Aug 11, 2022
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Kanban is a task management method that originated from the lean manufacturing movement. It was first developed by Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota in Japan. Kanban is a way to visualise the current workload using cards that move between stages of the production line.
Whilst Kanban originated in lean manufacturing, it has made the leap to the mainstream as a simple and flexible way to manage projects.
In this article we’ll be looking at the Kanban method, how it works, its benefits, drawbacks, and when it might be a good fit for you.
Kanban is a relatively simple productivity method that uses boards and cards to visually represent the current state of work in a given process.
For example, you might have a board that tracks your development work. The board would be set up with multiple vertical sections that progress from left to right. Going from left to right you might have sections for “Scoping”, “Design”, “Development”, and “Done”.
In each section, each piece of work is represented by a card. These cards move across the Kanban board depending on what stage of the process the piece of work is currently at. This makes it really easy to see how far a given task has progressed.
The original reason why the Kanban method was created was to ensure Toyota did not end up with a build up of inventory at any given stage of the manufacturing process. One of the key principles of lean manufacturing is “just in time” production and so a build up of inventory at any given stage of the process is something you would want to avoid.
With that in mind, the key benefits of Kanban are to prevent too much of a build up at any given stage of the process, and allow you to see the current workload across a given process. This means it’s really easy to see an overview of where each of your tasks are in the process.
For example, say you noticed you started to have a big build up of “Design” related tasks. This could mean that launching new features is going to be delayed if you don’t resolve the blockage because the “Development” stage is going to be starved of things to work on whilst the “Design” stage catches up. It also means that any work that is stuck in the “Design” stage is wasted inventory. This could be problematic if things change before the work has been completed.
If you were using the Kanban method, it would be really obvious that this was happening, and you could take action to resolve the problem quickly.
As with any choice in life, there’s always a trade-off. Whilst the Kanban method has some very positive attributes, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for project management.
Firstly, as the Kanban method has been translated to the mainstream, a lot of this benefit has been lost. At Toyota, the Kanban board is a physical board with physical cards that need to be moved through the process. There is a fixed constraint on the number of cards that can be placed at any given stage of the process because of the size of the board.
As Kanban functionality has made it’s way into digital tools, the physical constraint has been lost to the infinite shelf space of software. Of course, that’s not a drawback of Kanban, but in the tools that have implemented it, but it is something to be aware of if you choose to adopt it in your organisation. If you are going to adopt Kanban, you have to be conscious of the buildup of cards at any given stage.
Secondly, the main benefit of Kanban is that it gives you the big picture overview of everything that is happening within a given process. However, that means you lose the fidelity of the small details that really matter. For example, each task at each stage becomes homogeneous in terms of its priority, complexity, or its unique characteristics that have a big impact on when the most appropriate time to complete the task would be.
This might be an acceptable trade-off if all of your tasks are essentially the same, as is the case in manufacturing where the methodology originated. However, this is not the case for most knowledge workers who have a wide breadth and depth of different tasks and responsibilities.
Kanban is a really great choice of productivity method if it fits with how you work and what you want to optimise for. However, if you’re using it as a general purpose method, it might not be a great fit.
If you want a way to very easily visualise everything that is going on in a given process, and you need to ensure there isn’t a build up at any given stage, Kanban is definitely the right choice. This is particularly important if the work you do naturally flows through the same stages of a fixed process, and each of the tasks is similar or predictable in terms of scope and complexity.
Kanban is also a really good choice if you frequently find yourself overwhelmed with tasks at a given stage of the process. For example, say you have lots of ideas for client work and you love building out the designs, but you find the development tasks to be less appealing.
This could mean you end up with a build up of tasks in the “Development” pipeline that aren’t getting actioned. If you were using the Kanban method, this would be really obvious so that you could take early action to ensure that the problem does not get any worse.