be started. It makes managing workload more intuitive and prioritisation more straightforward. Visual cues can signal issues such as overdue items or indicate when a task is blocked. This level of operational transparency is not just about tracking, it is also a communication aid. It helps to foster collaboration and unity among team members, promoting a shared responsibility for the work.

Work in progress limits

WIP limits are a defining feature of the Kanban system. It caps the number of tasks that can be in any given step at one time. Teams can avoid bottlenecks and maintain a focus on task completion before taking on new work. This limitation prevents overcommitment. It reduces context-switching and improves the quality of the work delivered.

When WIP limits are reached, it signals the team to complete current tasks before moving new ones into the workflow. These limits help maintain a balance between demand and throughput. This ensures that team members are neither idle nor overwhelmed.

By focusing on completing current work, teams can deliver value more consistently and predictably. Furthermore, WIP limits highlight problem areas, making it easier to identify and address inefficiencies, improving overall productivity.

Enhancing flow in the Kanban system

The concept of flow is intrinsic to Kanban, referencing the steady progression of tasks from start to finish. For a workflow to be efficient, it is essential that tasks move through the system with minimal delays or stoppages. To enhance flow, teams can employ various strategies, including regular review of board activity to identify and remove obstructions.

Managing flow may involve redistributing tasks among team members, automating certain processes, or reevaluating the definition of task completion. It’s also important to monitor the flow to observe patterns over time that might indicate systemic issues. This can be achieved through tools like the cumulative flow diagram (CFD). A CFD provides a visual representation of the work in various stages, allowing for easier identification of bottlenecks.

Regularly optimising the workflow ensures that the Kanban system adapts to changing environments and continues to function effectively. In turn, this helps to maintain a steady and productive work pace.

Implementing Kanban in your team

Transitioning to Kanban requires a strategic approach, allowing for gradual adaptation by the team. The shift towards this visual method brings clarity and control over your team’s workflow.

The step-by-step guide to adopting Kanban

Introducing Kanban to a team starts with a clear, actionable strategy. Initially, outline your current process, then create a basic Kanban board to represent it. Educate your team on Kanban principles and establish clear work in progress limits.

From there, launch with a pilot project, gradually expanding as comfort with the system grows. Regular Kanban meetings and feedback loops are essential to refine processes, and over time, adapt and scale the system as needed. The goal is to establish a rhythm where continuous improvement becomes a natural part of the team’s culture.

Kanban digital tools and software

Today’s market offers a host of digital Kanban tools designed to facilitate the implementation and management of Kanban systems.

Software like Jira, Trello, and Kanbanize brings Kanban boards into the digital realm, supporting the easy tracking of tasks and collaboration across teams, regardless of location. These tools come with features such as customisable boards, detailed analytics, integration capabilities with other systems, and real-time updates, enhancing the visibility and efficiency of the Kanban process.

Selecting the right tool depends on your team size, complexity of work, and specific needs for workflow management, but the right choice can significantly boost the benefits of adopting Kanban.

Kanban’s impact on productivity and team dynamics

Adopting Kanban can have a profound effect on productivity and the way teams interact, bringing about a more harmonious and efficient work environment.

Measuring success with Kanban

Evaluating Kanban’s effectiveness hinges on monitoring specific performance indicators and metrics.

Lead time, the duration from task commencement to completion, is a vital metric, offering insight into process speed and efficiency. Observing changes in cycle time can indicate improvements in the flow of work.

Throughput, the number of tasks completed in each timeframe, reflects the team’s capacity for work. Applying cumulative flow diagrams provides a visual representation of work statuses over time, enabling teams to foresee potential bottlenecks. Furthermore, tracking the frequency and resolution times of blockers gives an indication of the system’s health and the team’s problem-solving agility.

Ultimately, these metrics help to guide continuous advancements. They can be combined with qualitative feedback from retrospective meetings and daily standups. Together, they paint a comprehensive picture of how Kanban is influencing productivity and team dynamics.

Advancing beyond the basics

Embracing Kanban fully means continually seeking ways to refine and grow the system alongside your team or organisation’s needs.

Evolving your Kanban system

Refining a Kanban system involves regular evaluations and adjustments. As teams grow and projects become more complex, the Kanban board can be expanded. Often this means including new columns or swimlanes helps maintain clear visualisation of tasks.

Introducing more advanced metrics like flow efficiency and process optimisation can uncover deeper insights for improvement. Training sessions and Gemba walks further embed the principles of Kanban, ensuring every team member contributes to system evolution. Continuous improvement, a core concept of Kanban, ensures the method matures with your organisation.

Connecting Kanban to larger Agile practices

Kanban’s flexibility makes it an excellent complement to broader Agile methodologies such as Scrum or Lean software development. Combining Kanban with these frameworks can enhance Agile project management, allowing for a more adaptive and responsive approach to Sprint Planning and backlog refinement.

Kanban’s emphasis on visual task boards and continuous delivery dovetails perfectly with the iterative nature of Agile, promoting a culture of feedback and quick adjustments.

The synergy between Kanban and Agile practices encourages a balance between structure and flexibility, maximising the efficacy of team processes.

Kanban certification and training

Kanban certification and training programs are invaluable for individuals looking to deepen their understanding and application of Kanban practices.

Kanban courses provide structured learning paths from foundational knowledge to advanced techniques and offer insights into best practices, derived from a wide range of industries.

Earning a certification not only bolsters one’s skill set but also enhances your ability to contribute effectively to your team’s Kanban adoption. Kanban training is often supported by hands-on exercises and case studies, facilitating the practical application of learned principles.


Kanban infographic

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