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Toyota is a powerhouse for developing ideas that you’ll find around the world. Take for example, Lean, Kaizen, Seven Wastes, Just in Time, Jidoka, Six Sigma and, indirectly, Scrum. And one more: I give you Kanban.

Pronounce Kanban as kaahnbaahn with long aah sounds. It started out as part of Toyota’s ‘Just in Time’ lean production system. The word refers to cards that visibly represented the flow of parts through the manufacturing process.

Now, we use Kanban tracking project work. It has risen in popularity over recent years with the rise of Agile project management. It is one of the more popular Agile methodologies. And it’s also often combined with the most popular approach: Scrum.

Why has Kanban become a Popular Project Management Methodology? 

Kanban was designed for a manufacturing production environment. So, the obvious question is ‘what has this to do with project management?’

Well, if you think about manufacturing…

  • Raw materials go into a pipeline
  • A series of processes take place
  • A finished product comes out of the end

Now let’s look at a project…

  • Some requirements go into a pipeline
  • A series of processes take place
  • A finished deliverable comes out of the end

What Kanban does is make the position of each requirement in the pipeline very clear. And if some are getting stuck and there is a bottleneck, the project manager can easily spot it. Then, they can deploy resources to address the issue.

What is Kanban? 

So Kanban is a visual system for tracking work through a project lifecycle. It starts with a list of stages which you show as zones on a board. Each unit of work is then represented as a card. The team moves these from one zone to the next, as the work progresses.

Team members can draw work items into the first active zone, as capacity allows. It is ideal for distributed responsibility and a light touch to central leadership.

Definition of Kanban

We like clarity here. So, I’ll offer you my definition of Kanban, in the context of project management.

Kanban is a visual method for managing the creation of products through a fixed set of steps. It puts an emphasis on continuous flow from initiation to delivery.

How does Kanban work? 

Set up your Kanban Board

Start by describing the stages that are relevant to your process. Typically, these include:

  • A waiting or Backlog stage at the start
  • Some Progress stages. These may include: Analysis, development and testing
  • A Completed stage
  • Maybe an Abandoned stage

Usually the stages appear as a set of vertical columns, sometimes called ‘swim lanes’. Place the title of the stage at the top.

Determine Your WIP Limit

WIP stands for Work in Progress. This is the number of tasks in any one lane. If there are more tasks than the team has capacity to manage, then the pipeline will become blocked. Work will get stuck in this stage. And new work entering it will likewise get stuck.

The stage beyond the bottleneck will empty and team members will be underutilised. So set a limit for the amount of WIP you will allow in each stage.

Create a Card for each Task

You’ll need a card for every task that needs to flow through the process. You can add information to the cards as they move, like who is handling it, and time estimates. Colour coding is popular.

Now Allow your Team to work the Tasks

Let team members bring a card onto the board and work the task. When they complete a stage, they can move the card to the next lane.


Set rules around how resources are applied to cards. For example, if I complete a stage for one task, can I move it to the next lane without handing responsibility on? Or do I need to first find someone to take on the task responsibility? If it isn’t my responsibility, whose is it? Or can the card just wait until someone picks it up? But then, what if no-one wants it? Each team will create a working pattern that suits it.

What is Your experience of Kanban? 

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.

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