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Introduction to Kanban

Introduction to Kanban - a well-known tool for optimising work flow.

Kanban is a Japanese word and loosely translates to ‘visual signal’. Furthermore, it forms part of the Agile methodology and is a way to optimise the people, resources, effort, and energy of your organisation while creating value for customers.

Kanban also forms part of the Agile frameworks and consists of four principles: visualise workflow, limit work in progress, focus on flow, and continuous improvement.

The main component of Kanban is to measure the flow of the project. This can be done with:

  • transparency of workflow and tasks, so everyone knows what’s going on
  • notification and completion of tasks, when it’s needed (just in time)
  • not starting new tasks until the previous one has been completed (work in progress)
  • regular, synchronous communication.

Kanban in practice

Kanban was first implemented in the Toyota factory and was based on the principle that tasks needed to flow one after the other. Therefore, they couldn’t have more than one card, because it would likely create a bottleneck where a task would get stuck with one person.

Graphic shows an illustration of a whiteboard with the following Columns: Backlog, In progress, Editing, Published. Cards/tasks are assigned to each column: Backlog - Pad Thai recipe, Review Great Eggspectations restaurant, Top 10 condiments article. In progress: Vegan sausage roll recipe, Happy hour cocktail recipes Editing: Turtle Den Restaurant review. Published: Banana bread recipe, How to make sourdough bread, Fried rice recipe, Samosa recipe.Click to enlarge

Handing over multiple cards at once would also overload individuals with too much work. This way of working created a consistent flow and always relied on transparency and communication.

Companies like Spotify, Zara, Pixar, and HP use Kanban on a daily basis to improve workflow and limit work in progress. Kanban is also used to signal that it is time to repurchase materials/parts in the production, manufacturing, and engineering sectors.

Although Kanban is a very popular management/Agile tool, it has limitations. Some of these limitations are:

  • size of a project as too small or too big tasks is not an effective use of Kanban
  • iteration, but Kanban will not guarantee a faster or better flow
  • misunderstanding the basic principles of Kanban
  • ignoring work in progress limits
  • inaccurate Kanban board.
  • lack of buy-in from the team and management.

‘Just in time’ principle

There are two important concepts to consider with Kanban: ‘just in time’ (JIT) and ‘work in progress’ (WIP). Ensuring a consistent approach and continuous workflow, it is important that tasks are complete JIT while limiting WIP.

Therefore, the team should always be aware of the start and end date of any project. This will ensure that the most important/valuable work is completed when needed.

WIP is defined as tasks that are currently underway. Therefore, the right team members with the right skill set are deployed to ensure WIP is limited, rather than a number of tasks creating bottlenecks.

Assessing the team’s capacity accurately is of cardinal importance.

Measure flow

Both JIT and WIP, when applied correctly, can increase the flow and velocity of a project. Velocity refers to the number of tasks completed over a specific time period.

This is a good indication of whether teams are operating at the maximum level. However, velocity needs to be measured for the whole project and not only small parts thereof.

Your turn

Read the following article to explore the rich history of Kanban and its effective implementations in the business world.
Read: What is Kanban? [1]
While you read the article, keep the following questions in mind:
  • How can I implement Kanban in my professional life?
  • Can Kanban limit work in progress (WIP)?
  • Would Kanban improve a project’s flow?
  • Can the visualisation of a project assist with continuous improvement?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


1. Digite. [Internet]. Kanban 101: What is Kanban?; [not dated]. Availalbe at:

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