What is Kanban? Its Principles, Practices, Benefits, and Tools

Kanban is a visual methodology for managing the workflow. It can be implemented at the individual, team, and even organizational levels. It is pronounced “kahn-bahn,”. This term is of Japanese origin implying “visual signal” or “card”. It is a popular framework of agile. In Kanban, work items are presented visually on a Kanban board. This allows team members to realize the state of each work item at a given time.

The Origin and History of Kanban

Primarily, it ascended as a scheduling system for lean manufacturing, originating from the Toyota Production System (TPS).  In the late 1940s, Toyota introduced “just in time” manufacturing to improve the production process. In this approach, production is based on customer demand rather than the standard practice to produce goods and send them off to the market.

This improved production system laid the foundation of Lean manufacturing. Its fundamental idea is minimizing waste (non-essential activities) without sacrificing productivity. The key is to create more value for the customer without adding more costs.

The Kanban Board

Kanban is a very flexible evolutionary change management system. This means that the prevailing process is enhanced gradually without creating disruptions. By employing minor changes (rather than a bigger one), the risk to the overall system is minimized. This approach ensures low or no resistance in the team and the stakeholders. Kanban starts by visualizing the workflow. This is done using a Kanban board which is a simple whiteboard with sticky notes or cards. Each card or sticky denotes a task. A typical Kanban board has three columns:

  1. The To-Do column enlists the tasks that are yet to be started. (i.e., “backlog”)
  2. The Doing column enlists the tasks in progress.
  3. The Done column enlists the completed tasks.

This simple visualization provides a great deal of transparency about the distribution of the work as well as bottlenecks.

Four Kanban Principles

1. Initiate what you are currently doing. Don’t change your processes suddenly but use Kanban for your current workflow. Kanban offers the flexibility of utilization on top of existing workflows, systems, and processes without disturbing what is already in place.

2. The method knows that existing processes, roles, responsibilities, and titles are important and shall be preserved. Logically, it will highlight issues that are essential to be addressed and help evaluate and plan changes, so their application is as smooth as possible.

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3. Changes occur naturally over time and should not be hurried. Evolutionary change is incremental, not sudden. The Kanban method is intended to face minimal resistance. It inspires continuous small incremental and evolutionary changes to the current workflow processes by implementing teamwork and feedback forms. In general, comprehensive changes are not encouraged because they usually come across resistance due to fear or uncertainty.

4. Respect current roles and responsibilities and encourage teams to collectively find and implement any changes. Encourage leadership from everyone to help keep the continuous change for maximizing improvements. Leadership at all levels emerges from people’s everyday insights and acts to better their working processes.

Service Delivery Principles

These principles recognize that organizations are a set of codependent services, and focus on the work, not the people doing the work.

  • Understand and focus on what your customer needs and what are their expectations of you
  • Manage the work by allowing the people themselves to organize around it
  • Continuously improve the policies based on learnings and experiences to create better customer and business outcomes

Six Core Practices of the Kanban

1. Visualize the flow of work

This is the vital first step to implementing the Kanban Method. You need to visualize the process that you currently follow to deliver your work or your services, either on a physical or an e-Kanban Board. Depending on the complexity of your process and your work items, your Kanban board can be very simple to very intricate.

Once you visualize your process, then you can visualize the present work that you are undertaking. This can be in the form of stickies or cards with various colors to imply different types of work items. If you think it is convenient, your Kanban board can have separate Swim Lanes, one for each work item type. However, to avoid complexity, initially, you could also just have a single swimlane for all your work items.

2. Limit WIP (Work in Progress)

Limiting WIP is essential in implementing Kanban – a Pull-System. By limiting WIP, the team can be encouraged to complete the work at hand before initiating new work. Thus, work presently in progress must be accomplished and marked done. This provides the capacity to the system, so new work can be pulled in by the team.

