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Kanban System

The Kanban system, originally developed for manufacturing by Taiichi Ohno at Toyota, is a visual workflow management method that focuses on continuous improvement and lean principles. In software development, Kanban is used to manage work in progress (WIP), improve the flow of tasks, and enhance team collaboration and communication.

Kanban Fundamentals

  1. Visualize Work: At its core, Kanban is about visualizing your work. When work is visible, it’s easier to identify bottlenecks and areas of inefficiency.
  2. Limit Work in Progress (WIP): By constraining how much unfinished work is in process, teams can focus on completion.
  3. Manage Flow: Observing and managing the flow of work helps identify areas for improvement.
  4. Make Process Policies Explicit: Clear guidelines ensure everyone understands how to move tasks.
  5. Feedback Loops: Regularly revisiting and refining the process aids in continuous improvement.
  6. Collaborative Evolution: Improvements and adaptations should involve insights from the entire team.

The Kanban Board

The centerpiece of this methodology is the Kanban board. It can be as simple as a physical board with sticky notes or a digital tool like Trello or Jira.

A typical board consists of:

  • Columns: Representing the stages a task goes through, commonly “To Do,” “In Progress,” and “Done.”
  • Cards: Representing tasks or items that move from one column to another.
  • WIP Limits: Indicated on each column to prevent overloading.

Kanban and Software development

Here is a description of the Kanban system as applied to software development:

  1. Visualize the workflow: The first step in implementing Kanban is to create a visual representation of your team’s workflow. This is typically done using a Kanban board, which can be a physical board with sticky notes or an electronic tool. The board is divided into columns representing different stages of the workflow, such as “To Do,” “In Progress,” “In Review,” and “Done.” Each task or user story is represented by a card, which moves across the board as it progresses through the stages.

  2. Limit work in progress (WIP): One of the key principles of Kanban is to limit the amount of work in progress. By setting WIP limits for each stage of the workflow, you can prevent bottlenecks, improve the flow of tasks, and ensure that the team focuses on completing existing work before taking on new tasks. This also helps identify areas in the process where improvements can be made.

  3. Manage flow: The goal of Kanban is to optimize the flow of work through the system, ensuring that tasks are completed efficiently and with minimal waste. By tracking metrics such as lead time (the time it takes for a task to move from start to finish) and cycle time (the time it takes to complete a task once it’s started), teams can identify areas for improvement and make adjustments to their processes.

  4. Make process policies explicit: Kanban encourages teams to make their process policies explicit, such as the definition of “done” for each stage or the criteria for moving tasks between stages. This ensures that everyone on the team has a clear understanding of the process and can work together more effectively.

  5. Implement feedback loops: Regular feedback loops, such as daily stand-up meetings or retrospectives, are an essential part of Kanban. These meetings allow the team to discuss the current state of the workflow, identify issues or bottlenecks, and make adjustments as needed.

  6. Continuous improvement: Kanban is based on the principle of continuous improvement (also known as Kaizen), which means that the team is always looking for ways to optimize the workflow and improve efficiency. By regularly reviewing the process and making data-driven decisions, teams can iteratively improve their performance over time.

The Kanban system in software development is a flexible, visual, and lean approach to managing work that emphasizes continuous improvement, flow optimization, and team collaboration. By visualizing the workflow, limiting work in progress, and regularly reviewing the process, teams can increase efficiency and deliver software more effectively.

Benefits of Kanban

  • Transparency: Every team member can see the status of every task.
  • Flexibility: Easily adaptable to changes without disrupting the flow.
  • Improved Efficiency: Reducing multitasking and focusing on completion.
  • Reduced Wastage: Limiting WIP reduces idle time and task switching.

Maximizing Kanban Potential: Tips and Tricks

  1. Tailored Columns: Instead of the generic three columns, make your Kanban board more detailed, like “Awaiting Review” or “Testing.”
  2. Swimlanes: Horizontal rows that categorize tasks by type or priority.
  3. Color-Coded Cards: Use colors to quickly identify task types or priorities.
  4. Regular Stand-ups: Daily quick meetings in front of the board to discuss progress and blockers.
  5. Use of Dots or Tally Marks: Mark each day a task remains in the “In Progress” column to identify long-running tasks.
  6. Feedback Column: Before the “Done” column, have a “Feedback” column for completed tasks to be reviewed.
  7. Digital Integrations: If using digital Kanban tools, integrate with other tools like Slack, GitHub, or calendars.
  8. Metrics: Use lead time (time taken from start to finish) and cycle time (time taken from work started to completion) to measure and improve.

Common Pitfalls in Kanban Implementation and How to Avoid Them

The Kanban method can indeed transform how a team manages its workflow. However, when not implemented correctly, some pitfalls can counteract its effectiveness. Here’s a list of common mistakes and how to sidestep them:

1. Overloading the Board

Pitfall: Adding too many tasks, making it difficult to see what’s truly important and creating clutter.

Solution: Regularly review and prune tasks that are no longer relevant. Always maintain clarity by ensuring tasks are concise and relevant.

2. Neglecting Work-In-Progress (WIP) Limits

Pitfall: Not setting or ignoring WIP limits can lead to multitasking and task switching, which can reduce efficiency.

Solution: Strictly enforce WIP limits. If tasks get stuck in a column consistently, it’s a sign of a bottleneck that needs addressing.

3. Ignoring Bottlenecks

Pitfall: Not addressing tasks that stay in one column for an extended period can lead to delayed projects and increased lead times.

Solution: Use metrics like cycle time to identify and resolve bottlenecks. Regularly discuss these during team meetings.

4. Not Updating the Board Regularly

Pitfall: A stale board is ineffective and can lead to miscommunication.

Solution: Make it a team habit to update the board. In digital setups, use notifications/reminders. In physical setups, daily stand-ups can be useful.

5. Being Too Rigid

Pitfall: Sticking too strictly to a particular board setup, even when it’s clear that changes are needed.

Solution: Kanban is meant to be adaptive. Change columns or processes when the team feels it’s necessary.

6. Not Engaging the Whole Team

Pitfall: If only a part of the team uses or believes in the system, its benefits can be diluted.

Solution: Ensure everyone is trained on the system, understands its benefits, and is committed to using it.

7. Forgetting Continuous Improvement

Pitfall: Not using feedback loops to improve the process can lead to stagnation.

Solution: Regularly hold retrospective meetings to discuss what’s working and what’s not. Adjust accordingly.

8. Overcomplicating with Too Many Columns or Rules

Pitfall: While detailing is good, going overboard can make the system cumbersome.

Solution: Start simple. Add columns or rules only when a clear need arises. Ensure every addition has a purpose.

9. Lack of Clarity in Task Descriptions

Pitfall: Vague descriptions can lead to confusion, resulting in wasted time or errors.

Solution: Set clear guidelines for how tasks should be described. Consider adding a brief and a detailed description section.

10. Ignoring External Dependencies

Pitfall: Tasks that depend on external teams or resources can get stuck if not tracked.

Solution: Highlight or tag tasks that have external dependencies. Create a strategy for managing and tracking these dependencies.


The Kanban method, though simple in its presentation, is a powerful tool in the project manager’s arsenal. By understanding its principles and tweaking the system to fit the organization’s unique needs, teams can achieve improved communication, productivity, and efficiency.

Page last modified: 2023-08-07 10:56:15