What is an agile kanban methodology?

Kanban is a methodology that stems from the Agile family. Davis J. Anderson described Kanban as a method for defining, managing, and improving services that deliver knowledge work, such as professional services, creative endeavors, and the design of both physical and software products. Kanban focuses on providing services by organising a team’s workload, and ensuring that employees have everything they need to meet customers’ expectations. 

The Kanban method was created by Taiichi Ohno; a Japanese engineer and businessman, and one of the Toyota Production System's fathers. This system was a precursor of "Lean manufacturing". While the Kanban method was used in the manufacturing industry, it was reforged and applied to Davis J. Anderson’s IT world. His book "Kanban: Successfully Evolutionary Change for your Technology Business", published in 2010, has been read widely to understand Kanban's role in the software development cycle. 

The main difference between Kanban and Scrum (agile methodology) is that it focuses not on small-short interactions, but on the extensive development cycle. Kanban is designed to continuously focus on smaller portions of work to deliver results faster, lowering the costs of projects, while maintaining their quality. 

The Kanban methodology is designed to improve the efficiency of the work process. Instead of interrupting the workflow, Kanban implements change as a step-by-step process. Kanban, therefore, triggers evolutionary change within a company.  

By adhering to the following principles and general practices of the Kanban methodology, the benefits of Kanban can be taken advantage of.  

Principles of the Kanban Method:

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

General Practices of the Kanban Method:

  1. Visualise (the work, workflow, and business risks)
  2. Limit Work-In-Progress
  3. Manage Flow
  4. Make Process Explicit
  5. Implement Feedback Loops
  6. Improve Collaboratively, Evolve Experimentally (using models & the scientific method).

How does the Kanban methodology work?

The Kanban goal is to visualise the work that needs to be done and organise the workload of each member of a team to effectively meet customer needs, and achieve business goals. 

The Kanban methodology is rooted in three key elements.

Kanban elements:

  • Kanban Board
  • Kanban Card
  • WIP (Work-In-progress limits)

The Kanban Board is a project management tool that creates and showcases the ideal team workflow necessary for a project to be achieved. It helps teams to visualise the work that needs to be done. 

To use physical Kanban boards, a team can create a board with columns, and use sticky notes to represent Kanban cards. In our company, we use a digital Kanban board, created using Jira software. This allows us to work with our team members which work from home, and those working in different offices, cities, and even countries around the world. 

There is a wide range of software options available for building digital Kanban boards which can be selected to suit a team’s unique needs and interests. 

Columns organise the Kanban board according to the different states of a task, such as Backlog, Analyze, Develop, Test, and Done. The name and number of columns in a Kanban board can be decided by the team themselves, or the Project Manager. It is important to create a Kanban board that suits you, your project, and your team. The main goal here is to track and manage your work items (Kanban cards) and their Flow (the way kanban cards travel through the Kanban board columns).

While working with the Kanban Board, the Product Manager uses the “pull system”. This allows them to pull tasks placed on the Kanban board to different columns, depending on the progress that has been made. This allows teams to keep track of their workflow, manage it, and use the WIP limits (we will discuss this in the next sections) to prevent productivity issues.

When it comes to the Kanban Board, there are five key elements:

  • Visual Signals (cards)
  • Columns (showing the workflow)
  • Commitment point (the point when a team start to work on the work item)
  • Delivery Point (the point when a team finish the work item)
  • Work-In-progress limits (limits on the number of Kanban cards in-progress)

A Kanban card can be represented by a sticky note or a digital card in Jira. A Kanban card is a work item, or if you are working in the agile methodology, you may think of it as a one-user story. It refers to a task that needs to be completed.

Any member of the development team can create a Kanban card. It should represent the client's need, and what needs to be done in a project. It should always provide value. Kanban cards should refer to a specific work item that can be completed in a short amount of time. This allows teams to continually work on and complete small parts of a project, and keep the flow moving forward. 

In the development environment (using Jira), it is possible to view and check the status of each kanban card, as well as the set-up title, description, and owner. 

Kanban was created to support teams to improve their workflow. It does this by removing bottlenecks and allowing teams to quickly pull tasks (kanban cards) from the “Backlog” to the “Done” columns.

