Skip to main content

Log In

What is Kanban?


  • Does your brain always feel like you have a million tabs open?
  • Do you feel like you’re always switching from one task to another, struggling to focus on any one thing long enough to make progress?
  • Do you feel like you work nonstop, but are never as productive as you’d like to be?
  • Does your team struggle with basic communication, causing issues such as duplicate efforts, defects, rework, and more?

If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, you aren’t alone. Many knowledge workers struggle with these problems. Kanban is a visual workflow management tool that can help you get more done with less stress. Sound intriguing? Read on.

A (Very) Short History of Kanban

In the late 1940s, Toyota found a better engineering process from an unlikely source: the supermarket. They noticed that store clerks restocked a grocery item by their store’s inventory, not their vendor’s supply.

Only when an item was near sellout did the clerks order more. The grocers’ “just-in-time” delivery process sparked Toyota engineers to rethink their methods and pioneer a new approach – a Kanban system – that would match inventory with demand and achieve higher levels of quality and throughput.

So, how’d they do all that?

In simplest terms, by better communication through visual management.

Kanban is Japanese for “visual signal” or “card.” Toyota line-workers used a Kanban (i.e., an actual card) to signal steps in their manufacturing process. The system’s highly visual nature allowed teams to communicate more easily on what work needed to be done and when. It also standardized cues and refined processes, which helped to reduce waste and maximize value.

A new application of Kanban emerged for knowledge work as early as 2005, and an inquisitive community formed in 2007 around the leadership of David J. Anderson, Jim Benson, Corey Ladas and others. Their resulting body of knowledge was influenced not only by the Toyota Production System but also by the work of management and statistics experts including W. Edwards Deming, Eliyahu Goldratt, Donald Reinertsen and other thought leaders.

How Kanban Works

Today’s workforce is armed with retina-worthy smartphones and tablets, but plenty of information still comes our way as words on a screen. Emails, spreadsheets, task lists – text is everywhere. While it fits certain scenarios, textual information is not a one-size-fits-all communication vehicle: Its effectiveness is lower than you might think. Why?

It starts with your brain.

A picture is worth a thousand words for scientific reasons: The brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text. 40 percent of all nerve fibers connected to the brain are linked to the retina. Visual information comprises 90 percent of the data that comes to our brain, suggesting that our neurological pathways might even prefer pictures over text.

“Kanban helps you harness the power of visual information by using sticky notes on a whiteboard (or an electronic equivalent) to create a “picture” of your work.”

Seeing how your work flows within your team’s process lets you not only communicate status but give and receive context for the work. Kanban takes information that typically would be communicated via words and turns it into brain candy.

Four Core Kanban Principles

Unlike other workflow management methods that force change from the outset, Kanban is about evolution, not revolution. It hinges on the fundamental truth that you must know where you are before you can get to your desired destination.

Kanban is gaining traction as a method of smoothly implementing Agile and Lean management in technical and non-technical enterprises around the world. Throughout this fresh take on Toyota’s manufacturing process, Kanban’s core elements have remained rooted in the following principles. (Note: There are many ways to define Kanban; the intent in listing the core elements in this manner is not to introduce a new definition but to distill the common principles.)

1. Visualize work

By creating a visual model of your work and workflow, you can observe the flow of work moving through the Kanban system. Making the work visible, along with blockers, bottlenecks, and queues, instantly leads to increased communication and collaboration. This helps teams see how fast their work is moving through the system and where they can focus their efforts to boost flow.

2. Limit work-in-process

By limiting how much unfinished work is in process, you can reduce the time it takes an item to travel through the Kanban system. You can also avoid problems caused by task switching and reduce the need to constantly reprioritize items. WIP limits unlock the full potential of Kanban, enabling teams to deliver quality work faster than ever in a healthier, more sustainable environment.

3. Focus on flow

Using work-in-process limits and team-driven policies, you can optimize your Kanban system to improve the flow of work, collect metrics to analyze flow, and even get leading indicators of future problems. A consistent flow of work is essential for faster and more reliable delivery, bringing greater value to your customers, team, and organization.

4. Continuous improvement

Once your Kanban system is in place, it becomes the cornerstone for a culture of continuous improvement. Teams measure their effectiveness by tracking flow, quality, throughput, lead times, and more. Experiments and analysis can change the system to improve the team’s effectiveness. Continuous improvement is a Lean improvement technique that helps streamline workflows, saving time and money across the enterprise.

Getting Started with Kanban

To move your team from visualizing your work to improving your process, you’ll need to:

  • Map your current workflow
  • Visualize your work
  • Focus on flow
  • Limit your work in process
  • Measure and improve

A Kanban Roadmap can help you transition from basic visualization to a true Kanban system.