Kanban is a concept originating from the manufacturing sector, but is now widely used in many other sectors and disciplines. Kanban is a system for workflow management that provides visual signals to communicate information. Humans process visual information more than 5,000 times quicker than they process information in text; hence, Kanban contributes to efficient operations and optimized process flows. Kanban techniques can be successfully used in both IT and IT Service Management (ITSM) to optimize how day-to-day tasks are planned and executed. Kanban can also be applied to other disciplines that are part of the IT lifecycle, including project management and procurement. Using Kanban in all parts of a business is now rapidly becoming the norm, as organizations strive for efficiency to remain economically viable and competitive in their marketplaces. Kanban is an essential part of any implementation of Lean or Agile, and helps collaboration between different teams.

What is Kanban?

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Kanban is a system for workflow and process management that provides visual signals to communicate information to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Manufacturing, process improvement and ITSM use Kanban. The word, Kanban, is Japanese for “signboard.” In workflow and process management, the term Kanban has four different meanings:

Kanban concepts

Kanban can be described using four simple concepts:

Visualize work

Kanban creates a visual workflow or process model. This visual model can be used to observe the flow of work and products through the Kanban system. This includes highlighting any causes of blocked progress, such as bottlenecks creating a demand greater than capacity, queues of work and teams or individuals failing to move work through the system. Making these visible using Kanban soon drives increased communications and improved collaboration between teams.

Limit work-in-progress

Using Kanban to limiting the amount of work in progress (where work on a product has started but hasn’t yet been completed) can reduce the time it requires to move through the workflow. Having a smaller number of work-in-progress items where Kanban signals trigger production increases the visibility of each item, and their progress can be given sufficient attention. Re-prioritization delays are thus avoided.

Focus on flow

Using Kanban to limit work-in-progress and to visualize work helps to maintain a focus on delivering outputs with a constant flow of work through the system. Kanban enables the simple collection of metrics that can be used to analyze the flow, and provide an early warning of future problems.

Continuous improvement

Using Kanban underpins a culture of continuous improvement. Visualizing and measuring flow, quality of outputs, throughput and lead times using Kanban helps teams and individuals to measure and improve their effectiveness.

What are examples of Kanban in common usage?

Most people have seen Kanban in operation without realizing it. Kanban techniques are in widespread use in a vast number of different industry sectors.

An example from the manufacturing sector

Almost every manufacturing organization uses Kanban in its production processes. The automotive industry is a good example. During the past, vehicles were made and then inventoried awaiting a sale. Kanban techniques were introduced both as a way to avoid unsold stock in dealerships and to avoid bottlenecks in the production process, moving to a “make-to- order” system with JIT. The first use of Kanban in the process is when a consumer visits a dealership and orders a vehicle. The dealer sends an order to the factory, which is actually a Kanban signal for the factory to make the vehicle according to the customer’s specification. Kanban is also used within the manufacturing process. For example, when the number of steering wheels in their production-line-Kanban container decreases to a defined level, a Kanban signal is sent to the supplier to provide more. The supplier will provide just enough of them to replenish the Kanban container to the agreed level. The size of the Kanban container is crucial to the efficiency of the end-to-end process.

An example from the fast-food restaurant sector

A fast-food burger restaurant is another example of the use of Kanban. Techniques for both Kanban signals and Kanban containers are successfully used to ensure there are always just enough fresh burgers to sell, stopping food from becoming cold and being wasted. In this use of Kanban, the restaurant will have a set of chutes between the serving point and the kitchen, with a different chute for each type of burger. A line marked on each chute acts as a Kanban signal. When the number of burgers in a particular chute decreases to this level, then a Kanban signal communicates to the kitchen to make an agreed number of fresh burgers. The batch size, or Kanban-container size, will vary for each type of burger depending on the rate they are typically sold. In some restaurants, both the Kanban container size and the level at which the Kanban is triggered will vary depending on the day of the week and time of day, to cope with the varying rates of burger sales. For less-popular burgers, the Kanban size could be just 1. If the Kanban-container sizes and Kanban-trigger levels are carefully determined, then most customers will receive a freshly cooked burger without waiting.

What is the history of Kanban?

