Part 3: Agile techniques and methods at a glance: Kanban

The term Kanban comes from Japanese and consists of the words "Kan" for visualization and "Ban" for card, document or board. The best-known Kanban element is probably the Kanban board.

Ing. Oliver Dragoun zPM, PcE

Ing. Oliver Dragoun zPM, PcE

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Kanban is a working method that evolved from the Toyota production system when Toyota introduced just-in-time production in the 1940s to better meet customer demands and reduce storage costs.

The term Kanban comes from Japanese and consists of the words "Kan" for visualization and "Ban" for card, document or board. The best-known Kanban element is probably the Kanban board: In its simplest form, it consists of the 3 columns "To-do", "Doing" and "Done" representing the workflow (see figure 1). If the Kanban board is used correctly, it serves to quickly forward information to adjacent production areas or development teams and thus represents an important information node that visualizes bottlenecks or difficulties in the workflow.

Figure 1: Kanban-Board Abb. 1: Kanban board

If the Kanban board is used correctly, it serves to quickly forward information to adjacent production areas or development teams and thus represents an important information node that makes bottlenecks or difficulties in the workflow visible.

But Kanban is more than the described Kanban board. Originally conceived as a method for decentralized, flexible control of production processes, Kanban has established itself as a method for agile process management with the goal of making workflows more flexible, optimizing the workflow and ultimately increasing the quality and productivity of the end product. The Kanban system is based on the following 4 basic principles:

  1. Start with what you are doing now: Kanban can be placed over any existing workflow or process. So, it is easy to implement in every company, because no comprehensive changes are necessary to get started.

  2. Strive for incremental, evolutionary changes: Kanban with minimal resistance contributes to continuous, incremental and evolutionary changes in the current process by avoiding major changes that cause anxiety or insecurity and thus meet resistance.

  3. Consider current processes, roles and responsibilities: Kanban considers the possible value of existing processes, roles, responsibilities and reflects on keeping them, since changes are as little prescribed as forbidden. Rather, incremental changes that do not trigger fears hindering progress are encouraged.

  4. Facilitate leadership at all levels: This is the latest Kanban principle. It says that improvement can only work if employees at all levels are actively committed to improving processes. Not only the management level, but everyone involved must indeed accept and implement continuous improvement (Kaizen), so that optimal performance is also established in the team, department and company-wide.

The aim of Kanban is to generate a smooth workflow.

But how is Kanban used now? The following 6 steps will help you with your first successful use of Kanban:

  1. Visualization of the process: In order to make changes or optimizations, you first need to understand the current process. Visualization using the Kanban board is ideal for this. On the one hand, the process steps are visualized by columns, and, on the other hand, all work elements are visualized by Kanban cards. By moving the cards from "Requested/To-do" to "In Process/Doing" and "Completed/Done" you can easily recognize the progress and identify possible problems or bottlenecks.

  2. Limitation of the current work in progress: Multitasking or repeated switching between tasks can affect the workflow, as the throughput times increase with the number of tasks started. For this reason, work-in-progress (WIP) limits are introduced in this step, i.e. the number of jobs performed simultaneously at one station is limited. A new job can only be accepted if capacity is available. This "pull system" creates a workflow and any bottlenecks become immediately apparent.

  3. Workflow control: The aim of Kanban is to generate a smooth workflow. This means, on the one hand, a maximum throughput speed and, on the other hand, a throughput without significant friction losses. The ideal is a fast and smooth workflow.

  4. Common view on process guidelines: In order to improve the process, it is necessary to understand it in its entirety. Here it helps to discuss the process with everybody concerned and to create a common point of view. This is the only way to achieve the necessary acceptance and commitment of everyone affected. This is the important breeding ground for supporting positive changes.

  5. Get feedback: For positive changes and knowledge transfer to happen, regular exchange is also necessary. Similar to Scrum, a daily stand-up meeting can be used here. This is held before the Kanban board, and all members tell the others what they did the day before and what they do today.

  6. Improve cooperation: The way to continuous improvement and sustainable change within a company is paved by a common understanding of the problems to be overcome. Teams that share a common understanding of work, workflows, processes... are more likely to suggest improvement measures that can be better supported by the group.

As mentioned at the beginning, the system comes from the Toyota production system, which is why this agile method is particularly suitable for the handling of processes. As with all agile approaches, however, openness towards the method of everyone involved is a prerequisite for its successful use.

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Relevant Project Management Terms

Agile Project Management  

Agile project management is a collective term for different project management methods mainly originating from software development. Mostly they follow an iterative process, which means that the project is not planned and executed completely, but tasks and requirements are continuously rewritten allowing a more dynamic and flexible project management. Well-known agile project management methods include Kanban and Scrum.

Kanban Board  

Originally developed to support the production process, the kanban board often has three columns: "Open", "In progress" and "Completed". Work elements are usually represented as rectangles (physically, e.g. with sticky notes) and are located in the corresponding areas depending on their status. If the status of the work element has changed, it is moved to the corresponding area.

Scrum  

Scrum is an agile project management method, which is mainly used in software development. Scrum consists of a few rules that describe the so-called Core. The basic idea is that a project is not planned from start to finish, but development is iterative with short feedback loops, the so-called Sprints.

Glossary