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Kanban is a prominent method used to implement agile project management (PM). It is less rigid and prescriptive than other agile frameworks (e.g., scrum), and is popular among teams that require the flexibility to reprioritize tasks as needed to accomplish project goals.
As the agile PM movement gains momentum, vendors are increasingly developing products designed to support scrum and kanban PM processes. Add these to the wealth of traditional PM tools already on the market and it can be difficult to know where to start.
In this guide, we’ll review the modern kanban PM method and explain how it fits within the larger PM space. We’ll also breakdown the kanban software available to you, so you can make a more informed purchase decision.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
What Is Kanban Project Management?
Before we dive into kanban, here’s a short comparison of agile and waterfall project management:
Agile PM helps teams address and respond to change over the life of a project. Teams start with an overarching project goal and break work down into incremental phases, completing high priority items first. By incorporating more opportunities for inspection and review as the project is in progress, teams reduce waste and strive to deliver the most value to the end user/customer.
Waterfall PM is the traditional model of project management and is change averse. Requirements are agreed upon before the start of a project and benchmarks are set for scope, budget and timeline. Teams work sequentially, and work flows from one phase to the next until the project is completed. Success is measured by how closely the project adheres to the initial plan, i.e., “on-time and on-budget.”
The Kanban method is designed to reduce waste and improve team efficiency. Although less prescriptive than scrum, there are four key principles that define the kanban PM methodology:
- Manage work visually. Kanban teams create a visual representation of their work and workflows by using a kanban board. The board is broken down into several columns that represent the team’s different workflow stages, and users move cards with task information across the board to represent where the task is in their workflow.
- Limit work in progress. By limiting the amount of open work items on the board, teams can reduce the time it takes to complete a single task. Ultimately, this helps them complete work at a faster pace because they don’t suffer productivity losses due to context switching and juggling multiple tasks at once.
- Work in a “continuous flow.” Whereas scrum is iterative and teams complete work in timeboxes, kanban teams complete work in a continuous flow. Users pull work through the system a single piece at a time and work on that task until it is complete. Then they pull the next highest-priority item from the backlog. Work-in-progress limits help to regulate the flow of tasks and eliminate bottlenecks, so teams work at their ideal pace and do not overextend themselves or get burned out.
- Focus on “continuous improvement.” Continuous improvement is a cornerstone of agile project management. By embracing change and increasing opportunities for inspection and review over the course of the project, agile teams strive to maximize the value delivered to the customer and/or end user. This is why kanban allows for the re-prioritization of backlogs, so users work on and complete the highest-priority items first, i.e., balancing demand against throughput. This is also why teams track their flow, throughput and quality, and why they limit their open work items, so they can experiment and find their ideal pace and optimize their performance.
What Is Kanban Software?
Kanban software supports the above principles in several ways:
Helps teams visualize work and workflows. Digital kanban boards act as a team’s centralized project hub, helping to relate task and project status at a glance. Users can see instantly where a work item is in their workflow, meaning they know what stages it has already passed through and where it needs to go next.
Places actual limits on the number of open items. Kanban software allows teams to set work-in-progress (WIP) limits on a specific phase of work (i.e., column) or on the number of open tasks allowed for a specific user. Managers can put a “cap” on the number of open items permitted, and set up notifications to alert themselves and the user when they have reached the maximum number of open tasks permitted.
Easily reprioritizes work in the backlog, or “to-do” phase, as needed. Items in the backlog can be reprioritized as needed and placed at the top of the “to-do” column or prioritized in another way, either by marking the task as urgent or assigning an agreed-upon color-code (e.g., red for urgent, yellow for needs attention soon etc.).
Tracks the progression of work items and measuring performance. Kanban teams have two defining methods for tracking the flow and progression of work and measuring team performance: lead and cycle time and cumulative flow (more on these in the next section). Kanban software helps automate these reports, allowing managers to schedule them to run on a recurring basis. The findings can be mirrored onto a dashboard or collated into a project status report for stakeholders. Tracking these items helps teams make more informed decisions about their rate of throughput and how to effectively use tools such as WIP limits, so they can work to continuously improve their efficiency.
Kanban board in LeanKit
Common Features of Kanban Software
Look for the following features as you evaluate and compare kanban software solutions:
|Kanban boards||A visualization of a team’s workflows. The boards are broken down by columns which represent different workflow stages. Tasks are represented by cards that workers pull from the backlog according to highest priority and then move across the board (drag-and-drop to different columns) as the task progresses through the various stages.|
|Work-in-progress (WIP) limits||A “cap” on the number of open tasks allowed in any one column or by any one user. WIP limits can help reduce bottlenecks between stages, such as those that can pile up when projects require specialized personnel resources, e.g., a certain type of programmer. In this example, a manager might set a limit on the number of tasks the programmer is working on to ensure they don’t get overloaded.|
|Cumulative flow diagrams (CFDs)||CFDs are charts that show the status of work items over time. The x-axis plots time and the y-axis shows the number of tasks within a project. Colored lanes represent the workflow stages on the board. CFDs are used to track the flow of work and identify problem areas, e.g., bottlenecks or scope changes, that could impact completion.|
|Lead and cycle time diagrams||Lead and cycle time diagrams are charts that measure the time elapsed from when a task is placed on the board in the “to-do” column until it is completed. Lead time encompasses the entire time elapsed, while cycle time refers to just the time spent actually working on a task (e.g., when it is pulled from the backlog). The goal is to shorten cycle times, enabling teams to improve lead time as well (i.e., if you’re working at an ideal pace, you’ll get to more of the backlog items more quickly).|
What Type of Buyer Are You?
Kanban works well for teams within fast-paced industries, such as marketing and communications, who have a backlog of continually evolving commitments. Kanban provides them the flexibility required to re-prioritize their backlog as often as needed.
Conversely, scrum teams work in fixed sprints, and changes and re-prioritization are not allowed mid-sprint. Scrum is still more accepting of change than traditional PM, but not as flexible as kanban.
Additionally, kanban doesn’t call for prescribed roles the way that scrum does, which means that it requires fewer organizational and team changes to get set up. If you’re interested in implementing agile PM, but receiving resistance to an entire agile overhaul, consider kanban as an easy stepping stone.
Furthermore, VersionOne found in their 11th annual State of Agile report, that a hybrid or blended kanban process is more popular than “pure” kanban. Again, this may lower the barrier to adoption for your team and/or organization, so consider flexible tools that allow for custom workflows, fields etc. so your teams can mold the tool to their exact needs.
For tips on how to successfully implement a new project management solution, check out this infographic.