Kanban – How to effectively use it for managing business processes – Digital Leadership
Published: 08 August, 2021
You can only use Kanban to manage business processes effectively if it is implemented properly. An effective Kanban system goes beyond sticking post-its on a board. It’s a mindset – an ideology, passion, and drive towards excellence, consistency, organization, productivity, and eliminating time wastage. This is why you must know how to use Kanban for managing business processes effectively.
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What is Kanban?
Kanban is essentially a popular framework used to implement projects. It is a workflow management tool for defining, managing, and improving services. It aims to help you visualize your workflow, maximize efficiency and improve continuously on every project you’re working on. It takes a visual approach to give you an idea of where you are currently at every stage of the project implementation. It triggers you to take necessary and deliberate actions that will push you towards achieving your goals.
Kanban allows you effectively manage a project and ensure tasks are well taken care of without running out of resources. The effective use of Kanban for business management is achieved using the Kanban board.
Kanban board comes from the popular management framework called Kanban, which is designed to improve workflow. It requires transparency and communication. Kanban board allows everyone in the team to view the status of a particular work/project, and contextualize and prioritize them.
The main principle behind it is to help you visually track every activity throughout the entire project process. This includes software projects and any other work that has to move through various stages of completion. All these are achieved using a Kanban board.
Kanban boards date back to the 1941s when Toyota first introduced them on the factory floor to improve their manufacturing activities. Toyota automobile company realized that their production lines were less effective compared to their American counterparts. The goal behind introducing this method of production was to control inventory and improve production speed while maintaining the highest standards of production quality.
Toyota brand recorded massive success using the Kanban methodology, and it slowly became a popular management framework in the business world.
Physical Kanban Boards
Nearly every project manager introduces team members to Kanban for tracking work progress through a physical board with stick-it notes representing different stages of the project. Most project managers use physical Kanban boards because they are very easy to set up and promote face-to-face collaboration.
The use of physical boards is limited when teams get larger and workflows get more complex. Therefore, project managers shift from the use of physical boards to digital Kanban boards.
Digital Kanban Boards
Digital Kanban boards are common among software development teams. It has loads of advantages compared to the physical Kanban boards.
- It is easy to add context through detailed descriptions and attachments. This is very important, especially for technical projects where detailed specifications are a must.
- Remote collaborations are made possible through the use of online Kanban tools.
- Integration to other management tools (such as Slack, Zeppelin, GitHub, etc.) is available with one button click.
- Metrics are captured automatically and reports are generated in real-time
- Managing many cards, editing them, and modifying workflows are much easier on online Kanban board tools.
- The risk of loss of data is limited
Prototyping – “Fail often and early!”
A central aspect of the design thinking process is prototyping. In an iterative process, more and more detailed prototypes are developed step by step, and feedback from stakeholders and, above all, customers is obtained on essential aspects of the prototype (critical function). The motto “fail often and early” applies. The goal of prototyping is to try out the innovation team’s ideas with the customer as early as possible in the innovation process, to gain valuable insights from the customer’s perspective, or to uncover weaknesses. Fail early” has a positive effect on the outcome of the process and saves the company valuable resources.
A Simple Kanban Process
The most basic Kanban process and management tasks can be implemented on boards containing three columns: “to do,” “doing,” and “done.”
All tasks yet to be accomplished are initially listed on the “to do” column. As individual tasks get picked up and worked on by team members, the task is moved to the “doing” column until the task is completed.
The important aspect of this simple Kanban process is that it makes every project stage visible and propels team members to play their role well in achieving the overall goal.
Nobody is left in the dark regarding the progress of the project. Moreover, little improvements in the process and mode of operation can be made easily without interfering with the initial framework set in place.
The basic principles of Kanban can be applied to more complex and technical projects by creating more columns on the board, as the case may be. The best processes can be outlined by choosing the right headings/descriptions and columns for each project. This is essential as having too many columns can disrupt the entire workflow and cause unnecessary limitations. Here are a few practices to adopt for complex projects
You can easily set up your online Kanban board for complex projects using the following steps.
Step 1: Capturing your team’s workflow
The first step in setting up an online Kanban board is spending time to have a deeper understanding of your team’s workflow and efficiency. You can start by talking to your team members individually to understand their personalities and what system works well.
You need to know each member of your team in terms of their skills and ability. This will help you know how to assign tasks to them. As a team, you need to know what each member can do and their unique contribution to the entire process. Capturing your team’s workflow also helps you map relationships and understand how cross-team collaboration can happen. It also helps you to build high-level processes out of your team’s workflow.
