Kanban is a Japanese concept of managing work and... not exactly a novelty. More than 60 years have gone by since its introduction, but at the beginning of the 21st century, it started to take on a new form.
Its popularity has been rocketing ever since. More and more new books are being published, the course offer is growing, and ever more teams are adopting it, seeking a more agile approach to work.
How did it earn this much attention?
Let's start with a simple definition – kanban is a method of visualization of work and restricting open tasks with the aim of gradually increasing efficiency.
If you come to friendly terms with it, not only should it lead you to increased efficiency, but also to gradual improvements in all areas. This is the main idea of the kaizen philosophy, from which this method emerged.
Visualization is the key
The Japanese word "kanban" originated as the name for a signboard, that is, a visual signal that a store owner places on their storefront to attract the views of passers-by. Thus, the very name suggests that visualization will play a key role.
And here come the actual boards and cards.
A kanban board
A kanban board is a tool that provides you with the space to visually display your work and your gradual progress. Its purpose is to split work into individual stages from planning to completion.
There is a designated column on the board for each of these stages, and you move the kanban cards between them to clearly see everything you plan to do, what you are currently working on, and what has already been done.
So the board is a space for visualizing the workflow, and the work itself is represented by kanban cards. These stand for smaller portions of work (tasks or activities) that you can complete within a reasonable timeframe. And the main criteria for moving them between columns on the board is their level of completion.
To serve its purpose, such a card should contain the name (of an activity), a short description, an owner (a person who's responsible for it), and it also won't hurt to set a deadline.
When you pull work instead of pushing it
Kanban doesn't end with boards and cards. It is equally important to know how to work with them. In this regard, you should know that from the point of view of the flow of work and information, kanban belongs to the so-called pull systems.
If you haven't heard this term before and find it unnecessarily complicated, then we have two pieces of good news. Firstly, it is not complicated at all, and secondly, you've probably worked in a pull system more than once before.
So what does a pull system even stand for?
For example, imagine that you need to print an important document. However, the printer recently alerted you that its ink level is low, and you've already noticed declining printing quality. What are you gonna do?
If, in your mind, you've just ordered an ink cartridge, replaced the old one, and then printed out the required document, then you followed a pull system. Its main characteristic is that that work is demand-driven.
In theory, you could replace the ink cartridge long before the alert, but then you'd lose the dozens of pages it could still manage to print.
In theory, you could also order hundreds of cartridges in advance and not need to worry about it. But you would eventually throw most of them away due to expiration and you'd also have to carry around and store boxes, even though you could easily do with only one cartridge in the printer and one or two in a drawer.
The pull nature of kanban reminds us that the whole concept originated from the production line of Toyota, which embarked on lean production. Its goal is to minimize waste and unnecessary work, while gradually increasing the quality of the product.
Stop starting, start finishing
The point of kanban is that instead of getting pushed around by tasks, you pull them towards you at the right moment. One of the basic principles of kanban – a work in progress limit – will help you determine when that right moment is. .
On the whole, the kanban method should help you focus on the present moment: on the column with activities in progress (the open tasks), which you currently have on your desk and on your mind.
And to stay fully focused, you should set a limit on open tasks which you shouldn't exceed. Setting this limit is up to you. It could be, for example, two open cards, but to a large extent, it will depend on the nature of your work.
In other words, the right time to pull the next kanban card is when there is free space below the open tasks limit.
It may not be exactly to the liking of hard-core multi-taskers, but this way you can be sure that you'll never get overloaded with work in progress, and in the end, you'll be working faster and more smoothly.
What will all of this bring you?
Switching to kanban will require a change and getting used to changes isn't easy. However, unlike other methodologies, it is based on the theory of incremental and gradual changes, so the adaptation process isn't particularly difficult.
And once you've handled the first few days, you will be rewarded pretty soon.
You will start noticing positive changes already in the first days after the creation of your board. Visualization alone will bear fruit for your team. You will literally see your work better, understand it better, and get on the same wavelength.
Once you start moving the first cards and filling the first columns, you will better understand how much time it takes to complete each task, what is your bottleneck, and whose capacity is freed up faster.
These findings will then motivate you to follow the last principles of kanban – to continuously analyze the entire system and regularly communicate with the team about what works, what does not work, and what can be done about it.
This will allow you to gradually improve and fine-tune your processes, thus honoring the legacy of the kaizen philosophy.