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Kanban in project management

Agile Kanban combined with traditional project management

While agile methods such as Kanban are now widely used in project management, employing a purely agile approach without the advantages of traditional project management methods often does not work, especially when a large project team is involved.

This article explains the advantages of agile Kanban and the traditional waterfall model, and how you can employ this to your advantage in the form of hybrid project management.

History of Kanban
Personal Kanban board
Basic principles of the personal Kanban board
How to create a personal Kanban board
Agile v. traditional project management
Hybrid project management
Advantages of Kanban in Merlin Project

History of Kanban

The term Kanban is Japanese in origin and means signboard or billboard. Originally, Kanban described a method to manage manufacturing processes and in doing so to increase productivity. It was developed after the 2nd world war by Taiichi Ohno in the Toyota Motor Corporation in Japan with the primary aim of minimizing the high, and therefore costly, inventories of raw materials and semi-finished products. The basic idea was to organize production material flows according to the supermarket principle. This means, a consumer takes a certain quantity of product from the shelf and the resulting gap is noticed and refilled.

Personal Kanban board

The traditional Kanban system has proven itself over many years in the production and manufacturing sectors. Today, the Kanban board is also used in many other areas to increase productivity. Among other things, it can be put to everyday use as a personal workflow system (personal Kanban) for our many to-dos or action items. A Kanban board improves workflow planning, monitoring, and control.

A Kanban board is a whiteboard or a large sheet of paper on to which small sticky notes or cards are placed which are at various stages of progress. In its most basic form, the personal Kanban board comprises only three columns: To Do, Work in Progress, and Done. The to-dos are always added to the left-hand column and then moved to the right as they progress. Once all the to-dos land in the final right-hand column, the activity is complete. It is an excellent organizing principle to visualize activities and lay the foundations for a highly efficient workflow.

Basic principles of the personal Kanban board

The personal Kanban board follows two simple rules:

  1. Represent your activity visually (I see my activity).
  2. Limit your tasks (Work in Progress) according feasibility (I will only work on two tasks at a time).

Workflow visualization is therefore a core element of the personal Kanban board. By visualizing your work using the Kanban board, it's easier for you to understand your work in context and stay in control. It helps you to better visualize potential bottlenecks and unexpected factors rather than just rushing into the obvious elements of your work such as time, effort, and resources.

Another key element is the limiting of tasks that are being worked on (Work in Progress). This lets you focus your attention on those tasks that are important at the current time. Don’t set the limit of the task you need to work on too high otherwise you may lose your focus and become less productive.

How to create a personal Kanban board

Create your own personal Kanban board by splitting your board into the three aforementioned columns: To Do, Work in Progress, and Done. Like a traditional to-do list, write down all your tasks and processes on separate sticky notes or index cards and place them in the to-do column. Be sure to write only one task per note.

As soon as you start working on to-dos, move the stickies with the highest-priority tasks to the Work in Progress column. Tasks are worked on according to the “pull” principle, meaning only those tasks are taken on that can also be dealt with. It is important to limit the number of simultaneous tasks that need to be worked on. As a general rule, people can’t focus on more than two things at once.

The sticky notes only end up in the Done column once all work on the task has been completed.

You can also expand the traditional Kanban board to suit your requirements. The center column in particular can be expanded to include various analyses or interim steps. In turn, comments can be added to the to-do notes so the entire process as well as individual intermediate statuses become visible and clearer to all team members. You can even, for instance, assign different sticky note colors to individual team members when working on a joint project, enabling you to tell relatively quickly who is currently busy with which task, who might need support, and who’s got time to help.

Agile v. traditional project management

In project management, Kanban is one of the agile methods that have their roots in software development. Agile project management is characterized by an iterative, incremental approach. Iterative means that the project is split into chronological stages (iterations), with a fully functioning intermediate product produced at the end of each stage (product increment). This is then submitted to the client for inspection, and work continues on the product based on feedback. This methodology is based on the future vision of the product, which to begin with is not fully planned so it still leaves room for deviations. This allows a flexible or agile approach to be taken to new challenges and changing requirements, even during the course of the project.

Planning-based traditional project management is completely different to agile project management. Here, the project result is fixed from the beginning and the goal of all participants is to achieve this result by all means and to stick to the approved project plan. Often, the use of staff, the costs, or the timing have to be adjusted on the way to achieving the goal.

