Kanban Core Practices & Benefits Explained

September 14th, 2022 by inflectra

Kanban methodology is an incredibly effective way to improve efficiency, as well as a number of other factors. Learn more about its benefits today!

 

Core Practices of Kanban

The Kanban methodology is a means to design, manage, and improve flow systems for knowledge work. The method also allows organizations to start with their existing workflow and drive evolutionary change. They can do this by visualizing their flow of work, limiting work in progress (WIP), and stop starting and start finishing.

 

In essence, Kanban is a scheduling system for lean and other Just-in-Time (JIT) processes. In a Kanban process, there are usually physical (or virtual) “cards” called Kanban that move through the process from start to finish. The aim is to keep a constant flow of Kanban so that as inventory is required at the end of the process, just that much is created at the start.

The core philosophy behind Kanban advocates transparency to the work that is in process through the system so that individuals can interact on the required processes and tools to perform just-enough experimentation instead of settling for the status quo! “This lean philosophy is the foundation for the Kanban principles behind the essential Kanban practices of maintaining flow, eliminating waste, and improving continuous learning,” says our Agile Evangelist, Dr. Sriram Rajagopalan. Let us explore these essential Kanban practices now.

1. Visualize the flow of work

We have heard of the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” because the picture creates a mental model of the current and future states as well as the individual steps through which the input transforms into output. In the world of strategic leadership, where product management creates the product strategy, this flow of work can be seen in Porter’s Value Chain on how value is created for the customer through the many business processes.

Kanban Board in Spira

Similarly, the visualization of work and the workflow allows individuals and teams to observe by witnessing and performing Gemba walks to eliminate any risks to successful value delivery. These risks may manifest as blockers, queues, impediments, or bottlenecks. Visualizing the flow of work (the number of cards in each lane) in the workflows (the stages in the swimlane) as indicated in the above diagram allows everyone in the project delivery team and product organization to preemptively address risks to ensure “flow.”

2. Limit Work in Progress (WIP)

Although many think multitasking is essential, the concept of leaving one task incomplete to pick another task and return to the original task introduces the possibility of no work being completed. Furthermore, additional time is spent on context switching and understanding where the earlier tasks were left. Lean highlights that balancing multiple tasks simultaneously causes less productivity due to the waiting times introduced and recommends limiting the work in progress to gain focused attention on the work at hand. In fact, Kanban referred to the concept of “Doing As Late As Possible,” or limiting working on the requirements that are less clearly understood.

WIP Limits in Spira

Frequently, when too much WIP exists, there is a larger overhead to lengthy queues. Sometimes, people think of these WIP limits as a visual checklist. On the other hand, Kanban is not a to-do list but puts limits on the work in process to avoid waiting times and resource bottlenecks. In the diagram above, you can see a WIP limit applied on the “In Progress” column that visually indicates exceeding capacity. The focus, therefore, shifts from managing many things and finishing fewer things to focusing on a few things and completing them fully. This practice is analogous to the statement, “a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush.”

3. Manage Flow

Once the work is visualized on what delivers value and WIP limits are set to reduce the adverse effects of task switching, one can focus on optimizing the flow. All the items in the Kanban board are part of the systems thinking approach to move unprocessed items on the left to completed items on the right. The goal here is to observe where work gets stuck and get them unstuck because the “show must go on!” It could be a lack of training on the processes and tools or limited collaboration among team members, for instance.

Managing flow, therefore, pivots on all aspects of people, process, technology, and organization to evaluate if one should start doing things to improve flow, stop things that are not adding to the flow, and keep doing things differently to augment flow. These learnings come from daily meetings, lessons learned, retrospective sessions, or review sessions.

4. Make Process Policies Explicit

As the organization identifies opportunities to improve the system, this knowledge is “written in” to the Kanban board itself. This allows us to capture and preserve organizational learning by building it into the system we use to manage our work – the Kanban board. There are many ways to modify a Kanban board to make process policies explicit. One is to redesign the board to specify how the workflows. Another is to use WIP limits to explicitly state our policy about how much WIP we are able to take on.

5. Implement Feedback Loops

While managing the flow, lessons are learned. Kanban emphasizes that the systems reveal how work flows through the value stream monitored through the Kanban board for people to continuously improve. This continuous improvement is the basis of Kaizen. Some think of these improvements in terms of measuring lagging indicators like the number of risks impacting flow, WIP limits, and lead time. Therefore, typical discussions in the retrospectives may revolve around the number of cards blocked, the total number of blocked days, the number of cards completed per week, and the various areas that block cards.

