Kanban and Scrum are two prominent agile methodologies that can often be confused for one another.
Many people think they are two sides of the same coin, when in reality the differences are a bit more nuanced. Understanding when to use Kanban versus Scrum helps an organization to choose the best agile method for a particular business environment.
In this article, I’ll explain the key differences between Kanban and Scrum and give you some guidelines for when to use which methodology.
- What is Agile?
- What is the Kanban Methodology?
- What is the Scrum Methodology?
- Key Differences Between Kanban & Scrum
- How Kanban and Scrum are Similar
- When to Use Kanban vs Scrum: Which is Better?
What is Agile?
I’ll start by explaining the umbrella methodology—agile—of which both Kanban and Scrum are variants.
Agile is a structured project management approach that recognizes the volatility of the product development process. Agile emphasizes the power of self-organizing teams. It remains flexible enough to allow changes during development while staying true to organizational goals.
Kanban and Scrum are types of agile methodologies that teams can apply during project execution. Let’s explore each one separately.
What is the Kanban Methodology?
The Toyota production system coined the term Kanban. “Kan” means visual, while “ban” means a card. Therefore, Kanban refers to a visual board for executing projects. But more than that, it is a project management methodology that embraces the principles of lean manufacturing, continuous development, and customer orientation.
Kanban monitors the progress of team activities, including ongoing experiments. It provides clarity during the software development life cycle by helping development team members and the larger organization to understand the status of development work.
Kanban isn’t only applicable to software development, however. Organizations can also apply an agile Kanban methodology to IT/operations, talent acquisition, sales and marketing, procurement, etc.
The Kanban methodology seeks to identify potential organizational bottlenecks. An organization can then attempt to fix the problem areas using a cost-effective workflow at an optimal speed.
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5 Benefits of Kanban
The Kanban methodology offers several benefits:
- Gives visibility into work in progress (WIP)
- Supports self-organizing teams to make decisions about what work and the amount of work to take on next
- Makes it easy to spot and correct workflow bottlenecks
- Adapts seamlessly to a variety of organizational environments
- Requires minimal lead time to get started
What Is The Scrum Methodology?
The Scrum methodology is another type of agile framework that originated with software development projects but has since expanded to support other complex endeavors, such as research and advanced technology.
Scrum is most effective on small teams (typically a maximum of 10 members.) Scrum teams break down deliverables into smaller tasks to execute in a time-boxed fashion. These time-boxed iterations are known as sprints and are typically 2-4 weeks in duration.
During the sprint, the entire team tracks progress against tasks and re-plans, as needed, during daily scrum meetings, or standups (typically time-boxed to last 15 minutes).
5 Benefits of Scrum
The benefits of the Scrum framework include:
- Empowers team members to plan and estimate work
- Breaks down large, complex chunks of work into smaller defined tasks
- Offers flexibility in how work is structured and executed throughout the project life cycle
- Promotes continuous learning to improve future execution
- Adapts seamlessly to a variety of organizational environments
4 Key Differences Between Kanban & Scrum
In this section, I’ll outline some of the major differences between Kanban and Scrum in terms of structure, purpose, team roles, and tooling.
Scrum focuses mainly on activity iterations, or small fixed units of time. In Scrum, these iterations are called “sprints,” which last 2-4 weeks and act as a timeframe for increments of work. Organizations should strive for uniform sprint length to improve the predictability of delivering assigned work.
On the other hand, Kanban focuses on WIP. It does not include sprints. Rather than paying attention to activity duration and predictability, Kanban is more concerned with task execution.
Scrum is an excellent framework to consider for feature development. In Scrum, the team estimates the duration needed to build a feature to completion, using fixed sprints to measure progress and determine velocity. Measuring velocity is not intended to gauge productivity, but rather to help the team adequately plan the time it will take to deliver quality work.
The primary objective of Kanban is to ensure continuous flow with minimal bottlenecks. You can go further to impose WIP limits on each activity, or work item. Unlike Scrum, Kanban is better suited for projects without a significant feature or product backlog (also known as a sprint backlog). Kanban teams excel at quickly burning through small tasks as they arise.
Scrum relies on three defined roles to plan, organize, administer, and optimize the methodology. These roles include:
- The product owner: in charge of initial planning, prioritization, and communication
- The Scrum master: responsible for overseeing sprint planning, sprint reviews, and sprint retrospective meetings
- The team members: tasked with executing the work identified for completion during each sprint.
Unlike Scrum, Kanban is much more flexible in terms of team composition and lacks prescribed team roles as part of its methodology.
Jira is likely the most commonly used software when it comes to agile software development. However, depending on whether you’re using Scrum or Kanban, you might choose a different option.
The Scrum methodology uses a Scrum board to visually represent work items, or user stories. Teams further break down user stories into discrete tasks. Check out this list of Scrum software tools for more information on how you can implement Scrum tooling on your project.
By contrast, the Kanban methodology uses Kanban boards to show WIP. While the classic view includes categories for “To do,” “Doing,” and “Done,” you can also change the labels according to team or organizational preferences. Here’s a list of some of the best Kanban software tools to get you started.
How Kanban and Scrum are Similar
Agile project management methodologies place a high value on continuous improvement, work optimization, and process. Both Kanban and Scrum focus on visualizing the flow of work to align team members on WIP and future goals.
In addition, both methodologies:
- Are lean and agile
- Limit WIP
- Focus on delivering releasable software often and early
- Use transparency to drive process improvement
- Break down complex work into discrete tasks
- Are based on self-organizing and cross functional teams
- Continuously optimize release plans based on empirical data and metrics (lead time/cycle time/velocity).
When to Use Kanban vs Scrum: Which is Better?
Like so many questions in life, the answer is: it depends! Determining when to use which methodology depends on what your team is trying to achieve.
If you’re part of a small team executing feature development work, and you don’t mind spending upfront time to implement a more complicated framework, then Scrum may be an appropriate choice for your organization.
If your team is slightly larger, and is more concerned with optimizing throughput than standing on (agile) ceremony, then the Kanban method may be a better fit. Kanban may also be useful for addressing incoming small pieces of work, such as defect fixes or small enhancement requests.
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Choosing the Right Approach for You
If you choose to work with either Scrum or Kanban, take the time to master the dynamics and maximize them to your benefit. Take advantage of agile’s emphasis on continuous learning by polling your teammates to learn which approach proved most effective and why.
And if you want to stay up-to-date on how to implement Kanban or Scrum at your organization, or even how to implement hybrid project methodologies, subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter to learn more!