Kanban as an Agile Framework – When and Why to Use It

Kanban is an Agile framework for managing product creation with a focus on continuous delivery while avoiding overburdening the development team. It’s a process designed to enhance team efficiency and effectiveness.

In our previous article, we discussed the key differences between Kanban and Scrum. While we’ll touch on those differences, our focus will be on Kanban implementation and utility – specifically, when and why to use it.

Kanban visualizes the flow of work to balance demand with available capacity and identify bottlenecks. It follows simple rules: visualize work, limit work-in-progress, and pull work rather than push it. It also makes process policies explicit and encourages collaborative improvement (Kaizen) since it’s a pull system.

It’s based on 4 principles:

  • Start with your current processes;
  • Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change;
  • Respect your current process, roles, responsibilities and titles;
  • Encourage leadership at all levels;

Unlike Scrum, where teams commit to sprint goals described by a bundle of stories for a 2-3 week sprint, Kanban doesn’t have committed goals tied to iterations or sprints. Cycle time, the duration from starting work to finishing it, is a key metric for Kanban teams. By optimizing cycle time and efficiency, teams can forecast work delivery confidently.

A core principle of Kanban is limiting work-in-progress to visualize bottlenecks. While Kanban teams may have specialized roles, they collaborate when bottlenecks arise. This collective effort ensures workflow continuity. Kanban complements Continuous Delivery, sharing the focus on just-in-time delivery, though it’s not mandatory.

Let’s illustrate this: imagine a Kanban board with tasks pulled from the backlog. Each column represents a team, limiting the number of cards in each column to one less than the number of team members. This restriction ensures manageable work-in-progress and commitment based on capacities.

Kanban has evolved over time, resulting in various types tailored to different environments. Initially, there were two types in manufacturing; now, there are six. Here they are and how they work:

  • Withdrawal Kanban – here “move cards” are used to signal when a part is ready to move from one part of the production process to another. The card is attached to a prescribed number of parts, which are moved to the work area that requires them. Once the parts are used, the card is returned as a signal to send the same number of the same part back.
  • Production Kanban – contains a comprehensive list of everything the part requires to be completed. This includes the materials required, the parts required, and the information included upon a withdrawal Kanban. Essentially, a production Kanban orders the production system to get started with production, as well as explaining what must be produced.
  • Express Kanban – it comes into play when unexpected shortages of parts occur, to signal the need for more of a particular part so that the manufacturing process does not slow down. These are also sometimes known as Signal Kanban. Essentially, they are used to triggering purchases.
  • Emergency Kanban – it is used to replace defective parts or to signal a sudden change in the amount of product that needs to be produced. Unlike express Kanban, emergency Kanban is used when a part does not work like it is supposed to or when the conditions of production change. Express Kanban instead is used to keep the original production conditions running smoothly.
  • Through Kanban – it is a combination of withdrawal and production Kanban, and it is used when the two work centers for these Kanbans are located side-by-side, in order to speed up production.
  • Supplier Kanban – it goes directly to a supplier – a company that sells materials to the manufacturer – and enters the supplier’s Kanban system as a representative of the manufacturer.

Kanban functions as a control system that assists in the organization of tasks within a process. In this way, you perform and deliver activities in a similar way to that observed in production lines.

Techniques by Kanban have been successful in many different industries, especially those that don’t fit with the Agile approach at first glance. Some of them, such as IT application maintenance, media, gaming, banking, and finance, are just a few domains where Kanban has proven to be extremely effective.

Kanban is useful and beneficial if you use it to cater to the work items that best fit this approach. The best examples could be production support, changing requests, unplanned work, program-level works, etc. It is great for maintenance if big projects are about, but less recommendable for big projects or new product development where lots of feedback is required.

A Kanban team is only focused on the work that’s currently in progress. Once the team completes a work item, they pull the next work item off the top of the Backlog. The number of added items is always equal to team members; otherwise, a bottleneck appears, and then the rest of the team helps to resolve it.

Any other changes outside the current work items don’t impact the team. As long as you keep the most important work items on top of the Backlog, the development team is assured they are delivering maximum value back to the business. Kanban allows, in urgent cases, to add 1 item extra in Work-In-Progress. When you break the rules, this emergency case is known as an “expedite line”.

There are several crucial benefits for all those who decide to use Kanban in their Agile practice. Some of them will be: an ideal system of tasks organization, higher visibility to your project, team members’ engagement of all abilities, workflow, and project flow optimization, great brainstorming opportunities. Some of the Kanban properties such as the Kanban board (visibility), Work-In-Progress, or pull mechanism are very useful in Scrum, additionally improving this framework.

Kanban helps you gradually improve the delivery of your products and services, start with what you do now and agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change. It does so by helping you eliminate bottlenecks in your system, improve flow, and reduce cycle time. It helps you deliver more continuously and get faster feedback to make any changes that may be needed by your customer.

Comparing to Scrum, you will probably work to some extent more because of time flexibility and more Work-In-Progress. The truth is that you can perfectly combine Scrum with Kanban, without any disadvantage. Even more, their hybrid often known as Scrumban is very popular and used.

 If you are still not sure how, follow the examples of those who use Kanban very successfully. Some of them even for decades, like Toyota, the origin of Kanban. Besides them, very successful applications of Kanban are found in Pixar, same as in Zara and the most famous Spotify model. So, wide broad and useful among different industries.

 Kanban indeed has great ideas to offer and gives you an amazing ability to change priorities on the fly. This is very simply said, because there are a lot of things to be spoken regarding Kanban benefits. If you are interested to know more about Kanban or to learn how to implement it.

In order to master the use of Kanban, try Agile Serbia Kanban training.