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Quick Definition

Kanban, a Japanese term meaning billboard or signage, is a lean manufacturing method of managing and improving workflow across human production. A Kanan approach aims to add value for the customer without increasing costs to the producer. This is accomplished by visualizing the processes to balance demands with available capacity and avoiding bottlenecks and idle time within the system.

What is Kanban?

Kanban, a term originating from the Japanese word for "visual signal," is a highly effective workflow management method with deep roots in manufacturing and project management, notably championed by Toyota. It has since found widespread application in various fields, including software development and Agile project management, owing to its emphasis on lean principles, continuous improvement, and real-time visibility into the flow of work.

The core principle of Kanban revolves around the visual representation of work items and their progression through different stages of a workflow. This visualization is typically done using a Kanban board, which can take various forms, such as a physical whiteboard covered in sticky notes or a digital tool like Microsoft Kanban. Regardless of the medium, the Kanban board serves as a real-time visual signal of the amount of work and work in progress, helping teams and stakeholders to understand the status of ongoing work at a glance.

In the context of manufacturing processes, Kanban originally used physical Kanban cards as a visual signal to authorize the production or movement of parts or materials. This system, developed by Taiichi Ohno in the late 1940s at Toyota, became a cornerstone of Lean manufacturing and just-in-time (JIT) production. It allowed for the efficient management of inventory levels, minimizing waste and bottlenecks in the production process.

In modern Kanban methodologies, such as those applied in DevOps and software development teams, the focus has shifted towards managing the flow of work in a pull system. Work items are represented as cards on a Kanban board, and team members pull work from the "To Do" column when they have capacity, thereby limiting work in progress (WIP). WIP limits or progress limits are crucial to prevent overburdening the team and to ensure efficient throughput, and the work moves smoothly through the workflow.

One of the key benefits of Kanban is its adaptability to various domains, making it compatible with Agile frameworks like Scrum. The combination of Scrum and Kanban, often referred to as "Scrumban," allows teams to leverage the iterative and time-boxed nature of Scrum sprints while using Kanban's WIP limits and continuous improvement practices to enhance workflow efficiency.

The Kanban method also introduces the concept of swimlanes on the Kanban board, which can represent different work types, teams, or projects. This visual segmentation enhances clarity and facilitates the management of multiple streams of work.

A crucial aspect of Kanban is the measurement and management of cycle time and lead time. Cycle time represents the time it takes for a single work item to progress from start to finish, while lead time encompasses the entire duration from the moment a work item is requested until it is completed. By tracking these metrics, teams can identify bottlenecks and improve the flow of work, leading to shorter lead times and faster delivery of functionality to stakeholders.

Kanban encourages the use of feedback loops to continuously improve the workflow. Regular retrospectives and metrics analysis allow teams to identify areas where adjustments can be made to optimize the process.

Implementing Kanban involves setting up a Kanban system that aligns with the team's work management needs. This system often begins with defining a backlog of work items, which are then prioritized based on business value and stakeholder needs. Work items are pulled from the backlog into the "To Do" column, and as team members complete them, they move through various stages until they reach "Done."

In the context of Agile project management, the roles of Product Owner and Scrum Master are often retained, with the Product Owner responsible for prioritizing the backlog and the Scrum Master facilitating the team's work. However, the principles of Kanban promote evolutionary change, allowing teams to adapt their process over time to better suit their needs and deliver greater value to stakeholders.

In conclusion, Kanban is a powerful and adaptable methodology for workflow management and project management that emphasizes lean principles, just-in-time production, and continuous improvement. Its origins in manufacturing, particularly at Toyota, have paved the way for its application in various domains, including software development and Agile project management. By visualizing work, limiting work in progress, and continuously optimizing the flow of work, Kanban helps teams and organizations achieve higher levels of efficiency, responsiveness, and customer satisfaction. Its real-time visibility and feedback mechanisms make it a valuable tool for modern, fast-paced environments where the timely delivery of high-quality work is paramount.