What is kanban?

By definition, kanban is an approach to incremental process and systems change for organizations. It is also defined as a technique for managing software development processes in a highly efficient way.

In layman’s terms, we can say that kanban is a way to uncover workflow problems and inconsistencies, allowing organizations to solve them and deliver more consistent results to their internal and external customers.

The most simple representation of a kanban board is this one: a white board with a ton of post-its separated into three columns: to-do (backlog), doing (tasks being done at the moment), done (finished tasks).

It can also be described as a way to organize the chaos that surrounds execution teams. It does that by making the need for prioritization and focus clear.

Kanban was originally formulated by David J. Anderson and it underpins “just-in-time” (JIT) production system.

How does kanban work?

It helps improve your team’s efficiency by reducing idle time. Using kanban to manage activities allows managers to keep close track of all steps of the process and identify if there are any points causing activities to pile up or even stop completely (those points are called bottlenecks, by the way).

You can begin implementing kanban to manage your (and your team’s) activities using the following steps:

Visualize your current workflow

Map the process you currently use to deliver your product or service on a visual control board. You can choose to draw it on a piece of paper or use specific software to do so.

Don’t forget, begin by defining your input and output as well as the simplified steps you take to get from point A to point B. One of the most common mistakes at this point is focusing too much on detail: this step is about seeing the big picture.

Apply work-in-progress (WIP) limits

According to this definition:

A WIP (work in progress) limit is a strategy for preventing bottlenecks in software development.

Simply put, setting up a work in progress limit means establishing how many tasks can be at each phase of your process at the same time. It focuses on respecting your process’ limits (people, infrastructure, etc.) and preventing bottlenecks on all types of processes (not only software development).

Measure and manage

Once you’ve mapped your process and established its WIP limits, it’s time to keep close track of it. It won’t be worth much if you create the best process in the world on paper but your team doesn’t follow it.

Measuring your workflows closely allow you to apply continuous improvement to it focused both on the quality of your deliveries as well as the efficiency.

Optimize iteratively with data

As we’ve mentioned on the previous step, keeping close track of your process’ metrics is essential for continuously improving it. Be careful, though, every time you’re considering making any changes to the board you must analyze all possible impacts this change may bring.

This is all made easier if you do it using Pipefy, an easy to use, intuitive Kanban tool.

This is what a simple (yet colorful) workflow looks like on Pipefy:

The benefits of using kanban

Improvement in production

Kanban drives down the production costs by reducing waste and improving production flow. Kanban helps scheduling tasks and sprints according to the core elements inherited from JIT manufacturing strategies. These benefits can be seen as:

  • Smoother/seamless workflows;
  • Better inventory management;
  • Elimination of over production;
  • Flexibility;
  • Increased efficiency;
  • Team members’ ability to focus;

Responsiveness to demand

The manufacturing process is not just about a series of calculations to determine lead time, changeover and downtime for equipment and the mechanics of production to derive a production schedule that is efficient.

Manufacturing is driven by customer demand which can increase or decrease according to predictable or sporadic, seasonal or non-seasonal events. Long story short, even if your demand variation seems predictable it most likely isn’t.

Kanban helps improve the responsiveness to such changes in demand.

Empowerment

Kanban puts the control of the operations in the hands of the operators, since they’re in the best position for overseeing production. They have a pulse on the real-time flow of the work and knowledge about the daily operations.

Also, shifting accountability for monitoring the daily runs frees up the time of managers to focus on long term planning needs. Empowerment generates dedication and enthusiasm, lowers absenteeism, increases mutual respect among employees, and increases productivity.

Self-discipline and quality control

Kanban states that big tasks and goals should always be broken down into smaller, achievable tasks. By doing so, it promotes an environment focused on quality improvement. Working with less things at a time makes it a lot easier to pinpoint quality control issues directly at their source.

By eliminating excess inventory, kanban unmasks quality problems that otherwise could remain undetected for long periods of time. The system shifts workers’ focus to teamwork and quality improvement through empowerment and self-discipline.

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Written by Alessio Alionço, Tech Entrepreneur | 5+ Years Product Management | Founder & CEO of Pipefy, founder of Acessozero (acquired) | An addicted on technology, books and sports.