During the late 1940s, Toyota wanted to achieve a smooth flow of vehicle production and hold minimal stocks of completed vehicles. Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, was the originator of Kanban to solve this challenge. His inspiration for Kanban came from a grocery store, where staff would only order enough items from suppliers to replenish what customers had purchased. Ohno developed the use of an actual card, which he called a Kanban, to trigger the previous stage in a production process to replenish stock. The Kanban system’s highly visual nature allowed teams to communicate easier about what work was needed and when, helping to reduce waste and maximize value. New applications of Kanban thinking outside manufacturing were then developed, including, during 2007, the creation of an expanded body of knowledge about Kanban. This rapidly led to Kanban’s different techniques being adopted worldwide in a wide range of sectors and disciplines.

What are the principles of Kanban?

In the original incarnation of Kanban, Toyota developed rules for applying Kanban. These can be summarized with the following principles:

What are the benefits of using Kanban?

Using Kanban can provide significant benefits in workflows and processes to produce outputs. Effective use of Kanban for workflow and process management can:

The shared visualization of a process using Kanban boards drives collaboration between teams as they can actively see work moving through the system towards final delivery. They can also easily identify tasks that are not being completed as planned, so they can work together to address any issues. Kanban boards also provide managers with an easily understood “birds-eye” view of workload and how work is progressing. The Kanban boards can help managers to understand the impact unplanned work has on their teams, so they can set realistic priorities and manage expectations with senior staff.

What are Kanban boards?

A Kanban board is a tool within Kanban, which provides a visual representation of how work in a workflow is progressing to completion. Teams use Kanban boards to manage workflows collectively, providing a visual image of tasks and their status, but individuals can also use Kanban boards. A Kanban board has a number of columns, each representing a stage in the overall workflow or process. In a simple Kanban board, these stages could be “To-do,” “In-progress” and “Completed.” It is good practice to keep Kanban boards as simple as possible, as complex boards are difficult to understand. Kanban boards have the following features:

Visibility of work

A visual card represents each unique work task and the card includes the name of the task. The card is moved from left to right on the Kanban board as a task progresses through the stages. If the Kanban board is a physical board, then the normal practice is to use a sticker for each task. Moving a sticker on the Kanban board is a visual signal of progress. Different colored stickers can be used on the Kanban board to differentiate between types of task, which can also be achieved with different rows on the Kanban board. Using these visual signals provides easily understood communications.

Limiting work-in-progress

Many uses of Kanban boards specify a limit of how many cards can be in a column, as a means to limit work-in-progress. Before another card can be moved into the column, the team must work together to move one of the existing cards to the next column. Using the Kanban board in this manner can help increase the flow of work, as tasks are worked and completed to make way for others. A Kanban board will also identify bottlenecks where there is a queue of tasks waiting to be moved to the next column. If the limit is often reached, then this is a signal of an excessive amount of committed work. It is not a solution just to create an extra Kanban board.

Commitment point

Once a task has been entered on the Kanban board, it should be moved through the workflow as quickly as possible. If work-in-progress is limited, then there will probably be a backlog of tasks waiting to be added to the Kanban board. The commitment point is the moment in time when the team “commits” to completing the work by entering the task on the Kanban board.

Delivery point 

This is where the work has been completed to the customer’s satisfaction and the task can be removed from the Kanban board.

Digital Kanban boards

Physical Kanban boards should be used where possible, as the act of manually updating the Kanban board is the best method for collaboration among individuals. Where this is not possible, due to remotely located individuals and teams, then a digital Kanban board can be used. These digital boards can be easily shared and updated across time zones and locations, allowing many of the benefits of Kanban to be realized. Tools are available that support multiple-linked Kanban boards, with tracking, audit trails and automatic notifications of changes made on the Kanban board.

How Kanban can improve team performance

The updating of Kanban boards of the status of tasks is best done as a team activity rather than individuals working alone. This approach enables team members to know each other, and to share openly progress and blockage of progress using the Kanban board. The Kanban board supports collective responsibility for moving tasks through the workflow to completion. Blocked tasks are visible to all, which prevents people from keeping issues to themselves. Effective implementations of Kanban give rise to a supportive culture where people help each other to resolve issues. All of these behavioral and cultural impacts from using Kanban boards will improve the performance of teams as well as individuals.

