Issue 20

Thinking in Kanban

Püsök Orsolya
Functional Architect


Visual card - this would be the exact meaning of the Japanese word "Kanban", a term widely used nowadays in the world of IT. The meaning that we recognize today refers to the software development methodology famous for its simplicity but also efficiency.

The first Kanban system was created more than 60 years ago at Toyota in their effort of excelling on the automobile market. At that moment Toyota couldn"t compete based on technology, marketplace or volume of cars produced, so they choose to compete by redefining their method of organizing and scheduling the process of production. Toyota Production System laid the foundation of Kanban, with the following directions:

  • Reducing costs by eliminating waste.
  • Creating a work environment that responds to change quickly.
  • Facilitate the methods of achieving and assuring quality control.
  • Creating a work environment based on mutual trust and support where employees can reach their maximum potential.

Even if, along the years, IT has reshaped Kanban by assigning new values to it and completing it with metrics and rules, the general effect is still about the ideas expressed back then.

Kanban Principles

Kanban is based on two fundamental principles:

  1. Visualize the workflow
  2. Limit work in progress

The visual effect is obtained by a Kanban board, where all the tasks are mapped depending on their current state. The states of the board are defined according to the complexity of the project and the number of existing steps in the process. Tasks are written on colored cards (or sticky-notes) and this way they are understood and processed more quickly and easily. As a result, the current state of the project becomes visible at any time for all team-members and this global view of the state of the project facilitates the rapid discovery of problems or bottlenecks.

The basic structure of a Kanban board is resumed to three states (columns): To-Do, Ongoing (or In Progress), Done. However, states can be defined according to project specific needs. A classic example of Kanban board for software development can be found in the attached figure.

The WIP (Work-In-Progress) limit ensures focused and thus more effective work. The columns of type "In progress" are each assigned such a limit and the number of ongoing tasks shouldn"t exceed the specified WIP limit. By reducing multitasking, the time needed for alternation between tasks is eliminated. By performing tasks sequentially, results appear faster and the overall consumed time becomes shorter.

Metrics in Kanban

In order to estimate as accurately as possible the dimensions of time and workload, we use Kanban metrics that help us define them. Like the basic principles, the calculation of metrics is also simple.

Lead Time: is the time measured from the moment of introduction of a task in the system until it is delivered. It is important to remember that Lead-time measures the time and not the effort needed to execute a task.

Lead-time is the metric most relevant to the client and he will evaluate the team"s work-performance according to it.

Cycle Time: is the time measured from the moment when work has begun on a task until it is delivered. Compared to Lead-time, this is a rather mechanical measure of the process capabilities and reflects the efficiency of the team.

To increase a team"s performance Lead-time and Cycle-time metrics should be reduced.

Little"s Law:

To improve Cycle-time there are two possible options:

  • reducing the number of tasks in progress
  • improve the completion rate of tasks

By reducing Lead and Cycle-time metrics, the development team can assure on-time delivery of the product.

Flexibility in Kanban

A Kanban board is completely configurable according to the purpose it serves, quality that enables the methodology to be used in a variety of areas. With roots in production and manufacturing, it has a natural way of fitting into any non-IT business process.

A Kanban board can be configured according to the domain and according to the stages needed to get to the final product/ service.

Apart from IT, here are some areas where a Kanban system can easily integrate:

  • Marketing and PR
  • Human Resources
  • Logistics and Supply Chain
  • Financial
  • Legal

The short and long term benefits are similar to those mentioned in the IT field: better visibility of workflow, increased productivity and improved team collaboration.

Types of Kanban

Physical board. Online board

Initially, the notion of a Kanban board was quite simple, a board or an improvised space on the wall where cards or sticky-notes with tasks written on them were pinned to. The board was in the room where team members worked and represented their focus point. The concept of having a physical board is still very popular and considered an excellent opportunity to improve collaboration and communication among team members.

However, the increased interest in the use of Kanban methodology has inspired a number of programs and online tools offering the similar functions of a physical board. Moreover, they have a number of additional possibilities and advantages: easy configuration, archiving tasks, editing, classification, timer, remote access, collaboration between teams divided in several locations, etc.

Time-driven & Event-driven Kanban

I have talked before about flexibility and about the way we can create a structure of Kanban according to the specific needs of the proposed project. Over the years, a few general structures have proved to be elementary in the use of the methodology.

Time-driven Kanban Board: used in temporal planning of activities.

Event-driven Kanban Board: useful when an external intervention (e.g. approval) is needed to continue the execution of tasks in the process.

Personal Kanban

In 2013, Jim Benson first introduced the idea that Kanban is perfect for organizing personal time, tasks and activities. The concept became increasingly popular and Personal Kanban users say that the method really works.

In these cases we encounter boards with a simplified process and many visual effects. Finally, the purpose of Personal Kanban is to improve personal productivity and facilitate achievement of long-term goals.

Scrumban. PomodoroBan.

The suggestive names already indicate the combination of the Kanban with other methods and techniques.

Scrumban is the combination of Scrum and Kanban. Briefly, it means the application of principles and rules of the two methodologies according to the preference of the team: "making the most of both".

PomodoroBan combines the Pomodoro technique and Kanban. According to the Pomodoro technique efficiency can be achieved by alternating the following two cycles: 25 minutes of focused and uninterrupted work, 5 minutes break. PomodoroBan keeps and applies the principles of Kanban but focuses on additional efficiency.


Whether we apply Kanban in IT, related domains or even personal life, it seems that "less is more" is true every time. Kanban is distinguished by its ease of application to any process, the simplicity of basic principles and the fast improving effects on quality and work processes.




Jim Benson: Personal Kanban (2011)




  • Accenture
  • BT Code Crafters
  • Accesa
  • Bosch
  • Betfair
  • MHP
  • Connatix
  • BoatyardX
  • AboutYou
  • Telenav
  • .msg systems
  • Grab
  • Colors in projects