What Is Agile Kanban?

By Ron Pereira Updated on May 6th, 2021

Agile KanbanWe’re excited to announce the release of our initial Introduction to Agile Kanban course. We have several more Agile Kanban related courses in the works but decided to release this first course now. What follows is the text from the first overview document of the course. By the way, this first overview video (as well as the first video of all our courses) is free to view.

Lastly, since we also teach the kanban tool that’s associated with a production or manufacturing environment we decided to add the word “Agile” before Kanban for this course.

Where Did Agile Kanban Originate?

Agile Kanban was first practiced in Microsoft’s software development operations in 2004. It was popularized by David J. Anderson through his book and teachings. Today, Kanban is widely adopted throughout software, IT, development and many other types of organizations. But Kanban is not a software development or even a project management method. The purpose of Kanban is continuous improvement of our own work processes.

What Is Agile Kanban?

We can answer this question at three levels. At the most basic or practical level, a Kanban is a visual pull signal. The original Kanban system for manufacturing and supply chains was developed at Toyota in the mid-20th century. A card with information about the goods traveled with the goods through the supply chain. The Kanban card itself was a trigger to make or move goods.

Similarly, the idea of Agile Kanban is for a team to record all tasks on Kanban cards and display these work items on a Kanban board. The quantity of Kanban cards, or WIP, is deliberately limited at each process stage. The team introduces a new card into the Kanban board only after one is completed. This is the pull signal.

As teams work with Kanban boards, they will see that some columns are more crowded with tasks than others. This helps to highlight bottlenecks and areas needing improvement in the workflow. These Kanban cards bring transparency to the whole workflow. Kanban boards can be built on walls, windows, whiteboards, or with the suite of digital tools.

Agile Kanban as a Workflow Management System

At the second level of understanding, Kanban is a workflow management system. Kanban outlines principles and practices for defining, managing, and improving services that deliver value to the customer. There are a set of six Kanban Practices that aim to help teams visualize your work, manage flow, and improve continuously.

One of the main features of Kanban is that teams focus on their current tasks until they’re completed. This is enabled by limiting WIP in the system. Team members can collaborate to eliminate blockers and complete work items faster. This in turn reduces multitasking and productivity losses due to context-switching. This behavior is known as “stop starting, start finishing.”

Teams track Kanban metrics such as WIP levels, throughput, quality, and time through the process. Teams continuously improve by meeting daily and weekly to review data on their process and experiment with changes. An interconnected series of meetings, known as the Seven Kanban Cadences, creates positive feedback loops within the organization. Together these practices contribute to key outcomes desired by Agile, namely, to enable teams to be more adaptive, improvement-oriented, and focused on customer needs.

Agile Kanban as a Non-Disruptive Evolutionary Change Management System

The third perspective for understanding Kanban is the broadest. Agile Kanban has evolved to become a non-disruptive evolutionary change management system. This is rooted in the four fundamental Kanban principles. These are to start with what you do now; agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change; respect the current process, roles and responsibilities; and encourage acts of leadership at all levels.

The Agile Kanban principle of taking small steps rather than big ones helps to minimize disruption, reduce resistance to change, and lessen overall disturbance to the existing system. In essence, anyone can apply Kanban over their existing management system and adapt it based on the needs of their teams step by step.

Kanban Enables Agile

Overall, Kanban enables all of the principles of the Agile Manifesto and helps us deliver products and services that our customers actually need. Whether you are currently using Scrum or other Agile approaches, Kanban enables teams to improve processes and their performance.

The simplicity of the Agile Kanban approach is one of its main advantages. However, as we have seen, Kanban is not just about visualizing our work in process on a physical or electronic board. It’s an evolving and evolutionary management system based on practices, principles, metrics, and feedback loops. We must study, practice, and adapt all of these elements to our work in order to gain the full benefit of a Kanban system.

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