Kanban — a complete beginner’s guide

A professional team collaborating on a kanban board

Project management has always been a deeply nuanced practice. It can take a lot of organization, communication, and active management to keep a team aligned and on track.

Lots of teams have been moving to remote or hybrid work environments over the past few years, making project management even more complicated. At the same time, the move has also inspired many leadership teams to put new emphasis on project visibility and efficiency — complicating project management even more.

Kanban can help streamline project management and is especially popular with software development teams for that reason. Whether you're just getting started or brushing up on your kanban knowledge, this post will tell you all you need to know. Read on to learn more about what kanban is, where it started, how it works, and why kanban is critical to maintaining balance and agility in your organization.

Table of contents

What is kanban?

Kanban is an approach to project management that breaks down the steps of a repetitive process into clear stages. Within the kanban framework, tasks visually move through various stages of progress on a communal kanban board. Whenever a team member looks at the board, they have full visibility into the status of every piece of work.

Example of a kanban board with sticky notes

The goal of kanban is to identify potential bottlenecks early and to get team members aligned at every stage of the process. Kanban enables teams to fix issues quickly and operate cost effectively. Kanban is most often associated with software development, but the kanban methodology can be applied to virtually any type of work that follows a repeatable process

Callout to The Advanced Guide to Agile Marketing

The origins of kanban

Kanban is prominent among DevOps and software teams, but the framework originated in the late 1940s. While working at Toyota, Taiichi Ohno noticed that he and his colleagues had trouble sticking to a plan that impacted inventory management and productivity. So he set out to develop a way to avoid supply disruption, encourage efficiency, and reduce the chances of overstocking goods.

It was a complicated problem to solve, and the solution had to be simple and transparent. The result was “kanban,” a Japanese term that roughly translates to "visual board." Ohno had three columns on the kanban board: “to do,” “doing,” and “done.” Within those columns, he added cards representing the tasks required for car production. Each column had a defined threshold, and workers couldn’t take on a new card without first finishing the ones they were currently working on.

Every day, the team would review the board and add, move, or remove cards depending on priority and capacity, noting and eliminating any consistent bottlenecks in the production process.

Ohno unknowingly became a pioneer of just-in-time manufacturing by matching production directly to demand. By not doing too much or too little, kanban decreases waste, improves efficiency, and increases throughput.

Kanban in IT and software

Onho’s implementation of kanban caused Toyota sales to skyrocket, and the company is still considered a premier auto manufacturer today. Ohno’s work inspired engineer David Anderson to adapt kanban to software development. After applying kanban to his work at Corbis and Microsoft, he published a book called Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business. And today, many software development teams still use kanban to manage their everyday work.

Kanban is popular in the IT industry because it focuses on incremental improvement. When teams are working on large-scale deliverables, it’s impossible to get everything done within scope and on time without checking in on progress every day. The kanban framework enables teams to break big chunks of work into smaller, more manageable pieces and watch their tasks move through the workflow. At the same time, they can easily catch blockers as they arise — instead of at the very end of a project.

What is a kanban board?

A kanban board is a project management tool that visualizes a work process by using columns to represent each step and movable cards that represent the work itself. Kanban boards can be digital or physical.

Example of a digital kanban board

The columns on a kanban board are flexible. A basic kanban board might only have three — to do, doing, and done — but many have multiple columns such as “requested,” "backlog,” “analyzing,” “developing,” “testing,” and “done.” Any recurring set of steps or project stages can become columns on a kanban board.

Teams typically meet every day to review the kanban board, which increases transparency among team members and upper management. This also helps teams understand how much work they can reasonably take on at any given time, which informs their work-in-progress limits.

What is a kanban card?

A kanban card is a small card — a physical card, a sticky note, or a digital box — that represents a piece of work that needs to get done. Kanban cards are placed on a kanban board to allow team members to visually monitor their progress.

Some teams track specific key performance indicators related to their work items, so they may list several fields on each card — such as the person requesting the task, the task’s due date, and the task’s assignee. Cards may also contain a brief description of the work, links or attachments to supporting documentation, or comments sections to facilitate collaboration.

Example of a kanban card highlighted on a kanban board

The benefits of kanban

Kanban offers several advantages for teams of all sizes and in all industries. It started in manufacturing and is a favorite for software developers today, but kanban offers clear, distinct benefits for small sales teams, enterprise HR departments, marketers, and everyone in between.

Faster cycle times

Cycle time is the total elapsed time from when a team member starts a task to when the task is completed. Average cycle time is often a key metric for kanban teams because it helps determine how efficiently they are working.

Analyzing cycle times can enable project managers to identify bottlenecks and figure out who can jump in to resolve them. Within the kanban framework, team members are expected to help each other complete work. And because kanban boards make it easy to see who is doing what work, project managers can easily find out who has shared skillsets and can contribute if work gets behind schedule.

Alignment between business goals and execution

New cards aren’t added to the kanban backlog unless they are in line with a company’s core strategy. Once a card is in the backlog, it’s prioritized in order of importance. This ensures the highest priority cards are pulled into the board next — meaning that teams are only working on the most mission-critical tasks.

Planning flexibility

If a piece of work needs to be reprioritized, it can be moved from the backlog into the flow as soon as the team reviews the kanban board. The flexibility kanban provides can help project managers keep up with business and customer demands without disrupting their team’s workflow.

Improved customer satisfaction

As project managers strive for lower cycle times, they inherently boost their team’s output 一 but not at the expense of quality. Kanban boards delineate the steps required to test and check the work, guaranteeing that the outcome is up to par. Customers get better designed features in less time, leading to increased customer satisfaction overall.

