Like kaizen before it, kanban is a concept colonizing the project management landscape. The much-hyped process management tool was first introduced as an integral part of the just-in-time lean manufacturing production paradigm introduced at Japanese auto giant Toyota in the early 1950s.
The idea was to fine-tune production processes so that output precisely matched demand, drastically cutting material waste and the cost of warehousing overstock. Kanban, which means “signboard,” originally used laminated cards to communicate demand upwards through the supply chain: An empty parts bin with a kanban card in it indicated that restocking was required, including identifying information for the necessary part and exactly how many were needed. As global outsourcing moved suppliers out of the factory and overseas, e-kanban systems using handhelds largely replaced the physical cards.
These days, lean evangelists are adapting the kanban template for project management, particularly in software development. The field's tight deadlines and iterative design process create an environment where a minimum of interruptions and transparent communications are essential to project progress. And e-kanban helps deliver that.
Tasks on Post-it notes (real or virtual) become the kanban cards, which move back and forth across designated columns representing stages of completion: “backlog,” “work in progress (WIP)” and “completed,” for example. These categories are visual representations of kanban's value stream, the steps a team takes to create maximum value.
The most important items—the tasks that need to be done just in time—get bumped to the top of the list in both the backlog and WIP lanes. Ideally, kanban maintains a smooth, uninterrupted flow of production by limiting WIP and allowing the project team to unclog the resource pipeline. Regardless of the size of a project's backlog, limiting WIP to a few manageable items keeps teams from getting bogged down by overcommitment (and its accompanying morale-killing feelings of hopelessness).
“A Los Angeles freeway is a perfect analogy,” says Derek Huether, PMP, blogger at thecriticalpath.info. “The on-ramps use signals during rush hour to limit how much traffic enters the freeway at any one time. Regardless of the highway's maximum capacity, if you allow too many cars on at once, the overall flow of traffic will slow down. By controlling the amount of cars on the freeway, you optimize the flow of traffic, providing an opportunity for cars to exit the freeway.”
If traffic flow is the kanban production system, exiting cars are completed work. The idea is to maximize efficiency while reducing the time spent on each task.
So how can you get in on the action? If you’re just starting out and want to experiment with no money down, you can use Post-it notes in columns on a wallboard or a whiteboard. Mount it in a public area so your whole team can see what’s going on. You can also make a budget-friendly virtual kanban using Google Docs.
“All you have to do is draw your taskboard and then just insert an image of a Post-it note, insert a text box over the note, highlight the note, enter task information, then join or group the card and the deck. Then you can drag it anywhere you want,” Mr. Huether says. “You can then share your virtual kanban with others.”
But for a serious kanban approach, two beefier online tools are recommended:
AGILEZEN (agilezen.com) boasts a clean, user-friendly interface, with a virtual kanban board, customizable tags and colors, and a performance metrics tracker.
For more on project management and kanban, check out Bill Kreb’s post “Kanban Creates Buzz Among Agile Crowd” on PMI’s Voices on Project Management blog.
LEANKIT KANBAN (leankitkanban.com) has the capability to produce multiple and nested value streams, meaning sub-groups or teams can create modular value streams specific to their needs but hidden from the main workflow.
However you use kanban, be aware that it’s just another project management tool that can be adopted in whole or in part. Depending on your situation, you may find that you need an additional planning tool—or that kanban isn’t quite right for you.
“Kanban is an adaptable, lightweight tool to visualize, organize and complete work,” Mr. Huether says.
What’s suited for the run-and-gun style of software development advocated by agile or scrum may not apply in environments where multiple sets of stakeholders must sign off on planning decisions, or where critical path charting doesn’t need to be recalibrated on a moment-to-moment basis.
But those who do adopt kanban might just find things flowing smoothly down the road. PM