Project Management 101: What is Kanban?
Kanban (which means signboard or billboard in Japanese) is a visual-based project management method that also incorporates some elements of change management. Its focus isn’t necessarily on the task, but the process behind it. Kanban’s objective is to increase collaboration between team members while limiting unnecessary work.
Focusing on Stories
Kanban organizes projects or tasks into “stories”, just like in Agile. These stories travel across a board that’s organized into multiple columns.
Stories are taken from the backlog of pending stories and are placed in a “queue”—so called because these stories are lined up in terms of priority. Stories at the top always start first, and the queue advances once the first story is begun and shifted to another column.
Each column is unique to the organization and how it works. These columns represent different phases the story needs to go through before it can be considered finished. Columns are not job titles, but instead strictly limit the scope of each phase. Once the scope of a column is completed, it is shifted to the next column over.
But what makes Kanban “Lean” is that there is a built-in method for limiting the amount of projects on the go. Each column has a limit on the number of stories within it, based on the number of people available. As Kanban computes it, there will always be more people available than work.
This promotes collaboration between stories and, combined with the “queue” system, helps teams stay focused on one task a time (because team members will only work on stories at the top of each column). They will rarely get distracted by multiple running projects.
Change Built In
Kanban understands that organizations are constantly subject to change, and so it has change built into its core principles and practices. Kanban places a strong emphasis on incremental changes, respecting current processes that work, and strong leadership at all levels. All these combine to create a system that will ideally gain broad support within the organization while implementing gradual but effective change.
Managing the Backlog
Kanban is primarily used for software development, although it can still be used for non-software applications. The important thing to have is a steady stream of work and the ability to analyze and prioritize based on current needs. Managing the backlog just as important—if not more so—than the rest of the process, because this determines which projects get done and in what order.
Image credit, Flickr, Dennis Hamilton
Patrick Icasas is a former marketing project manager with 7 years of marketing and PR agency experience, managing creative projects for brands such as Nokia, Verizon Wireless, and Adobe. He now spends his time helping people make the most out of their project management software and entertaining his 5 year old daughter.