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KANBAN – Method, Principles, practices

Kanban board

Kanban is one of the popular Agile methodologies, Scrum being the most popular Agile methodology.

Kanban, also spelt “kamban” in Japanese, literally means “Billboard” or “Signboard“. In Japanese the word ‘Kan‘ means “signal” and ‘ban‘ means “card” or “board”.

Ok… Kanban is a ‘Signboard’, but what does it show on the board ??

A Kanban board indicates ‘Available capacity (to work)‘. Kanban is a concept related to Lean and Just-In-Time production, where it is used as a scheduling system that tells you

  • What to produce
  • When to produce and
  • Where to produce

Kanban is a ‘non-disruptive’evolutionary’ change management system. This means that the existing process is improved in small steps. By implementing many minor changes (rather than a large one), the risk to the overall system is reduced. The evolutionary approach of Kanban leads to low or no resistance in the team and the stakeholders involved.


The Kanban system was first developed by Taiichi Ohno in the 1940s for Toyota.

At that time, the productivity and efficiency of Toyota were inadequate compared to its American automotive rivals.

Kanban was created as a simple planning system with the aim to control and manage work and inventory at every stage of production optimally.

With Kanban, Toyota achieved a flexible and efficient just-in-time production control system that increased productivity while reducing the cost-intensive inventory of raw materials, semi-finished materials, and finished products.

A Kanban system ideally controls the entire value chain from suppliers to the end consumer.

In manufacturing, Kanban helps avoid supply disruption and overstocking of goods at various stages of the manufacturing process. Kanban requires continuous monitoring of the process. Particular attention needs to be given to avoid bottlenecks that could slow down the production process. The aim is to achieve higher throughput with lower delivery lead times. Over time, Kanban has become an efficient way in a variety of production systems.


While Taiichi Ohno introduced Kanban in manufacturing, David J Anderson was the first to apply the concept of Kanban to knowledge works such as software development, IT Management, and business processes such as procurement, Legal, HR, Marketing etc..

The Kanban Method follows a set of principles and practices for managing and improving the flow of work. It is an evolutionary and non-disruptive method that promotes gradual improvements to an organization’s processes.

Kanban is something you use to gradually improve what you do. So, categorically, Kanban requires some process already in place, so that the principles of the Kanban method can be applied, to incrementally change the underlying process.

 Kanban can be applied to any business or business function- whether its IT or Marketing or HR, etc. When applying Kanban to Software development, it is important to understand that the Kanban Method is not a Software development methodology or an approach to software project management.

Almost any business function can benefit by applying the principles of the Kanban method to it.

Benefits of using Kanban Method’s Principles and Practices to your business

  • Improved overall system flow
  • Reduced Cycle time
  • Deliver work early and more often
  • Increased value to the customer
  • Greater predictability

Simple Kanban Board

Kanban helps you harness the power of visual information by using sticky notes on a whiteboard to create a picture of your work using 3 basic columns “TO-DO“, “DOING“, “DONE“. Each card on the board represents a task.

  • To Do”: This column lists the tasks that are not yet started.
  • Doing”: Consists of the tasks that are in progress.
  • Done”: Consists of the tasks that are completed.

Kanban board

This simple visualization alone leads to a great deal of transparency about the distribution of the work as well as existing bottlenecks if any.

3 Core Aspects of Kanban

  1. Visualize your workflow
  2. Limit Work-In-Progress
  3. Manage Flow

Visualize your workflow

Limit Work in Progress (WIP)

Limiting work-in-progress (WIP) is fundamental to implementing Kanban. But what is Work-in-Progress (WIP). Basically, it includes the task items that the project team is actively working on. We have seen a basic kanban board with 3 columns. We can say that the tasks in the “Doing column” can be called WIP.

Now, Limiting WIP is constraining or restricting the number of tasks that come under WIP. By limiting WIP, you encourage your team to complete work at hand first before taking up new work.

The Main Objective of Kanban is the smooth flow of work from start to completion without unnecessary slowdown or stoppage. By reducing the WIP, Kanban helps reduce multi-tasking and encourages completing the work in hand before taking anything new.

Manage FLOW

First, What is FLOW?

Flow is the movement of cards from one column to the next. The cards should flow through the system as evenly as possible, without long waiting times or blockages. Everything that hinders the flow should be critically examined. Kanban has different techniques, metrics, and models, and if these are consistently applied, it can lead to a culture of continuous improvement (kaizen).

