By Nader Talai • November 21, 2019

What is Kanban?

Working at Toyota Taiichi Ohno developed kanban to create a just-in-time flow and reduce the inventory. The system takes its name from the signal cards that track production within a factory. 

What is Kanban Method?

While kanban was introduced by Taiichi Ohno in the manufacturing industry, it is David J. Anderson who was the first to apply the concept to IT, Software development and knowledge work in general in the year 2004. David built on the works by Taiichi Ohno, Eli Goldratt, Edward Demmings, Peter Drucker and others to define the Kanban Method. His first book on Kanban – “Kanban: Successfully Evolutionary Change for your Technology Business”, published in 2010, is the definition of the Kanban Method for knowledge work.

Delivering work in a quick and effective way could be a challenge. Kanban is a method for designing and effectively managing knowledge work without overburdening staff, reducing the time to market and improving staff engagement.

Kanban manages work by balancing demands with available capacity, through limiting the work in progress and by improving the handling of system-level bottlenecks.

Kanban method

  • provides a lens through which the current ways of working are improved through understanding and evolutionary change.
  • enables you to transform your organisation through purposeful and insightful evolutionary change. Kanban method is designed for managing and improving knowledge and creative work.
  • is applicable at all levels from senior leaders and executives who set the strategy to teams who deliver the strategy.
  • visualizes both the process (the workflow) and the actual work passing through that process.
  • identifies sources of delay and enables you to tackle them to improve the flow of work.
  • identify bottlenecks introduce buffers to smooth the flow and remove the bottleneck

Kanban Visualization

Knowledge work is unlike physical goods where we can see how the work is flowing and where work is piling up and getting stuck. Kanban requires the process in which the workflows to be made visible which enables us to direct our attention and limited time to where it is needed most.

Without this visualization, there will be many pieces of work that are in flight at different stages of completion and we will not be aware of this problem resulting in very few that are completely leading to longer lead times and poor customer service. Starting many pieces of work, being busy but not finishing work leads to work stress and employee dissatisfaction and increases failure demand.

Kanban visualizes the major knowledge discovery steps. Kanban method uses visual tokens to represent work items and creates a virtual kanban system which makes the invisible work visible.

Kanban Focus

Multitasking dilutes the focus on what matters and what is priority. Kanban creates the necessary focus on delivering what matters by limiting the pieces of work that flow and focusing on completing a piece of work before starting a new one. Limiting the pieces of work reduces the opportunities for multitasking.

Kanban’s daily meeting is designed to reinforce the focus on completion of work and is run from right to left, that is we focus on the activities that are required to move the piece of work from being in progress to done. The focus on finishing what we started before taking in a new piece of work creates better conditions for collaboration by making the piece of work as the key focal point for discussion and asking what we (the team) can do to deliver it.

Limiting the pieces of work that flow through the system, visualisation of how the work is flowing and when it is stuck creates the necessary condition for seeing the problems in flow and addressing the sources of the delay.

Kanban method uses work in progress as an enabling constraint to create a pull system of work and enables better management of the work with improved service delivery. Kanban's service delivery lens helps you improve your service delivery and evolve your current ways of working.

Kanban System Design

Each kanban system is designed based on the understanding of the current system of work through studying it to gain the knowledge required. Kanban’s approach of understanding, designing and evolving the system of work ensures that we don’t end up with a copy & paste or a mandated recipe of best practice for everyone to follow.

Each kanban system is designed with and by the people doing the work who understand the details of the way the work works which respects the people and gains agreement to change and avoids imposed change. Kanban focuses on managing the work and not the worker.

Kanban system creates the conditions for problem solving by making delays to flow visible and their impact known. Kanban teaches us to understand the economics of flow in terms of transaction cost, coordination cost and failure demand and how to design an optimal system of work.

Kanban System Performance

Kanban system delivery capability measures enables leaders to make better informed decisions by understanding the organisation’s delivery capability and the visibility of flow.

Kanban enables individuals, teams and departments to stop saying No and say not Now with confidence and understanding and visibility of what work is in progress and when it is likely to complete and when we will have availability for the next piece of work. Kanban creates the balance between customer demand and organisational capability to fulfill the demand

Kanban flow measures

Lead time

Lead time measures the time from customer request to its fulfillment.

Kanban system lead time

We have less control over the rate at which customer demand arrives, Kanban system lead time measures the time from the Commit Point to delivery. 

Cycle time

Any part of lead time is defined as cycle time, for example time spent to define the customer problem through research and data analysis.

Delivery rate

Delivery rate is the rate at which work items are delivered, for example number of work items delivered per day.

Work In Progress

The number of work items that are in progress from the Commit Point to delivery. 

Six Core Practices of the Kanban Method


This is the fundamental step where the key knowledge discovery steps as currently practised are visualised and the flow of work is mapped. Most kanban systems will have more than one type of work flow across them two common ways to show different types of work are colour or swim lanes.

Different types of work are visualized using different colors on the board and we can get a sense of the blend of work by the colors.

Swim lanes achieve the same result by having dedicated lanes per type of work.

Limit WIP (Work in Progress)

Kanban system is one where the amount work in progress (WIP) is limited, limiting WIP is fundamental in creating a pull-based system of work.

By limiting WIP, we minimize the opportunity for multi-tasking and create the conditions for the team member to focus on finishing the work at hand before starting something new.

Manage Flow

Kanban systems are designed to improve flow, managing and improving flow is the key action that is required. A Kanban system helps manage flow by visualizing the workflow and where the work item is within the workflow. The flow of work is managed by managing the amount of work that piles up (this is a signal that the arrival rate at the stage is greater that the processing rate). As the number of work items grow so does the lead time. The WIP limits create a buffer of appropriate size that smooth the flow while at the same time ensuring that the overall lead time remains within acceptable customer expectation.

Make Process Policies Explicit

Policy constraint are a key cause of long lead times and because they are introduced by the people within the system we should be able to address the policy constraints that are impeding flow. Policies also make what is required to be done to a given work item at each step of the workflow enabling built-in quality. Examples of explicit policies include the Definition of Done, when and how WIP limits are adjusted. Policies can apply to the system as a whole (the board), swim lanes, columns and combinations of the above.

Implement Feedback Loops

Reducing the time to feedback and increasing the number of feedback loops is the key to any good system design.

Improve Collaboratively, Evolve Experimentally (using the scientific method)

Improve collaboratively to minimize the chances of local optimization, evolve experimentally using scientific method through hypothesis, experiments and observation.


95% of the performance is the result of how the system of work is designed and managed. Dr Edward Deming

Kanban method enables you to design and act your system of work and significantly improve the results. 

The impact of our engagements

  • Reduced Time to Market by 30% to 75%
  • Reduced Failure Demand by 40% to 80%
  • Increased Delivery Rate by 20% to 50%

The Kanban training provides guidance on Kanban implementation and bootstrapping a Kanban system in your own organization. You will learn how Kanban is a cultural change initiative and what that shift means, how Kanban can be applied to your software development workflow, and how it differs from other development methods.

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