Origins of Kanban

Roughly translated, the Japanese term "Kanban" means visual cards. Taiichi Ohno created the Kanban system at Toyota in the 1940s. Ohno was inspired by supermarkets stocking their inventory with just enough products to meet consumer demand, and applied the same "just in time" principle to Toyota's production process. Toyota's line workers used Kanban (a visual card) to signal their need for a component. This helped Toyota match their inventory with demand, thereby reducing waste.

What originated from the era of manufacturing found its application in implementing Agile and lean management methods. In 2004, David J. Anderson applied the principles of Kanban to software development at Microsoft. Today, Kanban has evolved into a popular method to track projects across several IT and non-IT teams.

It is said that improvement is eternal and infinite. It should be the duty of those working with Kanban to keep improving it with creativity and resourcefulness without allowing it to become fixed at any stage.

Why do you need to implement Kanban?

To illustrate this point, let's take the example of a software development process which begins when customers request features and ends when developers create new iterations versions of software. When customers submit requests, teams are expected to deliver as soon as possible. To remain competitive, many teams tend to expedite work and overburden themselves with multiple user stories. Pressure mounts at the inflow and more work gets pushed onto teams. This mistake of overburdening teams impacts the quality of the outcome.

In a Kanban pull system, teams are encouraged to match the amount of work in progress to their capacity. Kanban teams pull work items from their backlog only when the team's capacity becomes available. Limiting work in progress helps teams maintain a level of quality before a work item is considered done. During this process, no other work is pushed onto the board.

If there is no explicit limit to work in progress and no signaling to pull new work through the system, it is not a Kanban system.

What is a Kanban board?

  • A Kanban board is the visual representation of your team's work. A typical Kanban board consists of a Backlog with three Kanban columns: "To do," "Doing," and "Done." A Kanban card contains essential details about the work item, such as the title, description, status, and assignee.

  • Each column on your Kanban board should include a work-in-progress limit. There's no rule of thumb for setting these limits, since it depends on each team's capacity and the nature of the work. A simple example of a work-in-progress limit could be, "Not having more than 3 Kanban cards in the 'Doing' column at any given time."

  • Working on a Kanban board is like an air traffic controller visualizing and directing flights at an airport. The backlog consists of a list of flights that are scheduled to take off or land. At any given time, the air traffic controller is focused on making sure that only one aircraft is allowed to use the runway for taking off or landing.

Don't miss a thing.

Practices of Kanban

  • 1 Visualize work

    Our brains can process visual information much faster than text. When you make tasks into visible Kanban cards, it helps visualize the flow of Kanban cards moving across your Kanban system and makes it easier to collaborate with your team.

  • 2 Limit work in progress

    Many believe multitasking makes them more productive, but in reality, we tend to lose focus by constantly re-prioritizing and juggling between tasks. If you feel you are overburdened and far from getting anything done, Kanban's work-in-progress limit is your remedy. Dedicating your attention to a limited number of tasks keeps your mind from wandering.

  • 3 Focus on flow

    When the first two practices of Kanban are in place, a team should then work on identifying and resolving disruptions in the flow. Stand in front of your Kanban board and ask: "How does the work flow? Where does the work get stuck?" Discussing the flow of work in daily stand-ups and retrospective meetings helps your team evaluate the health of your Kanban system.

  • 4 Continuous improvement

    Continuous improvement is all about inspecting your processes and finding ways to generate the most value while removing as many unproductive activities as possible. The Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, or "good change," holds that each member of a team  must take part in improving their processes in order to create sustainable change.

Benefits of Kanban

  • 1 Versatility

    Implementing the Kanban system doesn’t force you to revamp your processes, and its versatility allows it to be easily adapted across industries. Today, Kanban is popularly used in software development, incident management, sales, marketing, customer support, and HR. If you take a look at Kanban practices, you'll see  it can be used by any team in your organization.

  • 2 Increased focus and productivity

    Eliminating waste and improving productivity is an integral part of a continuous improvement process. Traditional processes of multi-tasking and context switching often wastes time and energy. By applying the Kanban practice of work-in-progress limits, you eliminate unproductive days and create a focused environment for your teams to deliver high-quality work.

  • 3 Empowered teams and improved collaboration

    The entire team shares the responsibility of maintaining a smooth workflow across the Kanban system. This promotes synergy between cross-functional teams, creates a culture of collaboration, and makes everyone feel encouraged to contribute.

  • 4 Better responsiveness

    The birth of Kanban was a response by Toyota to eliminate waste and improve the quality of their manufacturing processes. The Kanban practices of constant reflection and continuous improvement help businesses to be more agile and make well-informed decisions. 

Implementing a Kanban System with Zoho Sprints

Digital Kanban boards, one of the most popular Kanban tools today, have been modernized to provide more perspective with functionalities like custom fields, dependencies, and workflows.

In Zoho Sprints, you can practice the best of both Scrum and Kanban systems with Scrumban. Sprints empowers your team and improves collaboration by giving everyone a clear snapshot of where the team stands by sending real-time updates to the Scrum board. Set work-in-progress limits on your Scrum board and identify bottlenecks by visualizing your work in swimlanes. Use status columns with images and color codes to help improve your team's focus and attention.

Want to try out the Kanban system with your team? Give Zoho Sprints a try today and see how you can maximize your team's productvity and create a culture of continuous improvement with the Sprints Scrumban system.

Don't miss a thing.

sign up for free