What is Kanban and how does it relate to agility?


If you talk about agility with someone, or even if you use an "agile" work management tool, you will see the term Kanban recurrently. Kanban is a method that was born under a model of work and manufacturing process management called Toyota Production System (TPS).

What is the Toyota Production System?

The TPS is a production system based on the philosophy of achieving the complete elimination of all waste in pursuit of the most efficient methods. Toyota's vehicle production system is sometimes referred to as the "Toyota Production System" (TPS).just in time"(JIT), and has become well known and studied all over the world.

This production control system was established on the basis of many years of continuous improvement, with the goal of manufacturing the vehicles sold to customers in the fastest and most efficient manner. The Toyota Production System (TPS) was established on the basis of two concepts: "Toyota Production System" and "Toyota Production System".jidoka(which can be loosely translated as "automation with a human touch"), since when a problem occurs, the equipment stops immediately, preventing defective products from being produced; and the concept of "automation with a human touch" (which can be loosely translated as "automation with a human touch"), since when a problem occurs, the equipment stops immediately, preventing defective products from being produced.just in time"where each process produces only what is needed for the next in a continuous flow.

Based on the basic philosophies of jidoka and JIT, TPS can efficiently and quickly produce good quality vehicles, one at a time, that fully meet customer requirements.

Kanban and TPS

Taiichi Ohno was a Japanese engineer considered to be the father of the TPS. He joined Toyota in 1932 and in 1943 was assigned as a supervisor. In the course of his work he developed JIT and the "seven wastes" that are the basis of the Lean Manufacturing.

Diagram of three concentric circles depicting total net work, value-adding work, non-value-adding work, and movements as a relationship of subsets.
Own version adapted from original drawing in Toyota Production System; Beyond Large-Scale Production

The seven wastes of Lean manufacturing

In his book Toyota Production Systems; Beyond Large-Scale ProductionOhno describes the seven types of waste:

  1. Overproduction, producing more than what is needed
  2. Waiting time
  3. Transport, mobilization of material and by-products
  4. Excessive processing time - not adding value
  5. Inventory
  6. Motion - non-value adding activities within a production line
  7. Defective development of parts or products

Cards: The Importance of Visualizing the Workflow in Kanban

Image of an original Kanban card - taken from the book Toyota Production System by Taiichi Ohno
Source: Toyota Production System; Beyond Large-Scale Production - Taiichi Ohno

The goal of TPS and JIT is ultimately to improve workflow - from request to delivery of the result. So how simple is it to track work - in an era before today's ubiquitous computing. There arises a system of visualizing work through cards - pieces of paper with information about the process in progress - which, arranged in a particular way in a space - now known as a board - gives a sense of the "current state".

The operating system of TPS is Kanban. Its most common form of use is a piece of paper inside a vinyl envelope. This piece of paper contains information that can be divided into three categories: (1) collection information, (2) transfer information and, (3) production information.....

Taiichi Ohno, Toyota Production System; Beyond Large-Scale Production

Kanban is the operating system of Lean manufacturing.

I love this definition, because Kanban is nothing else than the systematization of information flow - systematization before computation. This means that - in essence - Kanban is the representation of a workflow - preferably optimized under Lean thinking.

Kanban, Agility and Scrum

But why is Kanban so important for agility? Here I tell you why.

Kanban is a simple communication system

If Kanban was designed before the ubiquitous computing era, and it was very successful. Why wouldn't it work now when most agile models promote similar values to Lean manufacturing.

However, Kanban and Lean are not "agile"Agile thinking if it is a direct descendant of Lean - this might generate some discomfort, but academically speaking they share many similarities.

Yes Scrum promotes work in small groups - teams, simplifying communication and coordination becomes possible without much effort or bureaucracy with Kanban.

Kanban promotes fine tuning and continuous improvement

Visualize the work, that is, answer the question simply and quickly. where are we as a team? also allows to identify bottlenecks or bad practices in the allocation and transfer of activities along the flow.

Just by looking at the dashboard it is possible to identify if we have too many tasks started (in progress) or if, for example, one person has more load than another. It is possible to determine flow steps that represent a bottleneck or if we should better restructure the responsibilities of the team. In this way, Kanban promotes process analysis.

