What is Kanban?

Kanban is a project management tool that allows you to get a more visual overview of the tasks that either need to get done or are complete.

A digital Kanban Board

At its core, it consists of a physical or digital board with three columns (To Do, In progress, Done) and tasks listed as story cards. Every card will be pulled from left to right, until it gets done and leaves the workflow.

More advanced ones includes workflow limits and priority lanes for urgent tasks.

Kanban rests on three main principles that promote:

  • Workflow visualisation
  • Work-in-progress (WIP) limits
  • Workflow measurement

In simple words its main goal is: to visualise and maintain the workflow, all while eliminating waste.

Brief history of Kanban

Taiichi Ono, an industrial engineer at Toyota, developed the Kanban in the 1940’s as a scheduling system for the manufacturing sector. He inspired himself from the self-stocking techniques used by supermarkets, where consumption was based on customer demand. Hence the pull character of the system.

The system was first used at Toyota factories, in order to balance material supplies with actual production. Factory workers would communicate the inventory levels of specific materials through a card called “Kanban” (which literally means “signboard” in Japanese). Every card would be carried all the way to the warehouse, indicating the requirements for the demanded material.

David J. Anderson later pioneered the Kanban method to software development in 2010, as a tool for agile teams.

Why are Kanban boards useful?

Kanban boards didn’t simply gain popularity overnight. Their widespread acceptance is mainly due to the following four benefits:

  1. Visualize your project workflow – get your team to be more focused through project transparency.
  2. Identify and remove bottlenecks – add work limits for in-progress columns to avoid overproduction and eliminate different kinds of waste throughout the project.
  3. Improve team collaboration – allow your team to make better estimates on lead time (the time it takes a feature request to be completed), ultimately improving the project’s success rate.
  4. Speed up your workflow – since transparency leads to a faster process and less work.