Scrum or Kanban?

Many software development teams use both Scrum and Kanban are techniques. The Scrum approach uses a technique to complete software developments during sprints of standard time intervals. Each sprint will include the delivery of a number of different pieces of work. The sprint has defined start and end dates. Any work not completed at the end of a sprint is carried forward into the product backlog. The end date is not delayed to accommodate completing it.

This contrasts with the Kanban software-development approach, where there is no concept of standard time intervals of development cycles or fixed end dates. In this Kanban approach, the development of a piece of work continues until it is completed and delivered.

Software development teams that use Scrum often do use a form of Kanban board to provide visual illustrations of the sprint contents and status; however, this Kanban board is cleared at the end of each sprint. The Kanban board is then populated with the new work agreed for completion during the next sprint. A Kanban board used in the Scrum technique also has fixed dates for completion, whereas a true Kanban board has no dates associated with the columns.

Many software development teams now use a combination of Scrum and Kanban. Scrum is used for planned work to deliver new functionality and non-urgent fixes. Kanban is used to develop any urgent fixes that must be delivered before the planned end date of the sprint.

Using Kanban in ITSM

Kanban techniques can be applied to many aspects of ITSM, improving efficiency and effectiveness of ITSM processes. Kanban can assist in visualizing the ITSM processes and how work flows through them. Providing this view can help to ensure consistent application of the processes both within a single team and where multiple teams are involved in executing the end-to-end process. Kanban can remove barriers when processes have to cross boundaries between teams. Kanban also facilitates continual improvement as it highlights waste, such as queues and bottlenecks, which can then be removed through optimizing the process flow. Here are some examples of where the different types of Kanban can be applied in ITSM.

Change management

Kanban boards are often used in change-management processes to visualize the status of changes. Each change is represented on the Kanban board as a unique task. Typical columns showing task status on the Kanban board are “Received,” “Under review,” “Awaiting approval,” “Approved” and “Implemented.” There can also be separate areas on the Kanban board for “Rejected” and “Further information required.” The tasks are moved through the columns on the Kanban board at regular “stand-up” meetings, where everyone involved in the change workflow gathers to share information, review progress, discuss issues and make any collective approvals.

Release management

For this process, Kanban boards are used to display the progress of releases through their lifecycles. There are often several Kanban boards in use. The highest-level Kanban board shows the status of all releases, for example, “Building,” “Testing,” “In deployment” and “Completed,” with a separate task for each release. ITSM usually owns this highest-level Kanban Board. There can then be lower-level Kanban boards, or one per release showing the status of the component tasks for that release, with the release manager for that release owning each Kanban board. Individual delivery teams, such as applications, infrastructure and networks, may then have their own Kanban board containing their detailed and required tasks to complete their delegated release activities. Complex releases that involve multiple teams will benefit most from this hierarchical use of Kanban boards. Where this approach is used, it is important to ensure all Kanban boards remain synchronized. Representatives from each team maintain this synchronization by attending the meeting where the Kanban board for the next, higher level in the release is updated. This approach avoids having to maintain a single, complex release plan and allows individual teams to manage and prioritize their workloads, whilst providing all stakeholders with the necessary status reporting.

Incident management

When an organization routinely receives only a small number of incidents, a Kanban board can be used to manage those incidents. The Kanban board has columns for “Backlog,” “In-progress,” “Fixed awaiting user acceptance” and “Fully resolved.” A task is created for each received incident and is placed in the “Waiting-assignment” column on the Kanban board. The task is then moved through the columns as its status changes. Using the Kanban board in this manner will highlight if a queue of incidents is increasing. If the tasks are color-coded according to impact and urgency, then the Kanban board can also help with the prioritization of incidents.

Major incident management

Investigating and resolving the cause of major incidents often requires the simultaneous involvement of many people with a large number of distinct tasks. Kanban boards can be very effective in improving the resolution time of major incidents by using the Kanban board to visualize and share progress. Teams involved can “swarm” around the Kanban board, encouraging discussions about how best to approach issues. In major incident management, a task is created on the Kanban board for each task, including any different investigations that are required. Color-coding tasks can be used to differentiate between tasks assigned to different teams. Using a Kanban board in this manner to manage major incidents simplifies communications between teams, and can help to ensure tasks are not forgotten as the pressure to resolve the major incident increases.

