What is Kanban? Workflow management simplified

Kanban helps organizations focus on specific tasks until completion. This simple workflow management system is an effective method for fostering collaboration and productivity.

What is Kanban? Workflow management simplified

Kanban definition

Kanban is a simplified workflow management system aimed at achieving efficiency and agility in the production process. While it is commonly used in software development, Kanban focuses on gradual improvement in every area of the business — not just IT. Developed in Japan by Toyota in the early 1940s, Kanban is not designed to replace project management or act as a development methodology. Instead, it is focused on improving processes already in place by creating a better workflow structure.

Kanban also helps your organization limit the amount of works in-progress (WIPs) in your backlog. It also aims to support strong leadership, organizational transparency, teamwork, open communication and collaboration in the company. With Kanban, organizations can visualize tasks that aren’t tangible, which keeps priorities from falling through the cracks and helps everyone know what is getting done.

Kanban board and Kanban cards

A Kanban board is the primary tool for a Kanban strategy. It can be a physical board, like a whiteboard, or a virtual board that helps your department track tasks and how they’re progressing. Progress is tracked using Kanban cards, which can be as simple as sticky notes that can be moved or virtual cards that can be dragged and dropped into various columns on your Kanban board.

Each stage is represented by a column on the Kanban Board. For example, the first column might contain a “backlog” of tasks that need to get done, with another column for “today” or “this week” where you can pull out tasks you need to focus on right now. When selecting tasks to include on your Kanban Cards, it’s best to keep them small enough so they won’t take weeks to complete. Alternatively, you should also avoid breaking tasks down to the point where the board becomes cluttered with cards. Choose tasks that check off a few items on your list but that will resolve quickly enough to keep the team motivated.

Kanban stages

When creating stages for a Kanban board, there’s no prescriptive template. The general rule is to keep it simple and avoid overcomplicating the steps required to complete each task. While every organization is free to choose their own categories for each column, most Kanban boards will include the following stages:

  • Waiting: This column typically includes the backlog of tasks that are on your team’s radar. These tasks are lying in wait for some free time to open up — once it does, the task can be shifted to a column for today’s specific tasks or shifted into the “in-progress” column.
  • In-Progress: This column holds all the tasks that are currently being worked on. This is also sometimes referenced as the “doing” column. As soon as you pick a new task to work on, it will be moved into this column as long as you are working on it.
  • Completed: This column is pretty self-explanatory, but once a task is completed it is moved to a final “done” or “completed” column.
  • Blocked: If a task can’t be completed or its progress is halted or paused for any reason, it’s moved to a “blocked” or “hold” category until it can be picked up again.

Kanban vs. Scrum

As workflow improvement strategies, Kanban and Scrum seem like similar agile practices on the surface. And they do share similarities — both strategies are built on “pull” systems, which focus on getting items out of the backlog and completed as fast as possible. But once tasks are pulled from the backlog, it’s easy to see how Kanban and Scrum differ.

Scrum focuses on “sprints,” which begin with a planning meeting to decide which tasks are priorities to pull for that two-week sprint. During this two-week sprint, the development and product teams are only allowed to focus on the items pulled during the planning meeting; anything else is tabled until the sprint is completed. At the end, there’s a review and a retrospective of the sprint to see how it went, what worked and what needs to be changed. Then the process starts again with new requirements or tasks that were set aside during the last planning meeting.

Kanban uses a pull method and also involves regular evaluations and retrospectives, but it doesn’t follow the two-week sprint that Scrum uses, instead Kanban is an ongoing process where tasks are pulled anytime the team has the bandwidth to take on another task. There are also predetermined limits for how many “works in-progress” a team can have, typically based on the number of people and resources available.

Kanban tools and software

There are plenty of Kanban tools and software available for businesses that want to virtually manage their Kanban workflow. Your organization might use these in place of a physical Kanban board or in conjunction with one. These tools help teams keep track of how initiatives are progressing and can help everyone visualize tasks step by step. There are several options available on the market, but some of the more popular Kanban tools include:

  • Trello
  • KanbanFlow
  • GitScrum
  • Workfront
  • Wrike
  • ZenHub
  • Kanbanize
  • Asana
  • Odoo

Kanban jobs and salaries

The average salary for employees who report having Kanban skills is $116,000 per year, according to data from PayScale. Kanban is a relevant skill for a number of jobs in the project and product management field. According to PayScale, here are the average reported salaries for popular job titles with Kanban skills:

  • Project manager: $79,497
  • Software product manager: $117,916
  • Agile coach: $123,382

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

Download CIO's Roadmap Report: Data and analytics at scale