What is Kanban?

Kanban is a framework used in software development where work items are visually represented to help ensure real-time communication and transparency.

Kanban originated in the manufacturing industry, and the system controls the value chain from where it begins—most likely with the supplier—all the way through until it reaches the consumer. By doing this, Kanban systems help companies avoid supply disruptions, overstocking, and bottlenecks in the supply chain. With constant monitoring, a Kanban system can help achieve lower delivery lead times.

Since its inception, Kanban has expanded from the manufacturing industry to include other production systems, such as software development. With continuous monitoring, developers can control the supply chain from development to production with visual representation of the workflow. The end goal for Kanban in software development is to achieve more efficient delivery times and to avoid disruptions in production.

Kanban has evolved over years of use, and the Kanban principles are a result of many people working together. The Kanban principles can be broken down into four major categories:

Managing change principles

Working with already established processes can be difficult, so these principles are designed to help blend and integrate change in a non-intrusive way.

Start with what is already happening
The first principle of managing change is starting with what’s already known. Kanban is designed to be integrated without overhauling the current processes. Instead, this principle is about recognizing the value of existing processes, roles, and responsibilities and preserving what works well with each of these. Starting with what is known will highlight what issues are there as well.

Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change
Implementing Kanban is supposed to be non-intrusive. To make that happen, changes need to be incremental. Changes in Kanban are made alongside gathering feedback and by implementing collaboration. Large, sweeping changes and overhauls can be met with resistance, which is why it’s ideal to move forward with evolutionary change that’s done in small increments.

Encourage acts of leadership at all levels
Leadership is a part of implementation of Kanban and changing processes. But the act of leadership can’t be something only for high-level management. Encouraging leadership at all levels helps everyone have a continuous improvement mindset that will work alongside Kanban to move the company forward.

Service delivery principles

Kanban is a framework that helps companies develop a service-oriented approach. To effectively use Kanban, it is necessary to have a deep understanding of the customer’s needs, with processes continuously improving to meet those needs.

Focus on customer’s needs and expectations
The central goal for any successful organization is to deliver a high-quality product or service to the customer. Understanding a customer’s needs and expectations should be at the heart of Kanban and company processes.

Manage the work
Instead of worrying about micromanaging, managing the work is about ensuring that a network of services and work to be done is properly organized and taken care of. Everyone knows what needs to be done and when it needs to be done.

Regularly review the service networks
Kanban encourages the improvement of the results a company delivers to the customer. Reviewing current service networks provides an opportunity to improve results and to evaluate how processes are working toward the ultimate goal of delivering high quality results.

The concept of flow

Kanban visualizes the concept of flow. Cards on the Kanban board should flow through a system evenly, so that the Kanban system can help highlight the blockages that happen, so they can then be critically examined. The concept of flow is crucial to improving and operating effectively. By measuring flow metrics and working to improve them, companies can dramatically improve the speed of delivery processes. The Kanban techniques can help lead to continuous improvement with process flow.

WIP limits

Too often employees at a company will have too many Works-in-Progress (or WIPs). A core principle of Kanban is to limit this and instead have employees focus on one WIP at a time and finish it to completion before moving onto the next task. This principle helps reduce multitasking and keeps processes moving smoothly.

There are many benefits to using Kanban with any kind of product or software development. Kanban can lead to:

  • Increased visibility of the flow
    Kanban is a visual method that helps developers visualize the flow of a process. A Kanban board becomes an information hub that everyone can see (which also helps reduce the number of tasks lost).
  • Improved delivery speed
    Since Kanban provides a clear visualization of the current project and workflow, it allows used to identify bottlenecks and reduce them quickly. If a portion of the project gets held up, it’s easy to notice and fix. Improving the workflow and fixing bottlenecks can then improve the delivery speed of a project.
  • Alignment between business goals and execution
    Sometimes there may be a gap between the goals of a project and how it actually proceeds. Kanban can help bring these two elements together. Kanban practices are designed to help align day-to-day work with strategic goals. Aligning goals with execution helps a business stay agile and ready to adapt to changes in the industry or with customers.
  • Improved predictability
    Predictability helps companies make better business decisions and plan calendars more accurately. With Kanban, companies can get a clear picture of the workflow of a process, so they can better predict timelines and results.
  • Improved ability to manage scale and dependencies
    Managing dependencies can provide insight into the workflow and process of development. Improving managing scale and dependencies helps companies better understand their own processes and how to grow.
  • Increased customer satisfaction
    Kanban reduces time lost and wasted energy to produce a better end result for the customers. The goal is to meet or exceed the customer’s expectations, and any problems in the process should be addressed to continuously increase customer satisfaction.

