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Keeping your projects organized and on track can be a challenge—but with the right system in place, it can be relatively easy. The Kanban methodology is an efficient and effective way to manage operations and projects, and it's catching on everywhere from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies (even the big names you know and love like Disney, Netflix and Hulu).

Whether you're a startup or an established professional, embracing the Kanban method could help you organize your workloads in a way that saves time and eliminates stress. In this blog post, we'll discuss the basics of using Kanban for project management and look into some Kanban enablement software—so let's get started!

What Is The Kanban Approach To Project Management?

Project management is a critical element of successful business operations. One popular method for managing both operations and projects is the Kanban project management methodology.

The Kanban process originated in the Toyota production process and uses cards, boards, and visual signals to help teams organize their processes and track progress.

Kanban is an Agile project visualization technique that enables teams to easily visualize a workflow in real time, identify progress at a glance, and get through iterations smoothly and with transparency.

This is done using a Kanban board, a project visualization tool once primarily seen in the manufacturing industry but increasingly appearing in tech and start-up companies.

Kanban was actually designed in the 1940s by Taiichi Ohno, a Japanese engineer. Its use in manufacturing—where products are often designed in short, linear phases and rollouts follow a similar path—was immediately apparent, and it was widely adopted by factories and product designers. 

Manufacturing has used Kanban for decades, but with the fairly recent emergence and popularity of Agile project management in industries outside the manufacturing space, Kanban has been enjoying a bit of a renaissance, especially in software development and operations.

At Kanban’s core is the Kanban board, a visualization of the team’s progress. It shows what specific tasks are getting done or need to be done in different columns, called story cards.

A Kanban board can be as simple as three or more cards. Story cards will often also show who is assigned to each task, which helps increase the team’s transparency and accountability. 

It’s important to understand that a Kanban board does not replace a Gantt chart. Instead, it serves a slightly different purpose. A Kanban board is far more specific than a Gantt chart in that it shows the actual activities team members are undertaking to complete a task.

While a Gantt chart gives a more holistic project overview to illustrate deadlines or timelines, Kanban boards are based around specific iterations or sprints within the projects.

Teams can quickly identify if anyone is holding up a process. If so, everyone can identify what team member may need help or additional encouragement. This passively increases accountability and often serves to help keep productivity up and work flowing continuously. 

Regardless of how many story cards a Kanban board has, all Kanban boards will limit the work in progress. The key to Kanban is to limit work in progress, encourage the team to “swarm to solve,” and move work from in-progress to done, maximizing the throughput of finished work. 

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Kanban Principles & Practices

Kanban is based on several core principles, including visualizing the project workflow, limiting work in progress (WIP), incremental and continuous improvements, and feedback loops. By visualizing workflow, teams can identify bottlenecks in the process and make sure that everyone stays on the same page. 

Limiting WIP helps teams focus on only a few individual tasks at a time and allows them to complete them more efficiently. Incremental improvements are encouraged so that projects are adjusted over time to streamline performance (according to whichever metrics you use to measure performance).

Finally, feedback loops help teams adjust their processes to continuously improve the system.

What is a Kanban Board?

A Kanban board is a ‘sign board’ or visual tool that provides an overview of the project management process. It is typically composed of lists, or “columns,” which show a progression from start to finish. 

The columns often include categories such as To Do, Doing, and Done. Cards are used to represent tasks and can be moved from one column to another as they progress through the queue. By following the cards and their movements across the board, teams can quickly see where tasks stand in the project management pipeline.

A Kanban board used to be a literal corkboard, or sometimes office wall, positioned in a place where any project team member could see or update it.

While that is still the case in some industries, today Kanban boards are often virtual, cloud-based software platforms. Checking or updating a Kanban board can be done simply by logging in from anywhere in the world. 

With Kanban increasing in popularity, the number of project management software options and Kanban tools available to project managers has increased exponentially in the past several years. This, in turn, has made the Kanban project methodology easy to implement.

Personally, I use a Kanban board to visualize the work that I do in my school work and professional endeavors. I use a tool like Trello or Jira (or sticky notes, if I’m using paper) to note what I’m working on and I track progress of each work item through my process until each task is completed or ‘Done’. 

I integrate my Kanban board tool with my calendar so I am always on top of due dates and the status of each item I am responsible for—it's been working great so far! 

kanban project management workflow infographic
An overview of Kanban workflow—team members move cards between columns as they complete work.

Can I Still Use Sprints Like In Scrum? 

For development teams already accustomed to working in Agile environments, the Kanban system is very intuitive as a Kanban board can be organized into sprints or iterations. When it comes to Agile project management, Kanban is emerging as a true leader due to its simplicity and ease of use. Sometimes Kanban board usage in Scrum is referred to as Scrumban.