Step 2: Choosing Columns for your Kanban Board
One of the common mistakes project managers make when setting up online Kanban boards is the use of too many columns than required to capture their workflow in great detail. This is not always the best way to set up Kanban boards. It can be complicated and end up confusing the team members. As much as possible, try to make the process as simple as possible with fewer columns, yet detailed enough.
Always start with a To-Do column that contains a list of all the tasks to be completed by team members from the start of a project to its completion.
Set up two columns for each team member working on individual tasks as part of the overall project. The first column indicates that the task has been picked up, while the second column indicates that the team member has completed the task.
Step 3: Setting Work in Progress (WIP) Limits
You need to set up Work in Progress (WIP) limits as work progresses to avoid confusion among team members. By limiting the number of tasks available in each stage of the workflow, teams can only focus on tasks they have picked and cannot pick any other until they have completed the ones in progress.
Set up the WIP limits for each section of the workflow rather than on each column. This is usually more manageable and gives better results.
Step 4: Track progress and make incremental improvements in the process
Now that you have set up your Kanban columns and your WIP limits have been set in place, you can now sit back and track the work progress while making incremental improvements as the need arises.
After you successfully follow the above steps to set up your online Kanban, the next thing to concentrate on is how to populate your backlog or whichever column comes first on your Kanban board.
With a populated backlog or first column, your team is ready to implement Kanban. At this stage, there will be no need for physically structured meetings. You only need to assign cards to each team member, so they can work continuously on different tasks while moving the cards through the columns when they complete each task.
As the project progresses, your team needs to meet for reviews, demos, and other unstructured meetings. The only structured meetings required are daily standups.
Daily Standup Meeting
Daily standup meetings help team members stay on top of their tasks and ensure everything progresses smoothly. The daily standup meeting happens with the Kanban board open. Ideally, any team member can anchor the daily standup meeting. However, it is best for the team to lead or project manager to lead it. During the standup meeting, the most important activity is for team members to provide status updates on the task they are handling and to state if they encounter any blocker that can limit their workflow.
The standup meetings are not expected to take much time. The goal is to:
- Update the team on individual progress made
- Celebrate the progress made so far
- Identify blockers, and
- Fix such blockers or fix another standup meeting to address such blockers.
Try as much as possible not to dig too deep into individual blockers during standup meetings as team members need to resume work immediately. Daily standup meetings are not the best times for addressing blockers.
A blocked task cannot move to the next stage of the Kanban board as the issues need to be resolved first. Identifying and keeping track of blockers can help team members take corrective measures to bypass processes that can limit their workflow.
Here are some of the most common blockers Kanban teams encounter most:
- A team member is blocked because the intermediate step is completely done
- A person is blocked because there are no tasks completed in the prior step
- Team members are constantly getting blocked
- A team member is blocked due to external dependency
Other common issues include too much procedures to be followed slows down the team or long standup meetings.
Individuals achieve the solution to each blocker on a collaborative basis. For instance, identifying and tracking how often items are blocked in a particular stage can reveal whether an inefficiency in a process is a one-time occurrence or the entire process needs a modification. It also reveals how efficient your operation is. If the blockers are taking too long to get resolved, it usually indicates inefficiency in the process.
Blockers are part of every project execution process. The goal is to identify/monitor them and make deliberate efforts to reduce them over time.
When to Use Kanban Within Your Organization?
This section will look at when you should use Kanban within your team and how you can get your team ready to adopt Kanban.
When your team has less time for planning meetings
You can use Kanban within your organization when your team has less time for planning meetings.
One of its principles of it is that it allows you to make small incremental changes to existing processes. Therefore, if you have limited time to complete a project, you can use Kanban to complete the project effectively. Teams that want to start a new approach to project management without altering existing processes will naturally flow with the Kanban methodology.
When your team has a repeatable workflow that can easily be visualized on a board
You can also use Kanban for business management when your team has a broad set of repeatable steps for completing different tasks. This makes it easy for the entire workflow process to be visualized on an online Kanban board. It is the best tool for teams that strive for excellent delivery of features and updates rather than releasing iterations and working with MVPs.
In a nutshell, you can use Kanban within your organization if:
- you want to adopt an innovation strategy without altering your existing workflows entirely
- You have a wide set of repeatable processes for workflow
- You want to focus on delivery rather than planning and meetings.
