Project Management

Guide: Agile Project Management With Kanban

Manuela Lenz
Last update
5. Feb 2021

Kanban is a type of agile project management that provides its users with a high degree of autonomy, prioritizing the transfer of information and making it as efficient as possible. Intricate processes and projects are broken down into sub-components visualized on a Kanban, making it easy for their progress to be directed and guided.

In this article, we'll discuss how Kanban came out, how it works as a type of agile project management, and what basic principles it's centered on.

What Is Kanban?

'Kanban' is not some sort of 'new-speak', but rather derived from Japanese (the same way that 'sauerkraut' comes from German, or 'pajamas' from Persian) and means "sign" or "billboard". Kanban is an agile/lean project management method that facilitates evolutionary change management. Originally, the concept was developed for industrial production, however, in the more recent past, it's been adapted to software development and the service industry.

Taiichi Ōno is considered to be the father of Kanban, developing it near the end of the 1940s in conjunction with "Just-In-Time" (JIT) production at Toyota. Kanban is also said to have roots in the Kaizen concept (also known as the "Toyota Way"), the goal of which is continuous improvement across all levels of staff (from executives to line workers), the reduction of waste, and boosting of efficiency, all of which should lower costs while increasing customer satisfaction.

Over the ensuing decades, a number of Japanese companies adopted Ōno's framework, with US and German businesses starting to take note in the 1970s. Starting in 2004, David J. Anderson, formerly of Microsoft, adapted Kanban to the world of IT, making courses available to the general public in 2007.

Kanban revolves around pull factors, meaning that production depends on customer demand, and in contrast to push factors, isn't limited to a certain quantity or amount. As such, it seeks to minimize losses without impacting production.

Kanban's Core Practices and Rules

According to David J. Anderson, the Kanban method fosters incremental evolution and change within the processes and systems a company already uses, specifically, those which relate to completing tasks or assignments. To maximize the advantages which this approach brings, he identifies four core practices and six rules:

The Four Core Practices of Kanban


#1: Start With What You Do Now

When introducing Kanban, you won't need to make any huge changes, but rather, ensure that you have a complete understanding of existing processes and procedures within the organization or business which you're examining.


#2: Agree to Pursue Incremental, Evolutionary Change

One of the most important aspects of Kanban is the pursuit and embrace of (small or incremental) changes that develop organically within the organization. Significant or dramatic changes should be avoided since these can create disharmony or conflict. Depending on the current situation, baselines should be generated for efficiency and performance, which can be used to measure future changes.

Large organizations are often comprised of branched networks of different, independent nodes. Kanban suggests three special service delivery principles for these. As might be guessed by the name, these focus upon customers and providing them with the best service possible. To realize this:

  1. 1.
    Focus on the needs and expectations of your client/customer.
  2. 2.
    Manage work, but allow your colleagues to organize themselves.
  3. 3.
    Develop guidelines for improving customer and business outcomes.

#3: Respect the Current Process, Roles, and Responsibilities

Kanban doesn't attempt to reinvent the wheel or negate existing processes, responsibilities, or ways of doing things, but rather to develop new solutions that improve upon them. In this way, the incremental changes which it suggests are merely that, suggestions, and not set in stone.

By involving everyone and respecting their existing positions when reaching decisions, resistance to change is reduced. This is because those who adhere to the current ways of doing things are often unable to see the benefits and drawbacks of the existing or new processes.


#4: Encourage Leadership at All Levels

The newest of the four core practices of Kanban involves everyone, not only management, in pursuing continual improvements. Everyone within an organization, especially those at the 'front-line' should exercise leadership and initiative in improving existing processes. This overlaps almost entirely with the Kaizen principle.

The Six Rules of Kanban

In addition to the four core practices, David J. Anderson also identified six rules or guidelines for Kanban, which organizations should integrate into their work processes:

  1. 1.
    Visualize the workflow: All tasks and assignments need to be visualized in order to monitor their progress and ensure that the workflow is actually flowing, and not stagnant. To ensure this, it's also important that all participants be able to see the workflow in the form of a Kanban board. As tasks are completed, they move from left to right on this board.
  2. 2.
    Limit work in progress: This means that only a specific number of tasks or assignments (tickets) are worked on in parallel. As a result, taking on too many tasks concurrently is avoided, with the focus instead remaining on results.
  3. 3.
    Make process policies explicit: Policies need to be made clear for all participants. This helps ensure that everyone knows how they are supposed to work, and in which manner. One important element of this, for example, is the "definition of done" or DOD, which refers to a team having a mutual understanding of what qualities or functionalities a completed task or assignment should have.
  4. 4.
    Manage flow: Kanban only works when everyone shoulders responsibility for and actively pursue the improvement of existing processes. As such, the workflow must be managed, but not necessarily the individuals who are tasked with propelling it.
  5. 5.
    Feedback loops: These ensure that organizations respond properly to changes and that information is transferred between different stakeholders. Ultimately, more efficient solutions should always be sought.
  6. 6.
    Improve collaboratively: It's important that Kanban processes undergo regular analysis to rectify output, cycles, or delays, boosting efficiency.