Benefits of Kanban Project Management

Some of the benefits of Kanban project management include: 

  • improved visibility into overall progress
  • increased team morale through successful completion of tasks 
  • better communication and teamwork between teams 
  • shorter cycle times for tasks and projects 
  • faster identification and resolution of problems or bottlenecks
  • more flexible approach which allows for quick adjustments during development

A Kanban board allows an entire team to see workflow and progress at a glance. This means teams can easily identify blockers quickly as well. Seeing tasks get accomplished and progress toward completion gives a Kanban team a built-in morale boost. 

Because teams can see everything going on across their group, Kanban boards help facilitate communication and collaboration between teams as everyone can see what’s going on and hopefully lend a hand if they have information or an interaction with another element of the project currently on the board. 

That leads to another inherent advantage in Kanban, which is “work in progress” limits. This limits each team to a certain number of tasks in-progress at a time so work does not age in the back corner of an employee’s mind. 

The team is accountable for finishing all the work it takes on before moving on to new projects or tasks. In this way, quality and productivity often increase when a Kanban board is implemented. 

A general rule for a team’s WIP limit is: # of contributors + 1. This doesn’t include management-only personnel. This means, only n+1 Kanban cards can be in the In Progress status at any time.

If someone is stalled and wants to bring something new into In Progress, they need to first help another team member move what is already in-progress to done—swarm to solve. 

kanban project management WIP limit infographic
An important tenet of Kanban is strict work in progress limits.

As teams progress through delivering value, any quick adjustments required during development can be made on the fly, with the group and with the impact reflected immediately in the Kanban board. This clarity helps keep people informed and teams moving forward.

Of course, Kanban project management must be implemented properly to be effective. That means choosing the right Kanban tool. Most teams today use a virtual Kanban board, and many are available online. Some even have pre-made templates to make implementation that much easier. 

For all its advantages, a Kanban board does have limitations, however. It is not ideal for accurately estimating deadlines and can make scheduling a bit overly fluid. That is why Kanban boards are often used in conjunction with a Gantt chart and probably won’t be replacing them anytime soon. 

How to Use Kanban for Project Management

Kanban can be used to manage a project by identifying the tasks that need to happen to move forward towards your project goals, prioritizing those tasks in an ordered project or product backlog, visualizing the tasks to be done and limiting work in progress as tasks progress through the project delivery or task accomplishment workflow. 

Tasks on the board are typically assigned to individual team members as they move between statuses, with the goal of the agile team moving through as much work as they can with the highest quality in the shortest amount of time. 

To learn more about how to use Kanban for delivering projects across the project management life cycle, check out this article!

10 Best Tools for Kanban Project Management

Implementing Kanban project management is pretty simple, especially when an agile mindset is alive in the team, but that doesn’t mean it’s effortless. There’s more to Kanban project management than simply creating a Kanban board, and a skilled project manager will choose the Kanban software they use carefully. 

As a general rule, the best Kanban software will have several features in common (you’ll also likely find Kanban boards as a functionality within broader project management tools). 

First is the ability to customize story cards and easily change the complexity of the project. A very basic Kanban board will have three story cards: To Do, In Progress, and Done. A more complex project might have cards that include To Do, Design & Build, Testing, Submit for Review, and Done. 

Second, a good user interface with a shallow learning curve is key because you want your team working on the project, not teaching themselves how to use Kanban software. 

Finally, good Kanban software is more than just a Kanban board. It will include integrations with other software that assist with the overall project, such as time tracking, budgeting tools, or scheduling software. 

When it comes to your specific project or team, consider what aspect of Kanban project management is most important to you.

How easily will your team take to the Kanban workflow? Would it be helpful to use software that has an app for mobile devices? Are there parts of your process that you need to automate? How complex (or simple) is your project? 

Let’s get visual! 

Kanban project management is a powerful methodology that can help teams stay on track while allowing for flexibility and agility. With its visual representation of progress, teams can quickly identify problems in their workflow and work together to find solutions. 

It encourages team collaboration and communication, as well as better overall quality of projects. Additionally, its efficiency and effectiveness makes it an attractive option for many projects. 

Kanban project management provides an effective way for teams to do task management, resulting in successful completion of goals and objectives.

For teams already accustomed to the general methodologies in Agile, Kanban can be very intuitive. If using Kanban is part of an overall shift from traditional project management to Agile, however, it may be more useful to start with a simpler Kanban board. 

If this article has made you feel confident about implementing Kanban methodology at your organization, be sure to browse more Digital Project Manager content and subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter to stay up-to-date on DPM topics. 

Dr. Liz Lockhart Lance
By Dr. Liz Lockhart Lance

Liz is an agilist and digital project manager with a passion for people, process, and technology and more than 15 years of experience leading people and teams across education, consulting, and technology firms. In her day-to-day, Liz works as the Chief of Staff at Performica, an HR software company revolutionizing how people give and receive feedback at work. Liz holds a Doctorate in Organizational Change and Leadership from The University of Southern California and teaches Leadership and Operations courses in the MBA program at the University of Portland. Liz holds numerous project management-related certifications including: PMP, PMI-ACP, CSP-SM, and a SPHR from HRCI to round out the people-focused side of her work.