- You want continuous delivery of features and improvements rather than in fixed cycles/releases
Preparing Your Team for Kanban
Once you have decided to use Kanban for executing a particular project, the next step is to prepare everyone on board to achieve maximum success. The main stakeholders in a team may include the senior management, designers, software development team, customer support, and other contributors.
As a project manager, the first step to adopting kanban methodology in any organization is getting management’s approval. You can achieve this by submitting a high-profile proposal, highlighting the Kanban methodology and how it will improve the team’s current workflow strategy and position them for greater success. It is important to present a clear, concise, concrete, and comprehensive plan. It is important to set the correct expectations and present a concrete implementation plan.
One of the advantages of Kanban is that it doesn’t alter the existing processes. Teams can immediately begin by mapping their existing flows to Kanban software and start tracking their progress. The only initial commitment needed from your path is the commitment/discipline to identify and make incremental changes to improve processes and outcomes.
Educating Development Teams
After getting management’s approval, you need to organize your team and prepare them to use Kanban boards effectively. In addition, you need to educate the development team about the Kanban methodology and how tasks will be tracked from start to completion.
The Kanban Methodology
The Kanban Methodology helps you and your team in managing projects, allowing you to complete your projects without overburdening your team. It simply allows your team members to work better and improve their efficiency.
The Kanban methodology hinges on three core principles:
- Visualizations – this principle involves seeing tasks in the context of how they relate to each other and gives you an idea of the best way to approach each task.
- Limiting Works-In-Progress – this principle helps balance the entire process. This means team members never commit to too many projects simultaneously, thus allowing them to clear ongoing tasks before picking new ones.
- Enhance flow – this principle involves pinpointing the top priority task from the list of items that currently needs to be complemented.
As we have seen, the Kanban methodology is an effective framework for project management. Fortunately, the methodology can be easily implemented in all projects, both simple and complex ones. It is a viable option that includes Kanban process flow to display tasks for ongoing projects visually.
The Kanban Tool
The Kanban Tool is traditionally represented on a whiteboard, but advancements in technology have made it even simpler and more effective. A practical example of an application that provides this feature is the Sinnaps project management software. It allows you to plan your tasks by spreading them across a timeline calendar format, making it easy for team members to track workflow progress on ongoing projects.
Scrum Tools and Kanban Tools are useful for project management. Scrum involves cross-organizing and self-organizing teamwork while Kanban tools have effective flow management based on the principles it operates on.
Kanban Vs. Agile: What is the Difference Between Kanban and Agile?
In this section, we will consider the difference between Agile and Kanban. But before discussing Kanban Vs. Agile, let’s first talk about the individual concepts.
What’s is Agile?
Agile methodology is a business management practice that promotes iteration of testing and development throughout the Systems Development Life-cycle (SDLC). It is a perfect tool for working with a reliable and continuous feedback system.
There is direct communication between team members and the project manager; thus, team members are challenged to achieve more.
What is Kanban?
Kanban is best described as a board, usually called “Kanban Board.” This board plays an essential role in displaying task workflow for ongoing projects. It helps to manage and optimize the flow of tasks between team members. Kanban is a method for managing, defining, and improving services for delivering knowledge work.
In this method, tasks for each project stage are printed visually. This allows team members to see the work progress at each development stage. Each team member gets an overview of who is handling each task, the individual progress on each task, and identifies and eliminates blockers/problem areas in each stage of the project execution.
Now, let’s look at the Kanban agile key differences.
Key Differences: Kanban vs. agile
- Kanban is useful for reducing waste and remove activities that never add value to the team or the overall project. At the same time, agile is useful for projects where the final goal is not clearly defined or set.
- The Kanban process has shorter time frames broken into smaller tasks with deadlines, while the agile process focuses on constant communication among team managers and project managers.
- The Kanban process does not give room for iterative development while the agile process gives room for iterative development.
- Kanban process provides support for visual checking of work progress while Agile process does not provide support for visual checking of work progress.
- The main goal of the Kanban process is to improve the team’s process and progress while the goal of the agile approach is continuous testing, development, and integration.
- The Kanban approach depends on Kanban boards while the agile approach depends on the use of storyboards.
- The Kanban process encourages leadership at all levels while the agile approach promotes sustainable development and pays more attention to technical expertise.
- Kanban process respects current process & responsibilities while agile process always welcomes changes/modifications even during later stages of the development process.
