Kanban 101: Understanding Kanban Methodology

A small Kanban board

Kanban is like Scrum an agile method to manage projects more effectively. What are the advantages of Kanban? When to choose one agile methodology over the other? And how to find the best Kanban tool for your project? This article will give you an overview of Kanban basics.

Kanban was originally developed as a method for lean production at Toyota. Today its principles are widely used in project management across all industries. Kanban creates a more steady workflow, better transparency and faster delivery.

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Table of contents:

History of Kanban Project Management

When Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, searched for ways to improve manufacturing efficiency, reduce bottlenecks while maintaining high quality standards. He got inspired by shelf-stocking techniques of supermarkets and applied their logic to Toyota’s plant machine shop. The Kanban system uses a push principle. Only when a product is nearly consumed, a signal indicates to produce or deliver a new shipment. In doing so, Kanban secures a steady workflow through all steps of the production process.

David Anderson adapted the Kanban principles for software development in 2007. In the following years the methodology spread across industries and is as of today one of the most popular agile management methods for projects across industries.

The Kanban system, although developed for mass production, can be applied to every project management process as you can understand the project process as a pipeline with customer requests entering at one side of the pipeline and results emerging at the other end.

Kanban definition and kanban principles

Kanban, literally sign board in Japanese, is a very visual management methodology. While Kanban visualizes the material flow in mass production, it visualizes task flow in project management. Each task is written on a separate colorful card or sticky note and moved from left to right along a Kanban board with different columns representing the different steps of the working process.

In a traditional Kanban system, a kanban board knows three columns:

To Do: The left column is for tasks which are not yet assigned and worked on.
In Progress/Doing: As soon as a team member starts working on a task, its card moves to the center column.
Done: When a task is completed, it finally moves to the right column.

Kanban is a very flexible approach. You can adapt the number and meaning of columns according to your needs. In some cases four or five columns might be more adapt to represent the stages of the development process, in other cases you need more differentiated titles.

Kanban boards can be physical or digital. A combined use of analog board and digital tools is also possible.

In contrast to Scrum, Kanban knows few rules. To make sure you make the most of the method, David Anderson described four principles and six general practices teams should consider when working with Kanban.

4 Kanban principles

  1. Start with what you do know.
  2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change.
  3. Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities and titles.
  4. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels in your organization.

6 Kanban practices

1. Visualize the workflow: Our brain is much better in processing visual information than invisible. If you manage to make work, workflows and business risks visible, you are able to manage them better and to do so collaboratively and with consensus. That is the idea of Kanban in a nutshell. So, learn to define and capture requests for work. Visualize each request with a card on a kanban board.
2. Limit the work in progress: Limit the number of cards or sticky notes on the Kanban board and for each column to make sure the team focusses on results and does not get lost in working on too many tasks at once.
3. Manage Flow: The flow of work items through each state in the workflow should be monitored and reported. Monitor the speed of the movement and the smoothness. A fast smooth flow is ideal.
4. Make policies explicit: Until everyone involved understands the work process, it is hard to discuss problems on a constructive level. Make sure to explain definitions ( i.e. When is a task considered done?) and rules. This will enable team members to improve work quality and make suggestions for process improvement.
5. Implement Feedback Loops: Regular feedback loops are an important part of the kanban system to compare expected results with actual outcomes and make adjustments. When implemented on a service deliverly level, Kanban uses four feedback practices: the standup meeting; service delivery review; operations review and the risk review.
6. Improve Collaboratively, Evolve Experimentally (Kaizen): David Anderson encourages companies to use models to generate a common understanding of work, workflow and processes. Besides, models allow a prediction of affect of change or intervention. The empirical observation (outcome) can then be evaluated with the help of the model’s prediction. This scientific approach can enhance learning and create a culture of learning in corporations.

For more in-depth information, read David Anderson’s post on Kanban principles.

Advantages and disadvantages

As each and every method, Kanban has its own strengths and weaknesses. It is not per se the best choice. Therefore you want to consider very carefully in advance if Kanban is the right fit for your project and your work environment.


  • Kanban reduces management effort and increases working speed.

  • You can combine Kanban with traditional or other agile methods.

  • As an agile method, teams benefit from short sprints which allow to discover mistakes early on

  • Kanban boosts motivation as teams work more independent and team members have more autonomy which task they pull from the backlog.


