Project management is all about making the complex simple.

What is Kanban?

With Kanban, your goal is to minimize bottlenecks in your process and make incremental adjustments everywhere possible, so that your team can do work fast and efficiently. 

You might be thinking “isn’t this the goal of any project management approach?!” That might be so, but the Kanban process finds its roots in a handful of foundational principles and practices (which we’ll explore in-depth later) and the use of a unique visual tool: the Kanban board.

A Kanban board can be physical or digital, and consists of a simple board with cards (or sticky notes) representing tasks. Each card falls into one of three columns on the board that indicate their status, which typically include: 

  • “To Do”: The tasks you haven’t started 

  • “Doing”: Tasks in progress 

  • “Done”: Completed tasks

As your team creates, starts, and completes tasks for your “To Do” column, a designated person (typically the person who is responsible for that task) would move the corresponding task cards to the right spot on the Kanban board. It’s a simple concept, and because the board is visual, collaborative, and accessible, it’s a core reason why the Kanban Method is so effective. 

The origins of Kanban

The word “Kanban” is a Japanese term that means “visual board” or “sign.” But the system that we'd all come to know as “Kanban” (with the capital K) started with Toyota in the 1940s. 

Industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno developed the Toyota Production System (TPS) as a lean production control system to control work and inventory throughout all stages of the manufacturing process, aiming to avoid supply disruption, minimize the overstocking of goods, and increase productivity. 

It's Taiichi Ohno's accomplishments with Toyota's manufacturing process that proved the Kanban process' viability, but David J. Anderson is who built upon and applied the concept to IT and software development in 2004, paving the way for Kanban to reach a broader audience and become a model to follow. 

Thanks to David J. Anderson's work in creating and maturing Kanban’s foundational concepts into a cohesive framework, there's now a clear set of principles and practices nearly any individual or team can follow to enjoy the benefits of Kanban. 

Principles of Kanban

There are six basic principles of an effective, modern Kanban methodology that can be broken into two categories: Change Management Principles and Service Delivery Principles. 

Change management principles

These Kanban principles are about working through change. 

  • Start with what you do know. Kanban is all about constant improvement, but you can’t improve without a starting point. That’s why the first aspect of change management principles is understanding the current workflow. As you gather this initial understanding, be sure to get a sense of existing roles, responsibilities, and job titles, since many of those things are valuable to your process but may or may not need to change. 

  • Agree to pursue improvement through gradual change. A classic characteristic of Kanban is the focus on minimal disruption and least resistance. In other words, as you identify areas of improvement in your processes, you would only address them a little at a time—or incrementally—so as not to negatively impact your efficiency or breed any insecurity in your team. 

  • Encourage acts of leadership at every level. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that applies to this third Kanban principle of encouraging acts of leadership throughout all levels of your team. From individual contributors to managers, every person on your team has valuable insight into your workflow and processes. When everyone is empowered to share and contribute, that’s when your team can collectively unlock their best performance—something that isn’t possible if leadership only comes from the manager or executive levels. 

Service delivery principles

In addition to change management principles, Kanban’s principles also include a strong focus on the customer. 

  • Understand and anchor to the customer’s needs and expectations. This one is simple. If your team has two options that impact what they work on or produce, and one of those options would get you closer to meeting the customer's needs and expectations (without compromising on your vision, quality or integrity)—choose that one. 

  • Manage the work and let people self-organize to accomplish it. This principle is about empowering individual team members’ abilities to independently prioritize and organize the work they need to accomplish. This is also a rally against micro-management, which allows you to focus on creating a positive impact for your customer, rather than sweating the small details that your team has under control. 

  • Regularly review the network of services and their associated policies to improve outcomes. With Kanban, you can't just set your processes and forget about them. That's a surefire way to lose sight of your customer experience and allow problems to disrupt your team's flow. An easy remedy to that is to periodically check in on all of your business and customer-facing processes and policies to make sure they're going the way they should, and make adjustments as needed. 

Use these Change Management Principles and Service Delivery Principles of Kanban as the foundation for making decisions and shaping your project strategy. Then, use the following general practices of Kanban to put your plans into action and steer your team’s work from start to finish. 

General practices of Kanban

  • Visualize the work. The Kanban board is a must for using Kanban. Many modern companies use a tool for their digital Kanban board, such as Airtable, but they all consist of individual cards that get moved along three columns indicating their status. “To Do” for the tasks you haven’t started (aka “backlog”), “Doing” for tasks in progress, and “Done” for completed tasks.

  • Limit WIP. The Kanban system doesn't have many hard rules, but one of them is limiting your WIP, or work in progress. In practice, this means that you have a maximum number of Kanban cards in your "To Do" column at any point in time to limit work that your team has to think about and ensure quality. 

  • Manage flow. We use the word workflow to refer to both the people and the work, but for Kanban, the "flow" is all about the movement of work items through the production process from to do, to doing, to done. And managing it well means not overloading your team, and also not micro-managing them so much that they can't focus on keeping the flow at a steady pace. 

  • Make policies explicit. This ought to be central to any project management approach, but Kanban calls for you to make your policies explicit. That means clearly defining and socializing key facts, metrics, and data that are in any way essential to your project plans

  • Implement feedback loops. With Kanban, the name of the game is improvement, and one of the drivers for meaningful improvement is making customers happy. To accomplish this, regularly collect internal and customer feedback to help you decide where to dedicate your efforts. 