Traditional project management is characterized by the waterfall model. The project process is divided into successive phases and all partial results build on each other. This means that if a milestone is not completed on time, all subsequent milestones are delayed. Due to the very limited ability to make subsequent changes to the results of completed phases, only a limited degree of flexibility is available to adapt to changed requirements. This is problematic, especially for projects with long timescales as requirements and even general frameworks change repeatedly. Plus, the exhaustive process of documenting the processes and results adds to the workload, exacerbating it further. The project is often delayed and costs start to spiral.

It is therefore not surprising that in recent years even very conservative companies are increasingly questioning traditional methods. Agile project management methods allow for shorter product development cycles, risk-free changes and a stronger focus on current customer and market requirements in a rapidly changing world. That said, taking a purely agile approach with no planning, documentation, and checks doesn’t work either, especially if many stakeholders and a large project team are involved.

Hybrid project management

It’s best to decide which project management method works best depending on the team and project. Many companies now use different methods in parallel or let the individual teams themselves decide for themselves on their way of working. The reality is not just agile or traditional, but hybrid.

Hybrid project management is the combination of at least two project management systems where aspects of traditional project management are combined with agile project management approaches to leverage the advantages of both.

The traditional waterfall model, with its tightly organized structure, allows complex projects to be presented in a clear and precise manner. The fully pre-prepared project plan allows for a clear estimate of the budget, time, and labor needed to complete the project where requirements remain stable. The sequential approach of the waterfall model, which moves to the next phase only when one phase of the model is completed, is indispensable for many projects. To give an example, when building a house you can only start with creating the attic when work on the previous floors is completed.

Kanban, on the other hand, is well-suited to complex projects where simultaneous work needs to be controlled. The more comprehensive and complicated the project becomes, the more likely it is that the team will lose itself in countless little tasks without really making much progress. The Kanban board quickly shows when too many tasks are being worked on at once. In addition, bottlenecks are identifiable and they can be targeted to quickly alleviate the issue.

Another of Kanban’s strengths is that Work in Progress limits combined with the “pull” principle save teams from being overloaded. In doing so, detrimental multitasking is avoided as a team member can only move to a new task if he/she has not yet exceeded the Work in Progress limit. Kanban also sets out clearly that the individual team member is responsible for the quality within his or her role. Only when the team member is satisfied with the quality of his/her work does he/she take on a new task. This increases not only the quality of the individual team member’s work, but also the overall quality.

Agile Kanban also has the advantage in that the method is easy to implement in existing structures and does not revolutionize the overall organization. Kanban assumes a slow and gradual deployment strategy that starts with the current state and slowly and gradually improves it.

A combination of traditional waterfall model and agile Kanban is therefore particularly suited to very large projects with individual subprojects or work packages which, depending on their specific characteristics, call for the application of the appropriate method in each case.

Advantages of Kanban in Merlin Project

The project management software Merlin Project combines the traditional approach to managing large projects with the ease of the agile approach. Using a traditional Gantt chart you can create complex activity structures with dependencies between individual activities and groups, set the duration of individual activities, and define fixed milestones – all within minutes. This enables you to produce an accurate project plan quickly with a sound hierarchical structure.

If you want to create an agile workflow, you can use ready-made Kanban boards in Merlin Project or you can divide up your Kanban board to suit. You can even choose the card layout.

All you need to do is click to add a new card. This will then appear in the left-hand column. You then enter the to-do details directly into the card and simply drag & drop resources to assign them.

You document your project progress by moving the to-do cards into the next columns to the right. Every column has its own completion value. Once you drag & drop a to-do in the Kanban board into the Done column, the progress bar in your Gantt chart gets filled to 100% as well. The same goes for the other way around: The Kanban board cards move to the right if there is a change to the completion percentage of your to-dos in the Gantt view.

You can create any number of Kanban boards as personal views in Merlin Project. You can also define custom column sets including completion values, filters, and groups to meet your team members’ needs. This enables everyone to find their way around the project: Individual team members work in the simplest way on their respective tasks while you maintain the overview.

One aim of Kanban is to keep project complexity in check and to control the number of tasks being performed simultaneously so no bottlenecks arise. If you want, in Merlin Project you can set the minimum and maximum number of cards that are to appear in each column. Furthermore, an additional grouping creates »swimlanes« so you don’t lose the overview in large Kanban boards.

Project Management with a bit of Magic!

Merlin Project combines traditional methods with Kanban.