  • For best effect, team members have overlapping qualifications. If a team member has a too heavy workload and creates a bottleneck others may jump in to help complete tasks and get the workflow moving again.

  • Kanban only works if working packages can be separated very clearly from each other and be broken down into individual work steps.

  • Projects with a fixed deadline are better managed by methods like Scrum or TPM which put a bigger focus on time management.

What are the differences between Kanban and Scrum?

Aside from Kanban, Scrum is another very popular agile project management method. The question often occurs when to use one and when the other. To answer it is best to take a look at the characteristics of each methods which uncovers that both, Kanban and Scrum, are no either-or-choice. You can combine both methods if needed.

Let’s take a look at commonalities and differences.

Kanban vs. Scrum – commonalities

  • Both methods are agile.
  • Kanban as well as Scrum follow a pull logic (team members choose a task from a backlog)
  • Teams have more responsibility and freedom.
  • Work in Progress is limited.
  • Both methods aim at creating transparent processes.
  • Project results are delivered in increments.
  • Processes are evaluated on a regular basis to optimize the workflow.

Kanban vs. Scrum – differences

Scrum is the more comprehensive method. Kanban comes with more theoretical overhead than just the Kanban board to which it is often reduced. Nonetheless, its visual approach can be easily combined with other methods.


  • few rigid rules
  • no prescribed roles
  • changes at any time
  • Work is pulled through the system
  • prioritizing in backlog optional
  • iterations optional / continuous delivery
  • as of a certain project size: risk of confusion/need to break down in separate units


  • complexe set of rules
  • fixed roles (Scrum master, product owner and team member)
  • for teams of three or more members
  • no changes mid-sprint
  • Scrum board is newly filled anew after each sprint
  • prioritizing of backlog prescribed
  • work is done in sprints

For more in-depth information about the similarities and differences of Kanban and Scrum read this free e-book written by Henrik Kniberg and Mattias Skarin.

How to find the right Kanban tool

When you decide to apply Kanban with the help of a software, you have to wrestle with some basic questions which always come up facing a software choice:

  • Do you want to use an open source application or a proprietary software?
  • Do you want to use a cloud solution or a local installation?
  • Wich integrations must be supported?
  • How easily can the software be customized to your needs?

Let’s take a closer look at each question.

Open source vs. proprietary software

At first glance, open source applications come with lots of benefits. They are for example often free or cheap. But the rude awakening happens soon because open source applications are hardly updated on a regular basis and no professional support is available. Users must ask other users for help which is often a lengthy endevour. Here proprietary software play to its strengths. It offers reliability as well as fast and professional support. Providers of software you pay a licence or subscription fee for have an interest in constantly improving their product because they need to justify charging their clients.

Cloud vs. local installation

Cloud applications are attractive because you can use them without further local installation. Also, you do not need to worry about maintenance and updating. However, cloud applications come with some serious downside: Corporate data is stored on servers which probably are located overseas where different laws and regulations apply. If you work with confidential data or you worry about data privacy, using a local installation where you host your data on a corporate server is the better option. If you want to benefit from the flexibility Kanban online tools offer, you want to look out for hybrid solutions. They use corporate server to enable location independent collaboration.


When you use Kanban software, you want it to seamlessly integrates with your existing workflows. Check if the Kanban application offers the necessary integrations. Import and export options are important as well, so make sure your most commonly used file formats are supported.


Kanban wants to simplify teamwork. Make sure the software interface is designed in a way that allows all team members to use it without intensive training. Tech-savvy staff may be able to work with more sophisticated applications whereas your staff with little IT affinity appreciate minimalist interfaces. Check if you can customize views to hide unnecessary features and minimize the risks of mistakes. Depending on authorization levels you may want to display further features. Professional software should be highly customizable. Features you should look out for:

  • Is it possible to create rules and automations?
  • Can you customize the appearance of cards and board in a sufficient way?
  • Are you satisfied with the mobile usability of the application?
  • Does the software offer templates for workflows?


Kanban is an effective and simple method to optimize task management. It not only increases transparency but also boosts motivation because team members gain flexibility and influence in the working process. On the one hand, Kanban is ideal to enter the world of agile because it has few rules, on the other hand it demands a certain level of self-organization of a project team. Professional software can be helpful – in facilitating the integration of Kanban in existing workflows and when working with location independent teams.

Posted by Paul Henkel on March 19th, 2018 under Project Management
Tags: agile scrum kanban

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