Kanban Method

An overview of the Kanban Method


Kanban is a scheduling system for just-in-time (JIT) Lean manufacturing. It originated at Toyota. Kanban is a Japanese word (kan - visual signal, ban - card or board) that literally translates to “signboard” or “card”.

It is a pull-system where work is pulled from a queue. As the team finishes a work item, it pulls the next item from the queue. The pull-based system provides for continuous flow of work and value delivery to the customer. It does not prescribe time-boxed iterations. However, teams using the Scrum framework often use Kanban within their time-boxed Sprints to track the work on the Sprint backlog.

The on-demand, pull-based scheduling works well when work can be divided into relatively equal amounts, but does not work well with activities that have complex dependency relationships.

Download and read the free Kanban Guide for Scrum Teams to learn how Scrum teams use Kanban.

The Kanban Method is less prescriptive compared to other approaches such as Scrum or XP. It is based on the “start-where-you-are” approach and encourages small incremental and evolutionary improvements.

Little’s Law

The more things that you work on at any given time, the longer it is going to take for each of those things to finish.

One of the agile principles states “Working software is the primary measure of progress”. In agile, partially completed work is not counted toward progress.

In the Kanban Method, it is more important to complete work than to start new work. Therefore, it usually imposes a work in process (WIP) limit so that teams can focus on completing work in process before starting new work.

The Kanban Method is explained in detail in the Agile Practice Guide, 2017, Annex A3.4. Please read that section of the guide.

Kanban Board

Kanban Board Example Image credit: Dr ian mitchell, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

A few key points about the Kanban board:

  • Commonly used in tool for tracking work progress in agile projects
  • One of the most powerful information radiators employed on agile projects
  • Cards represent work items on a Kanban Board
  • Columns represent each stage of the process
  • Cards move from left to right (columns)
  • Provides clear insight to workflow, bottlenecks, blockers, and overall status
  • Simple, yet highly powerful
  • Considered high-touch low-tech
  • Virtual teams can use software-based Kanban board to track their work

Four Principles of Kanban

  1. Start with what you do now
  2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change
  3. Respect the current process, roles & responsibilities
  4. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels

Six Practices of Kanban

  1. Visualize the workflow
  2. Limit work in progress
  3. Manage flow
  4. Make process policies explicit
  5. Implement feedback loops
  6. Improve collaboratively

Please read What is Kanban to learn more about the Kanban principles and practices.

Last updated: January 15, 2024