6. Improve Collaboratively, Evolve Experimentally

However, Kanban also promotes qualitative learning, such as the exploratory and experimental approaches to innovations attempted. These innovations may be radical and are called Kaikaku. For instance, this new knowledge gained from radical innovations may lead to the development of a new product, promote a better understanding of the processes for faster implementation of feedback loops, or aid the cross-functional team knowledge for capacity, transition, and succession planning to foster team cohesion to collaborate on business value.

Benefits of Kanban Methodology

Although Kanban systems emerged from the automotive space, they are equally important in software product development and management. In this section, we will discuss some of the key benefits of using the Kanban methodology.

Planning Flexibility

For many companies, striving for business agility is driven by the need for flexibility. With no prescribed phase durations (unlike other Agile methodologies, such as Scrum), features are released as soon as they are completed. Kanban, therefore, supports the “release on demand” considerations, even in scaled agile implementations. By using a Kanban roadmap rather than relying on a rigid general project plan, product managers are free to reassess immediate priorities based on changes in the market. Kanban methodology suggests an approach to backlog management that helps teams become more self-managing while bringing transparency and consistency to the decision-making process.

Shortened Time Cycles

Limiting WIP and limiting each column of the board’s WIP limits helps team members finish what they’re doing before moving on to new things and sends a message to the customer and other stakeholders that there is limited capacity. In practice, this discipline was found to result in reduced cycle times, or the time taken to complete a task on average.

Fewer Bottlenecks

Kanban paved the foundation for how value can be maximized in a process by limiting project scope to fit a schedule. By limiting the flow for specific process steps that have high contention for resources (e.g., software integration testing), Kanban avoids bottlenecks at key processes in the software development lifecycle.

Increased Visibility (of Flow)

The “visualize flow of work” concept of Lean and Kanban focuses on transparency in the process by which work items will be formally recognized. The use of a backlog with full transparency of work item flow coincided with the “definition of ready” and “definition of done” to pick an item to enter or exit the workflow queue. Kanban helps facilitate a clear definition of the queue itself because of this “visualize the flow of work” practice, thereby increasing the visibility of flow in the entire software development lifecycle.

Continuous Delivery

The goal of continuous delivery is to rapidly, reliably, and repeatedly deliver new features and bug fixes at low risk and with minimal overhead. The goal of Kanban is to optimize the flow of work through incremental change. Both approaches share the common objective of delivering value to the customer faster. Kanban and continuous delivery also complement each other with their shared objective of process improvement. Continuous delivery, which can be delayed by manual effort and human error, often uses automation to make processes more efficient.

Improved Predictability

According to Little’s Law, the customers stationary in the system (WIP) is the product of the long-term effective arrival rate (throughput) and the time the customer spends in the system (lead time). Implementing WIP limits and ensuring the Little’s Law assumptions are met keeps your process operating as a stable system.

 

To improve throughput, the rate of tasks being pulled in should be roughly equal to the rate of tasks leaving. A stable system is a predictable system and one that enables you to make data-driven decisions. Most importantly, Kanban doesn’t require you to revamp your process to begin seeing these benefits. It works by implementing incremental, evolutionary changes to make your workflow more efficient and your team more productive.

Improved Dependencies Management

In any software project, there are dependencies on work items. Kanban offered support in these areas by looking at impediments to flow! Whether it is an overworked process, undocumented procedure, untrained people, or a poorly calibrated system, Kanban used the combination of managing the flow and continuous learning to relentlessly avoid anything that contributed to any type of waste.

Increased Customer Satisfaction

Kanban cycle time is calculating the actual work-in-progress time. It tracks how long a task stays in the different process stages. Keeping track of your cycle times enables you to measure your team’s performance. Low cycle times mean that your team is efficient. High cycle times indicate stalls, bottlenecks, and backlogs. Keeping cycle times down keeps lead time down, and fast lead times mean high customer satisfaction. Because of this, a side benefit of the reduced cycle times is improved overall customer satisfaction.

Take Advantage of Kanban’s Benefits

If you’re ready to maximize the value you get from Kanban development and practices, SpiraTeam and Rapise can help you. Working to visualize, manage, and automate your projects allows you to increase efficiency, reduce bugs and issues, and organize everything you need in one place. Get started with a free trial by clicking here!

Kanban Agile

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