- In the agile process, the development team and business stakeholders will work daily until the project is completed. At the same time, Kanban helps teams visualize workflow and make the process easy and explicit.
- Kanban process needs very few organization set-up changes to get started while in agile methodologies, the sprint planning can consume the team for an entire day.
Differences Between Scrum and Kanban
Now let’s consider the differences between Scrum and Kanban.
Kanban and Scrum are two business management terms that are wrongly used interchangeably or wrongly thought to be two sides of the same coin. In reality, the two methodologies are not the same; there is a significant difference between Scrum and Kanban. Understanding this key difference will help you choose the best approach that will work best for your project.
But what is Scrum?
Scrum is a business management tool used to manage, organize work into smaller, manageable and achievable tasks that can be completed within a short time (usually called a sprint 2-3 weeks long).
To plan, administer, organize and optimize this process, Scrum relies on three key roles: The Scrum master (responsible for overseeing the entire process during each sprint cycle), the product owner (responsible for initial planning and communication with the company), and team members (responsible for carrying out each task).
Another important tool used by scrum teams is the Scrum Board- a printed visual representation of the workflow process, broken down into small tasks called “stories,” with each story moved along the board from “to-do list” (backlog) into “work-in-progress” (WIP) column and to completion stage.
Again, what is Kanban?
Kanban is also a business management tool like Scrum used to organize workflow for efficiency. It encourages work to be broken down into smaller tasks using Kanban Board (similar to the Scrum Board) to visualize each task as it progresses through the workflow chart.
While Scrum limits the time allotted for each task to be completed (using sprints), Kanban limits the amount of work each team member can pick per time.
Both Kanban and Scrum allow for complex and large projects to be broken down into simple tasks to be completed efficiently. And both focus on similar goals and focus on a highly visible workflow chart that keeps all team members on the progress of each task.
Now, How are they different? Difference between Scrum and Kanban
There are many differences in both the principles, methodologies and practical application of Kanban and Scrum. These differences can be grouped into the following
Scheduling, iteration, and cadence
The Scrum methodology places much emphasis on schedule. Each scrum team is provided with prioritized story points that need to be completed within a time frame. The team members must determine how many story points they can complete within each sprint cycle.
An efficient scrum team improves their capabilities throughout each sprint, and their estimates will improve and be optimized as time goes on in the overall project execution. Then biweekly, the team produces a shippable product, reviews the current process, and develops ways to overcome challenges/blockers and move to the next sprint cycle.
This iterative process allows for accurate estimation of workflow and effective management of multiple tasks.
On a Kanban team, on the other hand, there are no iterations. The improvement on each workflow process is expected to occur evolutionarily as work is gradually completed.
Roles and responsibilities
Under scrum teams, three roles must be occupied for the smooth execution of every project in the workflow process: the scrum master, product owner, and team members. Each role has its unique and specific responsibilities, and they must work collectively to achieve efficient balance.
The scrum team must also be cross-functional, which means that each team must have all the necessary resources to complete the entire sprint cycle.
Under Kanban, there are no specific roles. Practically speaking, any team member can serve as the project manager or supervisor for each project, especially for more complex Kanban projects. The specific roles evolve from the needs of the project and organization.
A Kanban team does not need to be cross-functional since the Kanban workflow chart is to be used by all team members involved in the project at any given time. Therefore, a team of specialists will be needed to work collaboratively on different aspects of the project.
The Kanban and Scrum board
While the Kanban and scrum board operate on similar principles, there are still some differences.
On a scrum board, the columns are labeled to reflect periods in the workflow cycle, starting with the sprint backlog and ending with the team’s desired outcome. All the stories added to the board at the beginning of each sprint should also be found in the final column at the end of that sprint cycle. The board is then cleared and prepped for the best sprint cycle after the sprint retrospective.
On a Kanban board, the columns are also labeled to show workflow rates but with a little difference: they publish the maximum number of stories required for each column at a time. Since each column has a maximum number of allowed stories and there are no required time boxes (like sprint length), there’s no reason to reset the Kanban board as the project progresses.
The Kanban methodology is one of the simplest workflow management frameworks to implement. As long as you continuously manage and analyze your workflow, you can effectively use Kanban for business management.
Finally, with the information we have shared in this article, we believe you should be able to use Kanban effectively for business management. Don’t hesitate to implement all the principles you have learnt in this post. They will help you greatly.