Below is a Kanban Board

Kanban Board with limits to WIP

In the above Kanban board, we can see the Limits to WIP in action. There can be a maximum of only 3 tasks running at any point of time under column 1 (ongoing process X), similarly there can be only 2 processes running under column 2 and column 3, which are processes Y and Z.

Now, let us see the core principles and practices on which the Kanban is based upon.

Principles and Practices of the Kanban Method

There are 4 Foundational principles and 6 Core practices of the Kanban method

Kanban Foundational Principles

  1. Start with what you are doing now
  2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change
  3. Initially, respect current roles, responsibilities, and job titles
  4. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels

1. Start with what you are doing now

  • Do not make changes to existing processes right away
  • Kanban must be applied directly to current work flow.
  • Any changes needed shall be made gradually over a period of time at a pace the team is comfortable with.

2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change

  • Make small incremental changes
  • No radical changes that might lead to resistance within the team and organization.

3. Initially, respect current roles, responsibilities, and job titles

  • Not necessary to make changes to your existing roles and functions, which may be performing well.
  • Kanban, unlike other methods, does not impose any organizational changes by itself.

4. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels

  • Kanban encourages continuous improvements at all levels
  • Leadership acts need not necessarily originate from senior management only, People at all levels can provide ideas and show leadership to implement changes to continuously improve the way they deliver their products and services.

Core Kanban Practices

  1. Visualize the workflow
  2. Limit Work-in-Progress (WIP)
  3. Manage Flow
  4. Make Process policies explicit
  5. Implement feedback loops
  6. Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally

1. Visualize the workflow

You need to visualize – either on a physical board or an electronic Kanban Board, the process steps that you currently use to deliver your work or your services. Depending on the complexity of your process and different work items that you work on and deliver, your Kanban board can be very simple to very elaborate.

2. Limit Work in Progress (WIP)

Limiting work-in-progress (WIP) is fundamental to implementing Kanban. Now, Limiting WIP is constraining or restricting the number of tasks that come under WIP. By limiting WIP, you encourage your team to complete the work at hand first before taking up new work.

Advantages of Limiting WIP

  • Helps the team members first finish what they are doing before taking up new stuff
  • Communicates to the customer and other stakeholders that there is limited capacity to do work for any team – and they need to plan carefully what work they ask the team to do.

How to decide the WIP limits?

Initially, it may not be easy to decide what your WIP limits should be. In fact, you may start with no WIP limits, observe the initial work in progress as your team starts to use Kanban. Once you have sufficient data, define WIP limits for each stage of the workflow (each column of your Kanban board) as being equal to half the average WIP.

3. Manage Flow

Managing and improving flow is one of the important features of the Kanban system. A Kanban system helps you manage flow by highlighting the various stages of the workflow and the status of work in each stage. Depending on how well the workflow is defined and WIP Limits are set, you will observe either a smooth flow within WIP limits or work piling up as something gets held up and starts to hold up capacity. Eliminating bottlenecks is an important part of Managing Flow.

How are bottlenecks eliminated?

The key to this is to look at the intermediate wait stages. Reducing the time spent on wait or handoff stages is key to reducing cycle time.

As you improve flow, your team’s delivery of work becomes smoother and more predictable. As it becomes more predictable, it becomes easier for you to make reliable commitments to your customer. Improving your ability to forecast completion times reliably is a big part of implementing a Kanban system!

4. Make Process policies explicit

By formulating explicit process guidelines, you create a common basis for all participants to understand how to do any type of work in the system. The policies can be at the board level, or at column level. Examples of explicit policies include the definition of when a task is completed, the description of individual lanes or columns, who pulls when, etc.

5. Implement Feedback loops

Feedback loops are an integral part of any good system. Feeback loops helps in effectively making course correction to processes that go in an undesirable way. The Kanban Method encourages and helps you implement feedback loops of various kinds – review stages in your Kanban board workflow, metrics and reports etc.., that provide you continuous feedback on work progress – or the lack of it – in your system.

6. Improve collaboratively, Evolve Experimentally

The Kanban Method is an evolutionary improvement process. It helps you adopt small changes and improve gradually at a pace and size that your team can handle easily.  It encourages the use of the scientific method – you form a hypothesis, you test it and you make changes depending on the outcome of your test. As a team implementing Lean / Agile principles, your key task is to evaluate your process constantly and improve continuously as needed and as possible.


3 thoughts on “KANBAN – Method, Principles, practices”

  1. clealry explained… I use to think.. kanban is Scrum with limits to work in progress.. i am not wrong.. but understood the concept behind…

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