Kanban is a change management system that can help teams make incremental improvements that can lead to better customer experiences. The key to Kanban is that it should be met with little to no resistance because of how seamlessly the incremental changes can be integrated.

The first step of Kanban is to visualize the workflow. Most people visualize the workflow with a Kanban board. The board can be a whiteboard or bulletin board of some kind (or even a digital board) with sticky notes or cards representing each task that needs to be done. Typically, the board is divided into three categories: to do, in progress, and done. The “to do” column shows what hasn’t been started yet; the “in progress” column shows what team members are actively working on; and the “done” column shows all the completed tasks.

Simple visualization helps boost transparency, as well as the distribution of work. Kanban boards can show elaborate workflows if needed, and the visualized Kanban workflow can help bottlenecks become apparent and help teams eliminate them.

  • Visualize the workflow
    To start, the team needs a Kanban board to visualize the workflow and some type of cards to represent the tasks. To effectively create the board, it’s important to understand what it takes to get from point A to point B. Once the workflow is created, team members can move tasks through the three columns to help represent how the project is progressing. A Kanban board might look different, depending on the needs of the company.
  • Limit WIP
    A goal of Kanban is to have only a manageable amount of work in progress to avoid multitasking. Limit how many tasks team members can currently be working on, so there is never too much that is “just started.” If there are no limits to how many tasks can be in the “in progress” column, then it is not Kanban. Constraints can also help illuminate problems that could be missed otherwise.
  • Manage flow
    Managing flow is about managing the work itself without having to manage the people involved. Instead of micro-managing, the focus is on understanding how to move work through the process quickly.
  • Make process policies explicit
    Something can’t be improved if it is not understood. The process should be clearly defined, published, and socialized. People would not participate in something they do not believe would be useful. When everyone is familiar with the goal of the project, everyone can use the Kanban process and move the project forward.
  • Feedback loops
    For companies that want to be more agile, feedback loops are a mandatory step. Feedback loops help ensure that organizations are properly responding to changes and that stakeholders are aware of everything they need to be.
  • Improve collaboratively
    Collaboratively implementing changes can help create a culture of continuous improvement. It’s also important to implement changes based on scientifically proven methods, feedback, and metrics.
Graphic explaining what kanban is.

The main difference between Kanban and Scrum is that Kanban is a process while Scrum is a framework. Kanban builds a delivery model focused on continuous growth while the Scrum framework focuses on organizing work into “sprints.” Kanban uses a tailor-made approach, and Scrum uses predetermined rules. Choosing one or the other depends on the nature of the process, but Kanban is adjustable for a variety of processes.

Nature

Kanban is adaptive and Scrum is a prescriptive approach.

Principles

Kanban includes the principles of:

  • Start with what you do now
  • Agree to pursue evolutionary change
  • Encourage acts of leadership at all levels
  • Focus on customer’s needs
  • Manage the work
  • Regularly review the network of services

While Scrum includes the principles of:

  • Empiricism
  • Transparency
  • Inspection
  • Adaptation

Cadences

The Kanban process has team-level cadences and service-oriented cadences while Scrum has:

  • Sprint with a fixed length
  • Sprint planning 
  • Daily Scrum
  • Sprint Review
  • Sprint Retrospective

Roles

Kanban requires no predetermined roles, but some companies use the Service Delivery Manager and Service Request Manager. Scrum has three predefined roles:

  • Product Owner
  • Scrum Master
  • Development Team

Metrics

Kanban is focused on measuring the cycle time of how long a process takes to complete, how things move from WIP to done, and throughput. Scrum metrics are velocity and planned capacity. Each one measures different ideas.

To use the Kanban method, companies need a board to visualize the workflow. The ServiceNow Visual Task Board is an effortless way to visualize the processes you work with to identify and fix bottlenecks, move work items through the process, and show the work transparently.

A digital board like this is designed to help organizations use Kanban in a modern and fast-paced environment. With remote work bringing with it more changes than ever, companies need a digital task board to make the most of Kanban. The Visual Task Board gives you the power of project visualization, so you can easily begin implementing Kanban to your organization without having to worry about set-up. Learn more about the Visual Task Board from ServiceNow to begin using the Kanban method.

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