Kanban plays well with Scrum

The rise of Kanban is partly thanks to the rise of Scrum - at least as far as the agile world is concerned. If Kanban is a simple and effective way to look at flow, Scrum iterations (Sprints) make it even more useful. Here are some of the reasons why Scrum and Kanban get along so well.

Sprint Backlog simplifies dashboard building

The Sprint backlog limits the "work to be done" or "work to be done".to do". The goal of the Sprint roadmap is, in part, to complete as many tasks as possible that contribute to meeting the Sprint goal. Building a Kanban board for a Scrum Team is simple for a Sprint.

Daily Scrum meeting flows better with a dashboard

Having information on assignments and the status of tasks and work is very helpful in improving the flow of the daily meeting.

Diagrams are easier to make with Kanban

Not only is it easier to create a burndown or burnup diagram or a CFD, it's also easier to understand what it means when you have a dashboard. While the dashboard communicates what your team is up to, the diagrams help you understand "how" your team is doing. A good combination will help you keep the team more aligned.

The 4 fundamental principles of Kanban

Start with what you do right now

To use Kanban you should not change your work - the process. Kanban invites you to use the system on the current process in order to find opportunities for improvement.

Agree to pursue small incremental and evolutionary improvements.

Kanban is useful for finding bottlenecks and decisions in defining work processes that affect efficiency and flow - the amount of profit or business value that leaves the system. So identifying small changes and incorporating them (fine tuning) will help you improve without as much resistance.

Initially, respect current roles, responsibilities and positions.

The "Kanban" tool will help you to evolve over time. You can't start from the assumption that everything existing is wrong. Kanban takes a respectful approach to the current organizational structure and, through small evolutionary improvements,

Encourage acts of leadership at all levels.

While leadership is traditionally expected to happen at the top of the organization - or so many in traditional organizations assume, Kanban promotes that ideas and actions can emerge anywhere and in any position. Leadership is a position or role that is assumed in a certain circumstance, and therefore, it is not like a position. Kanban knows this and promotes leadership at all levels.

Steps for Implementing KANBAN

Implementing Kanban with your team is a simple process. Just follow these steps:

Agree with your team on the use of Kanban

Kanban makes work and assignments transparent. Does everyone on your team want to be transparent? There are circumstances and organizations where this simple idea may not be well received. So before you start, validate with the team and define working agreements.

Identifies the workflow between all

Now that everyone on the team is on the same page, it's time to identify the current workflow. What are the steps - at a general level - that must be followed to complete the work assigned to the team?

You have to be pragmatic, it's not about identifying every single step and exception path in the flow. The idea is to find a way to categorize the status of an assignment or team task. If it's too complex, remember that you can always fall back on the simpler three-column model.

Example image of a generic three-column Kanban board

Keep it simple, at least in the beginning

Personally, I'm a fan of keeping things as simple as possible. However, some teams feel comfortable including a lot of information or detail on their dashboards. No problem, just make sure that no matter the level of detail, the team keeps the dashboard up to date - and it's useful for them to do so.

Discusses methodological findings with the team on a regular basis

You now have clarity about the flow. Discuss regularly - for example, once a month - whether you identify bottlenecks or steps in the flow that could be added or removed. Are cards piling up in a column? Are we scheduling too many tasks in the to-do column? How often should we clean up or remove cards in the completed column? How often should we include new cards?

It's all at the team's discretion. Of course, if you're under the Scrum model, some of those questions are already answered.

Include metrics and graphs to help the team drill down

Avoid measuring for the sake of measuring. Measure what matters and what brings value to the team. Cycle time or time spent, defect rate, creating a burnup or burndown, or a CFD can help improve team management - and if it's self-organized, all the better!

Use the simplest and most powerful tool

While there are thousands of tools on the market, choose one that is simple to use, appeals to your team, and allows you to grow with them. If your team wants to make the process more complex or include more information, or even use the dashboard as a requirements management mechanism or a backlog, the tool should be an enabler and not a problem.

I hope you have learned about Kanban and that with this article you take your first firm steps in adopting one of the most popular practices in the "agile world".


Alberto Dominguez
Alberto Dominguez

Leading teams from theory to real and sustainable delivery of innovative IT products and services.

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