If digital Kanban boards and cards are used, it is possible to take advantage of the statistical results those boards can reveal. For example: after each month, a team could check the average number of Kanban cards that are completed in a day. This helps teams to plan future work projects and helps project managers to more accurately estimate the time needed to complete different work items (Lead Times).  

WIP (work-in-progress) limits how many work items (kanban cards) a team needs to work on at any one time. The Kanban rule follows that the more items which can be done simultaneously, the faster a project can be delivered. 

By following this rule, more tasks will be completed, and teams will be protected from becoming overwhelmed with too much work.  

For each column, it is important to set a maximum number of tasks that need to be handled simultaneously. This number should be based on the resources a team has for a particular project (number of designers, developers, testers). In Jira or other digital KanBan Board software tools, there will be an option to set a different WIP for every column.

When is kanban methodology applicable?

Many factors should be taken into consideration if you are considering using Kanban to manage your project. Kanban might be the right solution for you in the following situations: 

  • In an environment where work items arrive unpredictably.
  • When your goal is to deploy a work item as soon as it is ready, rather than waiting for other work items to be completed.
  • In an environment where bottlenecks are an issue. Kanban will help to locate and terminate those bottlenecks.
  • When your team is too busy to interrupt their workflow. Kanban will not interfere with the current workflow but will influence a project in a step-by-step process. 
  • When a team is overwhelmed by the amount of work they need to do, and results are taking too long. The cost is high, and the results do not meet the customer’s standards. By using WIP and limiting the number of work items, you will deliver more results at a faster pace.

Of course, these are only some examples of when Kanban may be the right solution for you. There are many more since Kanba is such a flexible methodology. 

What are the benefits of kanban methodology? 

The Kanban methodology is designed to give teams the tools to visualise the work items that need to be done to complete a project, using a Kanban board and Kanban cards. The Kanban methodology has the potential to be a game-changer for your project. Here are the reasons why;

  • It helps to reduce bottlenecks by replacing tasks or reducing the need for multitasking. Limiting the number of work items that need to be completed simultaneously allows teams to work more efficiently. This enables teams to deliver faster and higher quality results. 
  • Kanban ensures that teams are always focused on the task at hand. When a team member finishes one-piece, they can move efficiently on to the next task from the backlog. This allows the Product Owner to plan their work by efficiently managing the backlog.
  • It allows you to introduce change to a workflow in an evolutionary process, instead of through shock waves. This is a non-disruptive way of improving the everyday working process. It provides a smooth transition to a more efficient way of working, providing the results you want.
  • Using the Kanban board, you know what you have already done and what you still need to do. Most importantly, you know when you are done, and when the project or task is complete.
  • It boosts productivity. A team can deliver a small part of the project, and see that their work is sufficient. When pieces of a project are moving forward, so is the project as a whole. Team members feel that they have accomplished something, even if it is a small task, and this drives them to achieve another goal. 

Is agile kanban methodology the right choice for you?

A vast number of companies use Kanban to achieve their goals, and this number is still growing. If you are considering implementing the Kanban methodology, you have to consider whether Kanban is the best way to achieve your goals. 

Every solution has its pros and cons. Here are some of them:

Pros:

  • Kanban has a manageable workflow, and it is easy to comply with (compared to the more structured Scrum).
  • If team members finish their work, they don't need to stay idle and wait. They are free to pick up another piece of work when they are ready.
  • Kanban is flexible and easily adjusts to your current working process. 

Cons:

  • Less ability to forecast (compared to Scrum).
  • Difficult to manage priorities
  • If the team is not concentrating on future tasks that need to be done, it may cause low productivity. If one group has finished their work, but the rest are still occupied, they may not be eager to pick up the next tasks.

How do we use Kanban methodology in Headchannel?

At Headchannel, we are always focusing on delivering the best quality, at a time frame to suit our client’s needs. Our actions are based on our Project Management team’s experience, which focuses on our client’s needs and goals. We use Kanban to meet those needs.   

If you are considering whether or not Kanban is a software development methodology that is right for you and your project, we hope this article will help you to answer that question.

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