At its most simple, Kanban is a methodology used to manage the creation or manufacture of a product or products with a strong view towards constantly improving on the continual delivery of the product. It makes use of a visual task board to represent both the process and the work that is going through this process. With this visual look at your workflow, bottlenecks or problems can be easily identified and rectified to improve the creation or manufacturing process.
Where Does Kanban Come From?
The first company to make use of the Kanban methodology was Toyota Automotive in Japan at the start of the 1940s. It was designed and put into practice by an executive named Taiichi Ohno as a way of controlling and managing both the overall inventory and the work of the production line to reach optimal productivity. At the time, American automotive manufacturers were outpacing the Japanese ones and this early implementation of the Kanban method was implemented to try an compete with them. Taiichi Ohno is thought to be the creator or inspiration behind many manufacturing methods we still use today, like just in time manufacturing. As a result of this methodology, Toyota’s total costs of production decreased while their manufacturing output increased. It was so effective because it controlled the entire production line and created end to end control.
Since then, many companies have made use of the Kanban method, perhaps more notably for the purposes of this discussion, companies like Microsoft famously started using it more than 15 years ago in 2004 in their development workflow.
An Overview of the Kanban Method
Kanban is used widely today in software development based on the idea that an iterative approach to planning and executing that plan in small segments will lead to a gradual improvement of the final product. Naturally, the principles used in car manufacturing in the 1940s don’t directly translate to our 21st century software development needs, but the core of the methodology has been adapted and documented to suit almost any industry and need thanks to its flexibility and ability to improve almost any department or company outputs.
Because of the proliferation of Kanban, it has become an incredibly popular way to implement the Agile process flow in IT and software development teams and companies. Platforms like Kanbanize are specifically designed to unlock the power of Agile processes and Kanban for your business, helping you to build an Agile process flow that adapts to the way you work.
The Principles of Kanban
When we talk about Kanban, we relate it to three very core principles that all of the iterations of the workflow are built around. Because the idea of Kanban is to continuously deliver a product, it takes on a cyclical flow. It starts with a visualization phase where we take the time to visualize what the immediate tasks are for a very short period – even sometimes just a single day. Then we look at all the work in progress and begin limiting what we can accomplish in that time. Lastly, we will enhance the flow by prioritizing the next highest priority item from the backlog.
Once the time period has passed, we repeat this process. Because we’re constantly changing and tweaking our workflow, we’re always working on the most important tasks and taking bit sized chunks from the overall deliverables, so we don’t get overwhelmed by what is still left to accomplish.
If you apply some rules to the way you visualize this workflow, you’ll soon create a very functional visual task board that will govern how you work and naturally create a working priority for you. The idea is that the task board makes the visualization part of the workflow intuitive and seamless.
The Kanban Core – The Flow
Now that we have visually represented our workflow and task board, we can begin to understand the core of the Kanban method. We’ll begin using the task board to flow our tasks through the system. What exactly that looks like is dependent on your processes, but at its essence, we’re trying to move our backlog through the process to completion, stopping its progress to do the work. The real power of the method is in this flow because ultimately, we’re not just dragging tasks from one column to another on a visual task board, we’re applying Kanban principles to find and examine bottlenecks. The more pain points and bottlenecks you can remove, the quicker your cycle can complete and restart and the more productive your team becomes.
When all is said and done, the idea that Kanban can increase the productivity of your team relies on the team buying in to the process and owning each step in the cycle. Ultimately Kanban is a team-based workflow and harnessing its true potential means it should be at the heart of every department and team involved in the output of your final product.