How Does Kanban Project Management Work?

As we've noted above, Kanban is an evolutionary method of change management, in which small changes occur over time. These, in turn, are intended to improve the entire process or organization in the long-term. As a result, the risks commonly associated with large, sweeping changes are removed, since these occur in smaller steps.


The Kanban Board

The heart of Kanban project management is the so-called Kanban board. This serves to visualize the workflow, existing processes, and eventually, problems or issues which might arise. A Kanban board can take the form of a physical board (such as a whiteboard, or cork board) or be built digitally, using specialized software. For many companies, both physical, and digital Kanban boards are put into action.

Index cards or post-its are added to the board (again, this holds true for both physical and digital boards), each of which represents a task or assignment. A traditional Kanban board is further divided into three columns:

  • Tasks that haven't been started are placed in the to-do or backlog column (on the left).
  • Should the task be in progress, it will be moved to the middle, in progress, or doing column.
  • Completed tasks are moved to the right, to the done column.

As noted above, cards (representing assignments) move from left to right as they are completed.

Good to Know:

For larger production processes, three columns are often not enough. In these cases, digital boards allow for additional columns to be added, while adding more columns on a whiteboard is as easy as drawing a new line.


Classes of Service

When using Kanban, all assignments or tasks have the same priority. However, since these tasks can often have very different impacts (i.e. upon the organization's standing or finances), it's necessary to gauge risks and costs and adjust the order in which tasks should be completed. To do this, classes of service, which serve as the foundation of service level agreements (SLAs) are used.

The "costs of delay" principle is often used to order the individual classes of service. This takes not only development costs into account but also those which arise from delays or failures to enter the market.

Kanban's four different classes of service are:

  • Expedited: This includes all work that generates high costs (i.e. if a printing press at a newspaper company fails). Such work is assigned the highest priority, and can temporarily supersede work in progress (WIP) in the event of an emergency.
  • Fixed delivery date: These are all tasks that need to be completed by a certain date. Failure to do so would result in high costs (i.e. licensing fees or changes to the privacy policy).
  • Standard: As its name implies, these types of tasks are part of regular activities and aren't prioritized.
  • Intangible: These activities are those which are the least important, but in the future, could become significant (i.e. a software update).

Classes of service are best designated within an organization since they primarily relate to predictions, estimates, and historical data. Based on the number of tickets per class of service, it's possible to regulate the delegation of individual work (i.e. that only 5% of all tickets should be fixed delivery date or expedited).  

Kanban in Companies - Flight Levels

Kanban is a highly flexible and versatile system of project management, which while certainly having its benefits, does make it difficult to define precisely where and how it can best be implemented within a particular business or organization. To help in this, Dr. Klaus Leopold, a Kanban pioneer, developed the so-called Flight Level Model. This seeks to demonstrate Kanban's potential uses for specific types of businesses.

Leopold distinguishes between three 'flight levels', namely:


Flight Level 1: Operational Level

Flight Level 1 (FL1) is concerned with all participants in a Kanban system who perform routine (daily) work. These can be cross-functional specialists, or teams concerned with one component of the system (such as the electrical team for a car). In the context of IT, FL1 includes software developers, designers, analysts, and testers, whose work advances the product in increments.

Within the team, processes can be continually improved, however, the impact upon the system's overall efficiency is limited, and, in some cases, can even be negative.


Flight Level 2: Coordination

On the second flight level (FL2), interactions between teams are optimized. This should see continual improvement of the working processes exceeding those within a single team. Through regulating inflows, it can be ensured that each team only receives as much work as it can handle. This is essential since FL2 coordinates the work of multiple teams, with set expectations for each as part of the larger scheme as it relates to the product or project. In this manner, delays can be reduced, or recognized early, with the overall efficiency of the process boosted.


Flight Level 3: Strategic Portfolio Management

The third of Leopold's flight levels (FL3) tackles how best to optimize teamwork and value creation within an organization or company. Here, multiple departments or teams within an organization are the subjects of analysis, with the focus no longer on individual projects, let alone increments, but rather the sum total of efforts from each section (including their projects and products). Naturally, this means that the "small" tasks and assignments of the previous two levels lose most of their relevance, and are replaced instead by larger objectives, such as launching a product in a particular country or market, or the downsizing of a section. This allows for opportunities and needs to be better assessed, as well as a greater overview and more insight to be gained into strategic initiatives within a company.


Kanban is a straight-forward and effective method for improving both processes as well as task management within a wide variety of organizations. Thanks to the visualization of tasks and responsibilities, teams can more easily comprehend both, while also maintaining a better overview of the work that needs to be done, and the goals to be reached. Using a Kanban board, all participants can stay on top of issues or problems within a project, and receive help from others. While it certainly has a few rules and guidelines, these are largely open to interpretation, and more 'guiding principles' than hard and fast laws. For that reason, Kanban is the perfect solution for those looking to get started in agile project management.

Author: Manuela Lenz
Manuela Lenz is a trained IT specialist and worked for 20 years as a system administrator and project manager for large companies. Since 2017, the IT specialist has been a passionate IT-author. For she writes about project management, software and IT security.
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