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Agile 101: Kanban Basics & Benefits

Kanban is what you could call a “good old concept under a new spotlight”. Today in modern business, you will not find anyone that hasn’t at least heard about it. But what is Kanban anyway? Why is Kanban so popular? And, most importantly, how can you benefit from Kanban?

What is Kanban and how it came to be?#

First of all, Kanban is a methodology. The term “Kanban” is more than 3 centuries old; it originates from Japanese where “kan“ means “visual” and “ban” means “signal”. The methodology itself was first standardized by Toyota in the 1950s, when the automobile giant decided that an effective supply chain system is in order. The concept was first published in the late 1980s, and a few years later, it was picked up by software development firms to finally become what it is today. Thus, Kanban is a methodology for managing (software) product development with emphasis on continuous delivery, while managing requirements from multiple stakeholders.

How does Kanban work?#

Let’s break it down. Kanban is actually a visual task scheduling system that is based on three principles:

  • Visualizing your workflow: use a “Kanban board” with columns for the different tasks. You can imagine this as an actual board where you stick post-it notes. Each note represents a task, while the columns indicate the different states of the task. In a simple 3-column model, you add new tasks in a ‘to do’ column, move them to ‘in progress’ when working on them, and finally move them to ‘done’ when completed.

  • Limiting the amount of work in progress (WiP): avoiding team breakdowns and diversions during the development of a product should be the number one priority. And the best way to make sure that the team stays focused is to work in a limited number of tasks/features at any time.

  • Measuring the Cycle/Lead time: the most important productivity metric of Kanban, the Cycle/Lead time, refers to the time required for a task to be completed by your team. High cycle times usually indicate bottlenecks that may slow down your team and delay your next release.

agile-kanban-board

Seems simple enough! So this is agile, right?#

Yes, this is agile at its best! Even without considering its similarities and differences to Scrum, one can easily see that both methodologies have the same agile-oriented philosophy and the same purpose: to continuously deliver high quality software without the fuss of traditional software engineering. Of course there is no such thing as a free lunch; the team has to be guided throughout the development process, while taking into account the relevant Kanban metrics. However, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Let’s take a look at some of the most important benefits from using Kanban:

  • One methodology to rule them all: Kanban is intuitive and versatile, meaning that you can easily use it to manage all departments of your organization, from engineering to marketing or sales, even HR. And the fun part is that you can even do it all at once; given a powerful Kanban board, moving a feature from design to development and then to testing, and assigning different team members is easy.

  • It cuts down on inventory costs: Let’s take as an example the Toyota manufacturing product line. When managing production, having too much inventory added important overhead for storage, whereas too little inventory could lead to delays in delivering the product. In software engineering, this can be translated to what we call “just-in-time delivery” of software; through Kanban, each feature is built at the time it’s needed, so overproduction is eliminated and new business decisions can be incorporated quickly to the product.

  • It maximizes the output of the team: Kanban is more than a way to manage product development, it’s actually a way of monitoring your team. Proper use of a Kanban board and optimization of the relevant Kanban metrics can lead to faster completion of tasks, by prioritizing the work, eliminating the distractions of multitasking and focusing the team’s efforts on what has to be done.

All these sound interesting! But where to start?#

Although Kanban is a very popular model, doing it right requires some time and experience. For instance, you first have to decide about the number and type of columns that you are going to use (hint: different team sizes and organizational schemes may call for different Kanban models). Then, you have to add tasks, assign them to team members, measure required effort for each task in points, and, most importantly, figure out the most important metrics (velocity, cycle/lead time, WiP, etc.) in order to fully benefit from the process.

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Till next time folks!