Enhanced predictability

When you’re constantly reviewing a team’s progress, it gets easier to forecast how long projects will take. Project managers learn how to allocate resources appropriately, reduce needless tasks, and streamline their team’s workload in a way that enhances predictability and assists other teams in their planning efforts.

6 core practices of the kanban method

Engineer David Anderson outlines six best practices to empower teams to reap all the benefits of the kanban method. While these are targeted toward software teams, they apply to all kanban teams.

1. Visualizing the workflow

A public kanban board provides a clear visualization of a team's workflow. This helps team members envision how they are contributing to an end goal because they can see what work lies ahead. Keeping your kanban board up to date and revisiting it daily promotes transparency within the team, encourages them to bring up risks, and helps them feel like their work is making a difference.

2. Limiting work in progress

Kanban allows project managers to easily evaluate whether there are enough or too many cards on the board, providing a deeper understanding of resource skills and availability. Reviewing the kanban board every day gives project managers and team members a chance to assess their workload so the team never has too much or too little to do.

A team reviewing a kanban board

3. Managing flow

In the context of kanban, “flow” refers to how work moves through each stage of the board. When going over the kanban board each day, project managers should aim to strike a balance between speed and risk. Managing flow helps teams establish their work-in-progress limits and brings blockers and bottlenecks to light — helping teams work more efficiently.

4. Making process policies explicit

Kanban boards clarify who is doing what, how issues should be raised, and when tasks are due. By making policies explicit, project managers can prevent emotion from entering the decision-making process and focus on delivering great work.

5. Feedback loops

Continuous improvement is key to staying agile. Developers and project managers should learn from the feedback they receive during daily meetings or conversations with stakeholders to deliver even better products the next time around.

6. Improving through collaboration

Kanban is a very team-centric methodology. Every employee should provide pointers, constructive criticism, and extra help when necessary. But this only works when everyone operates under the same principles and tackles problems the same way. Sharing information and combining skillsets can help teams accomplish more in a shorter period of time.

Kanban principles

In his book, Anderson outlines kanban principles. These principles break down into two categories: change management and service delivery.

Change management principles

Implementing kanban isn’t a walk in the park — especially for teams accustomed to other project management strategies. When introducing kanban in your organization, it’s important to emphasize three change management principles.

Start with what you know

Objectives that are too vague or too lofty are tough to track and even harder to fulfill. Kanban encourages teams to evaluate their capacity, ability, and availability — and only then add on clear, concise tasks as needed. This measured approach helps you grow sustainably, making progress toward goals every day.

Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change

Kanban is designed for slow and steady improvement, so every team member involved in the kanban process must commit themselves to gradual change. Although that can be tough to get used to, breaking big changes into smaller pieces translates to less resistance from upper management, fewer mistakes, and more manageable workloads.

Encourage acts of leadership at all levels

In a kanban-oriented work environment, anyone can take ownership over problems that arise. Anderson suggests fostering a culture of encouragement and collaboration where team members are willing and able to help each other resolve issues and achieve end goals.

Service delivery principles

An organization is made up of hundreds of independent services. To maintain equilibrium, kanban suggests adhering to three main service delivery principles.

Focus on customer needs

Knowing what your customer needs, why they need it, and their expectations should drive your kanban project management. Always put the customer first when you’re thinking about how to prioritize the backlog, manage budget, or troubleshoot issues.

Let people self-organize around managed work

Letting development teams choose what they work on and how they accomplish it will help manage flow, empower them to become leaders, and make sure there’s not too much work on their plates.

Review the services network and its policies regularly

After delivering hundreds of projects, you’re bound to learn about how your team works and what your stakeholders want. To continue improving customer satisfaction and business outcomes, make time to review and update your policies on a regular cadence.

Kanban vs. Scrum

Kanban and Scrum share some of the same concepts, but they organize work differently.

Scrum delivers a certain amount of work within one-week to four-week increments (usually called “sprints”) and uses four main “ceremonies” to stay on track — sprint planning, sprint review, retrospective, and daily standup meetings. At the beginning of every sprint, the team commits to tasks. At the end of every sprint, they assess what they’ve accomplished and discuss how to mitigate issues so that they don’t pop up again.\

Unlike kanban, there is no project manager in Scrum — only a product owner who advocates for the customer, a “Scrum master” who ensures the team abides by agile principles, and a development team that does the work.

While Scrum and kanban are similar, the distinct differences can help you decide which might be best suited to your development team’s skills and style.

Kanban supports enterprise agility

Kanban can help an enterprise improve the delivery of its products and services on all organizational levels. Teams that use kanban are constantly incorporating leadership and customer feedback, prioritizing tasks based on concrete goals, and learning how to deliver work reliably — allowing them to stay agile even as the complexity and size of the organization grow. Companies currently using Scrum or other agile methodologies can benefit from how kanban refines and upgrades processes for greater performance and market satisfaction.

Getting started with kanban

Kanban has the potential to connect engineers with customers, promote internal collaboration and transparency, and execute complex projects 一 without causing burnout. Because of kanban’s flexibility, developers and project managers have the power to devise their own policies, course-correct, and find opportunities to go above and beyond.

But if you’re just getting started with kanban, you’ll need to consolidate and simplify your complex workflows. If you’ve been in the project management world for a while, you can always take your approach to the next level. Adobe Workfront has the features you need to help you operate more efficiently regardless of where you are on your project management journey.

Workfront streamlines the intake process by automating workflows and creating custom forms that help your strategy come to life. From a single view, you can adjust kanban cards according to new priorities, shift resource allocations, and configure dashboards to get and keep your teams on track. With integrations to various enterprise applications, Workfront gives your developers the tools they need to work how they want to and measure their progress in real time.

Interested in learning more? Take a product tour to see what Adobe Workfront can do for you.