What Is Kanban?

Kanban is Japanese for “visual sign” or “card.” It is a visual framework used to implement Agile that shows what to produce, when to produce it, and how much to produce. It encourages small, incremental changes to your current system and does not require a certain set up or procedure (meaning, you could overlay Kanban on top of other existing workflows).

Kanban was inspired by the Toyota Production System and Lean Manufacturing. In the 1940s, Toyota improved its engineering process by modelling it after how supermarkets stock shelves. Engineer Taiichi Ohno noticed that supermarkets stock just enough products to meet demand, optimizing the flow between the supermarket and customer. Inventory would only be restocked when there was empty space on the shelf (a visual cue). And because inventory matched consumption, the supermarket improved efficiency in inventory management.

These same ideas apply to software teams and IT projects today. In this context, development work-in-progress (WIP) takes the place of inventory, and new work can only be added when there is an “empty space” on the team’s visual Kanban board (See example). Kanban matches the amount of WIP to the team’s capacity, improving flexibility, transparency, and output. According to the Kanban blog, “Kanban is a technique for managing a software development process in a highly efficient way. Kanban underpins Toyota’s ‘just-in-time’ (JIT) product system. Although producing software is a creative activity and therefore different to mass-producing cars, the underlying mechanism for managing the production line can still be applied.” When looking at Kanban vs Agile, it’s important to remember that Kanban is one flavour of Agile. It’s one of many frameworks used to implement Agile software development.

The Kanban Board
A Kanban board is a tool to implement the Kanban method for projects. You can see an example of such a board attached. Traditionally, this tool has been a physical board, with magnets, plastic chips, or sticky notes on a whiteboard to represent work items. However, in recent years, more and more project management software tools have created online Kanban boards. A Kanban board, whether it is physical or online, is made up of different swim lanes or columns. The simplest boards have three columns: to do, in progress, and done. The columns for a software development project may consist of backlog, ready, coding, testing, approval, and done columns.

Kanban cards (like sticky notes) represent the work and each card is placed on the board in the lane that represents the status of that work. These cards communicate status at a glance. You could also use different colour cards to represent different details. For example, green cards could represent a feature and orange cards could represent a task.