The secret to boosting your software development team’s productivity may lie in a lean-manufacturing system developed by Toyota in the late 1940s. Kanban is a popular visual workflow management system that’s been co-opted by software development teams to bring productivity and efficiency to their businesses. In this article we’ll dive into kanban and how you can use it to improve communication and reduce waste in your developer workflow.

What Is Kanban?

Kanban is Japanese for “visual signal” or “sign board.” It was developed by Toyota engineer and businessman Taiichi Ohno, who realized that manufacturers could streamline their processes by optimizing the amount of work in process to meet consumer demand instead of pushing product onto the market. In other words, Ohno invented just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, which would revolutionize the manufacturing world.

What does that look like for knowledge workers and software developers? For that we turn to David J. Anderson, the pioneer who in the 2000s famously brought kanban from manufacturing to the world of IT:

“Kanban is not a software development life-cycle methodology or an approach to project management. It requires that some process is already in place so that kanban can be applied to incrementally change the underlying process.”—David J. Anderson, Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business

Anderson generalized kanban’s guiding principles into a visual system that can be used by any team to improve cooperation, transparency, and communication.

The Four Principles of Kanban

Kanban can take many forms—whiteboards, process trees, visual cards, digital boards—but the underlying principles are always the same. The four core principles of kanban are:

  1. Visualize workflow. Kanban makes no assumptions about your workflow or process. It requires only that you document it in a way that can easily be visualized by everyone on the team.
  2. Limit work in progress (WIP). Taiichi Ohno was inspired by the efficiency of Japanese grocery stores that would pull inventory from the back room to the shelf only once customer demand left a space for it. This same JIT delivery concept can be used to streamline workflows by intentionally limiting the amount of work flowing through a process to avoid inherent bottlenecks.
  3. Focus on flow. With WIP minimized, team output is optimized for the realities of your workflow, and preventing interruptions in that workflow should become your next priority. Identifying and fixing problems in your workflow will naturally lead to process improvements.
  4. Continuous improvement. Kanban is never finished. The idea is to foster a team culture of continuous improvement, also known as kaizen.

The Basics of a Kanban Board

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The kanban board is the most popular visual tool for implementing kanban. Your simplest board is split into three basic columns:

  • To Do
  • In Progress
  • Done

On the factory floor this might be a whiteboard with color-coded sticky notes visually representing the current status of the plant’s workflow. In knowledge work, this is usually a digital board with “task cards” as part of a project management tool such as Trello. In either case, the kanban board operates on a few basic principles that expand upon the four core principles of kanban:

  • Visualize your workflow. Expand upon the original three columns as necessary to accurately map your process. You should be able to tell with a single glance which step in your process is serving as a bottleneck.
  • Visualize your problems with blockers. A blocker or blocked card is how kanban visualizes a problem stopping your team from continuing to work on a task. Project management tools will often color the task red or mark it with a stop sign, which lets the rest of the team know they should work on another assignment while the problem is being resolved.
  • Visualize your team. Most project management tools already let you assign tasks to different members of a team. A kanban board will usually display the assigned user’s profile photo or name in the corner of the task card they were assigned. This makes it easy to ascertain at a glance who’s responsible for which tasks, bringing transparency to the team.
  • Control your WIP. WIP limits are the difference between kanban and other board systems such as scrum. By throttling the number of tasks that can fit into any given column, you reduce multitasking to a manageable level, keeping the team focused on completing the tasks at hand.
  • Eliminate basic status updates/meetings. There’s no need to hold status meetings or write progress reports if everyone on the team can communicate effectively through a kanban board. Management and stakeholders can be kept up-to-date and in the loop in real time. When the organization as a whole becomes united under a culture of continuous improvement, meetings can be reserved for more important issues and updates.

Tip: Scrumban is what you get when you choose scrum as your primary methodology and kanban as the tool for visualizing it. A scrum board is really only a few tweaks away from becoming a kanban board. Just add WIP limits, make use of blockers, and continuously monitor your workflow for process improvements, and you’re practicing kanban on top of the agile concepts you already love about scrum.


Project Management Tools That Use Kanban

Now that you know what kanban is, let’s take a quick look at some of the project management tools that let you work with a kanban board.

  • Jira is Atlassian’s popular project management and issue-tracking platform for software development teams. From kanban to scrum to waterfall, Jira’s customizable workflow can support most project management methodologies. There are numerous apps and plugins that can add functionality to your workflow system and seamless integration with GitHub.
  • KanbanFlow is a lean project management tool with a simple UI that allows teams to collaborate in real time. One thing that makes it unique is the inclusion of real-time tracking with a Pomodoro Technique timer that enables users to log time spent on a task.
  • LeanKit is a lean-based enterprise platform that sports a fully customizable board that can support kanban.
  • Trello is Atlassian’s board-based project workflow visualization tool for those who want just a simple drag-and-drop board they can tailor to their needs.

This is only a short list and by no means comprehensive. Notable absentees include Asana, Basecamp, and Wrike. For a more comprehensive list of tools designed to enhance teamwork and productivity, check out “50+ Amazing Tools for Team Collaboration.”

Boost Productivity, Cooperation, and Transparency with Kanban

Kanban improves information flow within an organization by creating a single source of truth everyone on a team can access to get a clear picture of how his or her workflow is performing. Eager to implement kanban in your organization but not sure where to start? Consider hiring a kanban freelancer for your project management needs. While “kanban master” isn’t really a thing, a number of professionals are likely to be familiar with the workflow visualization tool, including agile coaches, scrum masters, lead developers, and project managers. With kanban, you can give your team the bird’s-eye view they need to make your software development process lean.