The Kanban system has made its way from the plants of Toyota engaging in breakthrough lean manufacturing work to the world of software and knowledge work management today. In simple words, the Kanban system is a means to visualize, design, manage and improve flow systems for knowledge workers.

The method is well suited to help organizations start with their existing workflows and drive process optimization through continuous evolutionary change. You can get started with the Kanban method with a simple 3-column board: requested, in-progress, & done.

The Kanban method is suited for knowledge work where the arrival of work requests is unpredictable and quick deployment without over-dependence on other departments is a priority.

Fundamentals of the Kanban System

The Kanban system can be broken into two types of principles and six practices. The types of principles are:

Change Management Principles

Used to address our tendency to resist change by starting with established practices and striving for evolutionary improvement. There are three principles under this type:

  1. Start with what you do now.
  2. Agree to pursue improvement through evolutionary change.
  3. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels.

Service Delivery Principles

Used to develop an ever-evolving service-oriented approach by deeply understanding the customer's needs and creating self-organizing service networks. In this case, too, there are three principles:

  1. Focus on customer needs and expectations.
  2. Manage work and let people organize around it.
  3. Regularly review the network of services.

Actionable Tip: Start by bringing your team together to establish the base on which you'll implement the Kanban system. You can also ask members to take initiatives to constantly improve the process.

Practices under the Kanban System

While the principles might guide the Kanban system, we must understand its practices for successful implementation. There are six of them, to be precise.

  1. Visualize the workflow: Use a simple Kanban board, where each column represents a step in the workflow. Your board must showcase the commitment points, delivery points, WIP limits, etc.
  2. Limit work in progress: It is essential to maintain a manageable number of items in the WIP at any given time. This practice would mean implementing a pull system to ensure that a task progresses into the next step only when capacity is available.
  3. Manage flow: Addressing bottlenecks and blockers will help manage the flow, minimize lead time, and make the process predictable.
  4. Make process policies explicit: Policies that make it easier for participants to understand the process and the structure are critical to implementing the Kanban system. Clear definitions around task completion, WIP limits, etc., will make it easier to collaborate and improve.
  5. Implement feedback loops: Feedback is essential to facilitate knowledge transfers and change management. Feedback loops are usually implemented throughout the process lifecycle via meetings, weekly reviews, etc. You can schedule recurring meetings and reviews through Routine in less than 10 seconds.
  6. Improve collaboratively: Continuous and incremental change is achieved through collaborations and rigorous scrutiny of every step in the process using scientific methods, metrics, and established best practices.
WIP Limit Management

Advantages of the Kanban System

Kanban system is popular among knowledge workers due to the many advantages it brings to them. Some of the key ones that the Kanban system helps with are:

  1. Increased awareness of the workflow
  2. Assessment and management of dependencies
  3. Improved delivery speed
  4. Improved predictability of the process and outcomes
  5. Clearly defined policies for clarity

Overall, Kanban is a valuable system that will help you get things done effectively. The system is flexible enough to work with your existing flow and consistently improve on it. While we did cover some essential aspects of the system, there are still many things to learn about it for those who are curious.

Hence, here are some resources for further consumption:

  1. Agile Project Management with Kanban | Eric Brechner
  2. Starting with Product Stream Kanban | Yuval Yeret
  3. ProKanban Learning Resources

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