  • Improve collaboratively, evolve using the scientific method. Everyone contributes to team success, not only by contributing their own specific tasks but by looking out for ways to improve collective processes. Do this by implementing the scientific method for making improvements. This entails asking a question, doing a bit of research, making a hypothesis, testing your hypothesis through experimentation, and then analyzing what you’ve observed. 

Noticed that these principles and practices don't tie to any specific type of work or industry? That's true to modern Kanban. You'll find that these principles are flexible enough to apply across a range of industries, without any compromise to their effectiveness.

What is modern Kanban?

Today, Kanban has broken far beyond the automotive factories where it started, and even outside of the software industry, where it has grown massively in popularity. 

Its straightforward and flexible approach offers real benefits to productivity and performance that companies such as HP, Zara, Pixar, and Spotify use to manage their work (and individuals can use it, too). 

Benefits of Kanban

People who swear by the Kanban approach likely have a long list of reasons for using this methodology for getting their work done. Here are the main benefits that most teams experience almost immediately: 

  • Better flexibility. Unlike to-do lists and other project management approaches where managers direct assignments to team members, the Kanban method keeps everyone active and engaged in planning at every stage of the workflow. This makes long-term planning and day-to-day work as flexible as can be. 

  • Better alignment between objectives and execution. By design, Kanban makes it easy for individual team members to give and receive updates about their work and the project as a whole. And by principle, it also ensures that all work that anyone on the team does keeps the customer’s needs in mind. This helps instill confidence throughout the team that they’re making meaningful progress towards their objectives and end goals. 

  • Fewer workflow disruptions/bottlenecks. Because Kanban allows you to make tweaks to your process and priorities whenever necessary, your team suffers from far fewer disruptions and unnecessary bottlenecks. 

  • Better delivery. Kanban impacts every part of your workflow, including the delivery of finished work. Since everyone on your team will have contributed to both the work and the process it took to get there, there’ll be no surprises, and everyone will be more than ready to deliver a successful product on time. 

  • More delighted customers/end users. There’s always an end-user for work that you do, whether that’s internal stakeholders or customers. And since Kanban’s principles and practices make gathering customer feedback a standard part of your workflow, you never have to guess whether what you’re doing will satisfy customer needs—you’ll already know!

Kanban vs scrum

So what’s the difference between scrum and Kanban? The terms are often used interchangeably because the methods share some similarities. For example, they both involve consistently producing finished work, breaking down large and complex tasks to create efficiency, and continuous iteration on what already exists. 

They both also uphold the Agile Manifesto, which in simple terms is about valuing people over tools, avoiding excessive documentation, prioritizing customer needs, and being adaptable rather than rigid. 

Commonalities aside, scrum and Kanban have some key differences.

 In scrum:

  • Team: Product owner, a scrum master, and team members typically make up a scrum team. 

  • Schedule: Scrum limits the time for each task or set of work because it relies heavily on working in sprints, or a one or two-week schedule, that always resets at the end of the period. For each sprint, the work gets broken down into manageable chunks and assigned story points that signify how much time it should take to complete it.

  • Work board: The columns on the board are always labeled to reflect the beginning of the work with the sprint backlog and ending with whatever fulfills the team’s definition of done. At the end of a sprint, whatever is still on the board gets cleared and added to the next sprint. 

In Kanban:

  • Team: There are no specific roles that apply to the Kanban method, and roles aren’t required to use it effectively.

  • Schedule: Kanban doesn’t use sprints and doesn’t require time boxes, which means there’s no reason to reset the Kanban board as work progresses. The main variables for your schedule are how efficiently your team can move through work that needs to get done, the complexity of each task, and how many tasks coincide. You would continue to add new tasks and maintain the board workflow for as long as the project needs. 

  • Work board: Like scrum, the columns in a Kanban board have labels to show workflow states. With Kanban, though, there is a maximum number of stories or tasks allowed in each column at any one time. Otherwise, there is no set cycle time for the Kanban board or individual Kanban cards on it.

As you can see, Kanban shines for projects that have many tasks going on at once and where regular cross-team collaboration is standard. That gives you a sense of the type of environment and organizational dynamics that would lend itself well to implementing Kanban methodology, including IT, operations, engineering, manufacturing, and even marketing and design. 

The right tools for a modern Kanban methodology

Kanban is a simple but transformative workflow methodology that enhances everything you’re already doing. That’s precisely how music streaming platform Boiler Room uses Airtable’s Kanban view

Boiler Room uses Airtable to organize everything from logistics and budgets of their shows to their marketing and social media planning and output. Previously, Boiler Room used a combination of spreadsheets and docs, which led to people having the wrong or different information—this meant it was difficult for team members to stay aligned and work at their optimal efficiency. Using multiple disparate documents also left them exposed to making mistakes that could “have serious consequences affecting anything from brand integrity to people’s safety.” 

Head of Live Productions, Larry Gale, says his team relies on Kanban view for easy visualization of what’s on the agenda and certainty that everyone is working from the same dataset. 

With Kanban view, you should never feel an abrupt or drastic change as you navigate your workflow. But at the same time, when done right, you’ll gradually and sustainably improve and optimize your workflows, visibility, productivity, and performance. 

Start creating your Kanban board on Airtable and turn those tasks from “to do” to “done”!

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Airtable's Product Teamis committed to building world-class products, and empowering world-class product builders on our platform.

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