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At first, it may not be easy to agree on what WIP limits should be. In fact, you may commence with no WIP limits. Once you have adequate information, outline WIP limits for each phase of the workflow. Typically, limiting WIP also conveys to the customer and the stakeholders that for any team, there is limited capacity to perform work, and hence what work they ask the team to do, needs to be planned carefully.

3. Manage Flow

Managing and improving workflow is at the core of the Kanban system. Kanban helps you to manage workflow by highlighting the several stages of the workflow and the position of work in each stage. Depending on how finely the workflow is outlined and WIP Limits are established, you will witness either a smooth workflow within WIP limits or work stacking up because something becomes held up and starts to reduce the capacity. All of this affects how quickly work navigates from the start to the end of the workflow.

Kanban helps to gauge the system and make alterations to enhance workflow to scale back the time it takes to finish each bit of work. An important feature of this process of observing your work and resolving bottlenecks is to look at the intermediate wait stages and check how long work items remain in these “handoff stages”.

Reducing the time spent in wait stages is the key to improving Cycle Time. The team’s delivery of work becomes smooth and predictable, as you improve flow. As it becomes more predictable, it becomes easier to make consistent commitments to customers. Improving the ability to forecast completion times reliably is a key achievement of employing a Kanban system.

4. Make Process Policies Explicit

As part of visualizing the process, it is logical to define and visualize explicitly, process rules or guidelines, for how you perform the work. By framing explicit process guidelines, you create a shared basis for the team to understand how to do any type of work in the system. The policies can be a checklist of steps for each work item type, entry & exit criteria for each column, or anything at all that helps the team manage the flow of work on the board well. Examples include – the definition of when a task is completed, the description of individual lanes or columns, who pulls when, etc.

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5. Implement Feedback Loops

Feedback loops are an essential part of any system. Kanban encourages and helps implement feedback loops of several kinds viz, review stages in Kanban board workflow, metrics and reports, and various visual signals that provide feedback on work progress. The idea of getting feedback early, especially if things are on the wrong track, is crucial to finally delivering the right work, the right product, or the service to the customer in the agreed time.

6. Improve Collaboratively (using models & the scientific method)

Kanban helps you adopt small changes and improve progressively.

WIP Limits in Kanban

A significant aspect of Kanban is to minimize the volume of multi-tasking that most teams are inclined to do and instead encourage them to accomplish what is already started and then take on the next work item. For this purpose, WIP – Work-in-Progress – Limits are defined at each stage of the workflow on a Kanban board.

The benefits of Kanban

The main benefits that Kanban offers are:

  • Better visibility
  • Enhanced efficiency
  • Improvement in productivity
  • Preventing team overload
  • Improvement in team focus
  • Reduction of waste
  • Flexibility
  • Improved Company Culture
  • Better predictability
  • Improved team collaboration

Scrum vs. Kanban

The main differences between Kanban and Scrum are listed below:

CadenceFixed-length sprints or intervals.Continuous flow.
Work release approachAt the end of a sprint.delivery at the team’s discretion.
RolesProduct owner, scrum master, and development team.No existing or defined roles.
Key metricsVelocity.Cycle time.
Change philosophyTeams shall not make changes to the sprint goal during the sprint.Change happens at any time.
Table 1: Scrum vs Kanban

Useful Tools for Kanban

The most common tools for Kanban are:

  • Kanbanize
  • Jira Software
  • ClickUp
  • Asana
  • Trello
  • Smartsheet
  • ProofHub
  • Azure DevOps
  • Flow-e


At first, trying to learn what Kanban is and how to implement it, could be hard. After reading the article you know what it is, you can make the most out of Kanban:

  • With the help of physical and digital Kanban boards, you visualize your work
  • Kanban is easy to adopt – just start with what you know and what you are doing
  • Use WIP limits to become more efficient

The Kanban principles and practices offer a path toward agility without disturbing the existing processes and methods

Anup Kumar Dey

I am Anup Kumar Dey, a Piping Engineer with more than 19 years of experience.

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