Kanban Practices: A Comprehensive Guide to Maximizing Efficiency

Kanban Practices: A Comprehensive Guide to Maximizing Efficiency

To implement the Kanban method, every organization must choose practical steps carefully. Successful implementation of Kanban practices requires the existence of six core practices. While mastery of Kanban practices is vital for a learning organization, the process itself is evolving — nearly 40% of all organizations acknowledge that how they use Kanban practices improves, periodically or continuously.

Best Practices for Improved Efficiency However, to understand the nature of this development, it is essential to consider and understand what the six practices of Kanban are:

  • visualization of the workflow;

  • limiting the volume and number of work in progress;

  • flow control;

  • ensuring transparency of organizational and management policies;

  • implementation of feedback loops;

  • joint improvement.

1. Comprehensive visualization of the workflow

Visualization is the first fundamental step toward adopting and implementing the Kanban method.

The first and most important thing is understanding what it takes to move from incoming market demand to a finished product. Next, the manager needs to visualize the process steps used to perform work or provide services. Understanding how work flows through the production system sets the process manager on a path to continuous improvement through change.

At the application level, a classic technique is used to visualize the process using the Kanban system - work on the board with columns and cards. Each column on the board represents a completed workflow step. Each Kanban card represents a work item. Stickers or cards of different colors can be used to visualize, indicating either different classes of service or simply different work items.

In its current state, the Kanban board will represent the current state of the target workflow, with all its risks and specifications. Naturally, in complex intellectual productions, the Kanban board can have a more complex look with more columns and workflows since the final format depends on the specific needs and processes' organization.

Once the process is visualized, the ongoing work that the team is doing can be visualized. When a specific type of work is started, the manager pulls a card with the name of the work and the names of the responsible executors/names of the working groups from the To Do column, and when the work is completed, the card is moved to the Done column. Thus, it becomes possible to track progress and identify bottlenecks quickly.

2. Limitation of work in progress (Work in Progress - WIP)

One of the main functions of Kanban is to ensure the controllability of the entire volume of active elements under execution at any given time. As David J. Anderson notes, "An interesting side effect of pull systems is that they limit work in progress (WIP) to some agreed amount."

Limiting WIP is fundamental to implementing the "pull system" and, therefore, the principles of Kanban. If workflow management does not restrict work in progress, using the Kanban method becomes meaningless. Switching the attention of a team halfway through tends to hurt the process, and multitasking is a sure path to waste and inefficiency.

Limiting WIP means implementing a pull system for individual parts or workflow. By limiting WIP, the team is encouraged to complete current work first before starting new work. Therefore, the work in progress should be completed and marked as completed. This creates an open capacity in the system, and the team can start doing new work from there.

Therefore, setting a maximum number of items per stage ensures the card is only "pulled" to the next stage when capacity is available. Such restrictions quickly show problem areas of the workflow, which allows them to be seen, and a solution to improve/optimize the flow can be found.

Initially, it can be difficult to decide what the WIP limits should be. You can start without WIP restrictions. Don Reinertsen suggests starting with no WIP restrictions and watching the initial progress. When there is enough data, it will be possible to determine the WIP limits for each workflow stage at the level of ½ of the average load.

As a rule, many teams start with a WIP limit of 1-1.5 times the number of people working at a particular stage. Limiting work-in-progress and placing work-in-progress limits in each column of the board not only helps team members finish what they are doing first before taking on new material but also communicates to the client and other stakeholders that there are limited opportunities to do the work for any site and the work assigned to the team needs to be carefully planned.

3. Control the flow

Once the two practices listed above are in place, flow control and improvement are the essences of the Kanban system. One of the main goals of implementing a Kanban system is to create a smooth and uninterrupted flow. Flow management is about managing work, not people. Flow refers to the movement of work items through the manufacturing process at a predictable and steady rate. Instead of micromanaging people and trying to take their time, you should focus on managing work processes and understanding how to speed up this work through an improved system.

The Kanban system helps manage the flow by highlighting the workflow's different stages and the work status at each stage. Depending on how well the workflow is defined and the WIP limits are set, you can see a smooth flow within the WIP limits or work that builds up as something gets delayed and starts to reduce capacity, delaying other flow elements. All these affect how quickly work moves from start to finish in a workflow (some call this a value stream).

A vital aspect of the work monitoring and the debottlenecking process is to look at intermediate wait stages and determine how long work items remain in these "transmission stages".

Reducing the time spent in wait steps is the key to reducing cycle time. The team's work becomes more fluid and predictable as the flow improves. As the flow becomes more predictable, making reliable customer commitments becomes more effortless. Improving the ability to reliably predict completion times is essential to implementing a Kanban system. Such progressive self-improvement will mean that the Kanban system provides accelerated value creation.

4. Ensuring policy transparency

It is impossible to improve what remains misunderstood. Therefore, as part of workflow visualization, defining and visualizing policies (process rules or guidelines) makes sense.

The workflow within the Kanban methodology must be clearly defined, published, and publicized. Otherwise, people will not come together and participate in something they think will not be helpful.

When all participants in the workflow are familiar with the common goal, they will be able to approach work more competently and make decisions about how to impact workflows positively. Transparent, visible, well-defined, and flexible (subject to change if and when necessary) working policies can increase people's self-organization.

5. Implementation of feedback loops

Feedback loops must be implemented for teams and companies that want to be more agile. They ensure that organizations respond appropriately to potential changes and that stakeholders share knowledge.

Kanban offers team-level cadences (feedback loops) as well as service-oriented cadences.

An example of a team-level cadence is the daily Team Kanban meeting to track status and progress. This helps to determine the available capacity and the potential for increased delivery rates. Team Kanban takes place in front of the Kanban board, and each member tells the others what they did the day before and what they will be doing today.

Team-level, service-oriented cadences in the Kanban system, such as operations, service delivery, and risk management check-ins, aim to synchronize and improve services. The results of these reviews should serve as input for making decisions to improve the service network continuously.

The optimal length of specific Kanban cadences depends on the organizational context, team size, and topics discussed.

6. Joint improvement for best results

Kanban is an evolutionary improvement process. It helps you make small changes and gradually improve at a pace and degree that the team can easily handle. Kanban encourages using the scientific method, where an experimental hypothesis is formed, tested, and modified based on the test results. The critical task of the Lean / Agile team is to constantly evaluate their process and constantly improve it as much as possible or necessary.

The impact of each change that will be made can be observed and measured through the various signals that the Kanban system provides. And using these signals, the manager can assess whether the change is helping the organization improve and decide whether to stick with it or try something else.

Kanban systems help collect much data about system performance manually if a physical board is used or automatically if a digital tool is used. Used later, these data and metrics help you evaluate how performance is changing and reconfigure the system if necessary.

Thus, the path to continuous improvement and sustainable change in the organization is through the joint implementation of changes based on scientifically proven methods, feedback, and performance monitoring. Developing a pluralistic organizational culture, in which it is generally accepted that each hypothesis has positive or negative results, is critical to developing a mindset aimed at improving through evolutionary change.