Following on from the recent series, Choosing between agile and waterfall project management, this post is going to explore the Kanban process and how it can be used for project management.
Originating in Japan with Toyota’s “just-in-time” production system, Kanban translates to “billboard” in English. It is a scheduling system for production which is controlled by the use of an instruction card which is directed along the production line.
What it is Kanban
Kanban is a leading methodology which aims to make processes more effective and teams more productive by removing wasteful work, inconsistences and unreasonable requirements. It aims to do as much as possible in the shortest amount of time.
Generally used in lean manufacturing, Kanban is also a useful methodology to use in agile projects to prioritise the back log of tasks.
The visual aspect of this methodology is expressed using Kanban Boards. They show the individual tasks that are being undertaken in order of priority and delivery and are either integrated into project management software or used as stand-alone tools. The board is split into three sections
- To do
Each task is represented by a Kanban card which holds data relevant to that particular task. The cards are colour-coded to indicate the task type and are added to the board in the relevant section according to the task’s current status.
How it helps
When working on a project you will often need to strategise and execute. Lots of time is spent on establishing the project and deciding what the goals will be, however getting started can be difficult. There is an increasing pressure to get the project done, but the way in which it’s done is crucial.
Kanban is a simple methodology to use and creates a workflow that is both visual and transparent to all team members. It is clear at all times what each member of the team is working on, meaning that you won’t exceed your team’s capacity.
Kanban cards offer a simple and quick understanding of each task and the recording of information enables a smooth hand-off within the team. Future workflow is aided by detailing metric information on each card.
Kanban is versatile, and as such spans industries and job roles, meaning that it can be used right across your company.
The visual aspect of Kanban means that progress is simple to monitor and review. This means that changes can be made easily if waste is identified.
The “just-in-time” delivery origin means that inventory can be matched with demand, enabling more agile responses to business needs.
As WIP is limited, the team is encouraged to work collaboratively to complete tasks, increasing focus and reducing the risk of distractions, such as multi-tasking.
Ownership and responsibility of the process is shared amongst the whole team, allowing innovative and efficient decisions.
The focus on continuous improvement and quality control throughout the process reduces the number of errors and means less rework. The product will therefore be more accurate.
Kanban board misuse
You must ensure that the tasks on the Kanban board are kept up-to-date to ensure that the process continues to flow smoothly with no backlog of tasks.
The Kanban board can be as complicated as you make it, so keep it simple and avoid overcomplication.
The continuous shift of tasks on the Kanban board mean that predicting timelines of completion becomes difficult. This is due to the pull production system.
Unsuitable for dynamic projects
Kanban assumes that the project is somewhat stable and consistent, meaning that it is ineffective in industries where projects aren’t static.
If one card becomes blocked, due to a lack of action on another card then the process may become stuck. The emphasis on cards in this process makes scheduling difficult and presents a greater risk than other methodologies
Steps of process
There are four main steps in the Kanban process.
Visualising the workflow
Firstly, you will need to break your workflow down into steps from the beginning of the process to the end and devise a column for each step. This is referred to as a Kanban board.
Tasks are detailed on a Kanban card and are allocated to a column on the board, moving from left to right through the process until it has been completed and leaves the workflow.
Traditionally this process was done using a whiteboard and sticky notes, however nowadays this is integrated into project management software or available via stand-alone tools.
Limit the work in progress
To ensure a smooth workflow and eliminate waste, you must remember that it’s impossible to do everything at once. A limit should be placed on the work in progress (WIP) to maintain the flow, with tasks to be completed queued until there is WIP capacity.
When different teams are working together, it is inevitable that there will be some level of friction. One team may be outperforming the other team and pushing more tasks through the process than the receiving team can handle.
To remedy this, a pull system should be implemented, whereby the receiving team pulls work through the process only when they have the WIP capacity available. The pull system will create a limited capacity buffer between each team where tasks will be stored.
Establishing a cumulative flow chart will enable you to measure Kanban performance during current and past performance and predict future results. Enter the number of tasks in each column into the chart every day to create the chart.
Kanban is simple and effective, and most importantly, it works. It is a great methodology to use if you have many incoming tasks that vary in size and priority as it enables you to go with the flow rather than being fixed with a more rigid methodology. It’s loose structure however is inappropriate if you require a more prescriptive approach, and whilst it’s linear fashion is effective for manufacturing work, it may not work as well for more complex product development.
A really good book that brings the Kanban process to life is The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and Geirge Spatford.
While a fictional account, the writers clearly have a very good understanding on how IT operations and projects work. Some great fictional case studies play out in the chapters with some very good ideas on what you can do if you face a similar situation.