Problem management

In this use of Kanban, each problem has its own task on the Kanban board. This can be linked with an incident-management Kanban board, so a problem task is created for every incident where the root cause is unknown. Problem tasks are moved on the Kanban board as their status changes, for example from “Under investigation” to “Root cause identified.” Using Kanban boards for problem management often highlights there are more problems to fix than the capacity to fix them. This can block the use of Kanban boards for problem management.

Managing the flow of work into test phases

In many organizations, the test stage in the lifecycle of a release has a fixed capacity, which often restricts the flow of releases into deployment. Kanban techniques can be used both to highlight this lack of capacity and to manage the flow into testing. Kanban signals are used to control the flow of work into bottlenecks, such as limited test resources. Applying the Kanban principle that nothing should be made without a Kanban signal, developers should not push the release into testing until they have received a Kanban signal from the test team. A release-based Kanban board can be used to provide this signal by having a column for “Testing” with a fixed capacity. At the meeting to update this Kanban board, the test team would move a task that has completed testing into the next stage. The team would then discuss with the developers present at the meeting which task should be moved into testing. This approach fosters collaboration between all teams involved.

Using Kanban elsewhere in IT

Kanban can also be used in IT outside ITSM. Kanban boards can be used to control any IT project, such as the building of new servers and using Kanban for project management, as described in the next section. Kanban boards can be used in IT operations to control the management of scheduled activities, such as executing routine batch jobs and housekeeping tasks. A task is created for each activity and is moved on the Kanban board as the status changes. IT operations can also benefit from using a high-level Kanban board to manage visually all of their activities in one place. In this use, every task IT operations perform, including a summary task for each project, would be displayed on the same Kanban board. This helps to keep the IT operations team informed and working together, and the Kanban board can also highlight issues, such as overload and late tasks.

Using Kanban outside IT

Kanban techniques can also be used in many areas outside of IT, ITSM and manufacturing. Here are some examples:

Project management

Kanban boards can be used to provide everyone involved in the project with visual indications of the status of each project task and help to illustrate the wider status of the whole project. Where possible, it is best to use a physical board. The Kanban board should be divided into columns for each stage of the project, such as “Not started,” “In-progress” and “Completed.” It can also be useful to create a separate zone on the Kanban board for tasks with issues to be resolved, such as late-running tasks that require urgent attention. The visual Kanban technique of using different colored stickers for different task types can help with understanding the big picture. Updating the physical project Kanban board every day, involving key people from every project workstream, can help build effective cross-functional teams. Hence, using Kanban for projects can remove the barriers between different parties.

Event management

Kanban boards can be used to plan events. These are essentially projects, so the same visual Kanban techniques are used to help with planning events. Because Kanban boards are simple and inexpensive to create, they can be applied to all sizes of routine events, such as organizing a meeting, or a major event, such as a delegate conference. To organize a meeting, a separate task would be designated for each attendee and the room. For a major event, there would be higher-level tasks, such as sending invitations and organizing the catering.

Starting with Kanban in ITSM

Introducing Kanban boards is a good method to make a start with Kanban in ITSM. Kanban boards are easy and inexpensive to create; many organizations start with a rub-clean whiteboard and pens. Release management is a good process to start using Kanban boards, as your organization probably already has release plans. Create a high-level Kanban board showing the current status of all releases, with a sticky note indicating a task for every release. Institute a weekly or more frequent gathering at the Kanban board with key people responsible for each release. The process owner for release management in ITSM should facilitate the Kanban meeting, asking each representative to summarize briefly the status of his or her release, moving the task to the next status as appropriate. Each task on the Kanban board should provide just enough information. If a major release with a complex plan is in-progress, then create a separate Kanban board for this release and encourage the teams and individuals involved to populate this Kanban board with tasks from their project plans. Success with Kanban comes from making a small start and then extending its use as knowledge and confidence build.

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