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Explainer: What is the Kanban system and how to get started with a Kanban board

Written by techgoth

Managers may breathily whisper the word ‘Kanban’ to themselves in their private moments, but what does it mean and what does it have to do with brightly coloured stickers?

In summary, Kanban is all about keeping an efficient workplace. The word Kanban itself means “sign card” in Japanese, and relates to a visual workflow management system, angled towards creating the best possible flow of tasks. It’s a system where tasks are visually represented as cards and which are taken by a worker and plonked between some variation of ‘new’, ‘in progress’ and ‘complete’ categories.

If you’ve ever felt weighed down by juggling dozens of errands, or sweated over a job only to discover your colleague has been doing the same work, Kanban could be a solution. 

Kanban: What is the Kanban system? 

Kanban was first used as a scheduling system by Toyota in the late 1940s. The Japanese company pulled on the shelf-stocking techniques of supermarkets, wherein shops only stock what’s needed at a particular time. Translated to an engineering line, this meant shifting production from a forecast of demand, to the actual demand from customers. This is known as a “pull” system.

At the core of this system were physical cards that could signal demand through the supply chain. The visual nature of this system helped to standardise supply queues while minimising the number of cards processed at any one time limited the amount of unfinished work in process – clarifying what needed to be done and increasing flow.

Fast-forward to the present day, and the essence of that system has become a popular system for ‘agile’ working.

Kanban board: Physical or digital?

In general, a Kanban system will involve a Kanban board, segmented into categories along a workflow, and a load of colour-coded Post-it notes detailing specific tasks. This could be a physical board, or a digital one via a piece of software like Trello.

In Trello, you create columns, assign digital cards to each column and add members to these cards. The view can be filtered, so you only see your workload, or expanded, meaning you can see what everyone else is working on. The latter makes it easier to see where there are bottlenecks or problems, or who isn’t performing to the same level as others. 

A physical Kanban board can be as elaborate as a smart whiteboard, or as simple as a blank wall. All you need to do is divide the area into columns and stick Post-it notes with job names and member details in the relevant spaces. Below is an example, albeit a slightly complex one. Your Kanban board can be much more basic, and can grow with your team and jobs. 

How does Kanban work?

Exactly how your Kanban system works will very much depends on your team’s needs. At heart, it’s a way to create a visual model of the workflow in your office. Instead of balancing a number of tasks in your head, you can see the amount of things that need to be done and where they are in context to each other on the production line.

Another key aspect of Kanban is it imposes a work in progress limit (WIP limit). While this may sound counterproductive, if used correctly it’s designed to focus efforts on a given task, ensuring it is completed – not lost amongst a heap of half-finished jobs.

This also has the benefit of visually indicating when a bottleneck starts to form. If, for example, a stage in your ‘in progress’ category is limited to five Kanban cards, and your team finds itself with eight cards piled up, everyone can focus on bringing that stage back under control. It encourages you to finish what you’ve started, instead of beginning new tasks and clogging up the workflow.

Once those ‘in process’ tasks are put into the ‘finished’ category, another job can take their place. This breaks a process down into comprehensible, bite-sized tasks, and should help keep a good flow of work.

Kanban vs Scrum

The Silicon Valley clip above centres on Scrum, which is very much like Kanban but with a few crucial differences. The biggest of these is that Kanban is a continual process, with cards making their way across the board as and when workers pick them up. In the Scrum system, work centres on ‘sprints’; a time period normally lasting two weeks where specific tasks are focused on.

Scrum also tends to encompass more in the way of fixed roles, with a “scrum master” being in charge of making sure the team follows the framework.

Depending on the type of work you do, you may find that the Kanban system, the Scrum system or some combination of the two works best in your office. The important thing to remember is that, while each of these encourages a certain type of workflow, they can be tweaked and tailored to fit with your team.  


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