Kanban Principles for Optimal Workflow Efficiency

Kanban Principles for Optimal Workflow Efficiency

The Kanban method, pioneered by David J. Anderson, is an approach for gradually evolving systems in learning organizations. Its foundations consist of two types of principles (change management and service delivery) and six practices.

The change management principles are: start with current processes, make incremental changes, and encourage leadership at all levels. This evolutionary approach minimizes resistance to change.

The service delivery principles are: focus on customer needs, manage work (not people), and regularly review the service network. This develops a customer-centric, continuously improving service culture.

Key elements of Kanban include:

  • Kanban board to visualize work

  • WIP (work-in-progress) limits to prevent overload

  • Cycle time and other metrics to measure flow

  • Cadences for Evolutionary Change

When thoughtfully applied, the Kanban method enables teams to optimize their service delivery through gradual, evolutionary improvements with minimal disruption. It is a valuable approach for organizations aiming to enhance agility and continuous delivery capabilities.

Start with:

David J. Anderson is a pioneer in lean manufacturing and kanban in the knowledge-intensive (intelligent) technology field and one of the founding fathers of the Kanban method. He formulated the Kanban method as an approach to a gradual, evolutionary process of changing systems for learning organizations (“working smart”). The method, according to J. Anderson, is goal-oriented, and its foundations can be broken down into two types of principles and six practices.


Let's see what the basics of the Kanban method are:

1) Principles of change management:

  • Start with what you are doing now;

  • Agree to make gradual evolutionary changes;

  • Encourage acts of leadership at all levels.

2) Principles of service provision:

  • Focus on customer needs and expectations;

  • Manage work, not employees;

  • Check the service network regularly.

Any innovative and learning organization strives for evolutionary change and continuous improvement. The most crucial change management task is ensuring the "seamless" integration of new tasks and processes without disrupting the workflow. The Kanban method helps to solve this task.

Kanban change management principles.

Principle 1: Start with what you are doing now

Kanban offers the flexibility to use a method in addition to existing work systems and processes without disrupting existing procedures. The Kanban method strongly recommends not immediately changing an existing setup/process. A significant limitation and, at the same time, the advantage is that Kanban can and should be applied directly to the current workflow. Any necessary changes can be made gradually over time at a comfortable pace for the team.

The approach recognizes that existing processes, roles, responsibilities, and positions are valuable and generally worth keeping. Unlike other methods, Kanban itself does not impose any organizational change. Thus, there is no need to change existing roles and features that may work well. The team will jointly identify and implement any necessary changes.

Naturally, in implementing a change, the method will “highlight” the problems that need to be solved and help evaluate and plan changes so that their implementation occurs without harm (or at minimal cost) to participants and stakeholders.

Principle 2: Settle for incremental, evolutionary change

The Kanban method is designed to support a process approach to change management, consisting of small and gradual but constant evolutionary changes in the current process through new forms of cooperation and feedback. Therefore, it is designed for the minimum system resistance.

As a rule, radical changes in Kanban are not welcome because, according to organizational psychology, stormy organizational changes are usually resisted due to fear or uncertainty.

On the contrary, introducing many small changes reduces the risk for the entire system. Kanban's evolutionary approach results in little or no resistance within the team and involved stakeholders.

Principle 3: Encourage acts of leadership at all levels

Organizational leadership at all levels is based on people's knowledge and daily, routine actions to improve their work methods. No matter how insignificant a particular aspect of an activity or knowledge about this activity may seem, each joint observation contributes to the continuous improvement of thinking (kaizen) to achieve optimal performance.

A mindset-improving leadership model can be equally successful at the team/department/company level. But the solution to this problem results from joint creativity and not a privilege or an exclusive duty of the management level. People at all levels can offer ideas and show leadership in implementing change to improve the continuous delivery of products and services.

These three principles help organizations overcome the typical emotional resistance and fear of change accompanying any organizational change initiative.

Service delivery principles

Principle 1: Focus on customer needs and expectations

Delivering value to the customer should be central to every organization's business philosophy. Understanding the needs and expectations of customers draws attention to the quality of services provided and the value they create.

Principle 2: Manage the work

Work management in the service network ensures that people can self-organize around work. This allows managers to focus on achieving the desired results without agitation, pomp, and fuss, that is, without noise. created by people managed at the micro level and directly involved in the service.

Principle 3: Check the service network regularly

Once developed and implemented, a service-oriented approach requires ongoing evaluation to develop a customer service culture. Using regular service network reviews and evaluation of applied operating policies, Kanban encourages improved results and progressive quality improvement.

Thus, as a management method, Kanban aims to develop a service-oriented approach.

This approach requires:

  • deep understanding of customer needs;

  • creating a network of services in which the consolidation of the work team takes place - people organize themselves around work;

  • ensuring the continuous development of the system "from the inside".

Glossary to help you get started with Kanban

Kanban board — one of the critical components of the Kanban method, visualizing all work items. It should be divided into at least 3 columns - Request, In Progress, and Done, each representing different workflow stages.

Columns — elements that divide the Kanban board vertically, each representing a different step in the workflow. Depending on the complexity of the workflow, the usual three steps can be divided into much smaller sub-columns

Swimlanes — lanes divide the Kanban board into horizontal sections. Teams use them to visually separate different types of work on the same board and organize similar tasks into groups.

A Kanban card represents a particular work item moved around the Kanban board. The card contains important information about tasks, deadlines, the scope of work, responsible executors, etc.

Block ("Blocked") indicates a problem with the work item that is preventing it from moving forward.

Visual metrics allow the work team to see the process and discover ways to improve it.

Cycle time — the period between moving a task to the "In Progress" column and its output to the "Done" column. Simply put, cycle time begins when a new task enters the "in progress" stage, and someone is working on it.

Summary block diagram — An illustrative chart that shows cycle time, WIP, and throughput over a given period in colored bars.

Lead time — the period between requesting a new task (whether anyone is working on it or not) and deleting it from the system.

Bandwidth — the number of work items that have passed (all stages up to the completion stage) through a system or process in a given period. Throughput is a key metric that shows how productive a team is over time.

Backlog — a summary list of work items that need to be completed but have not been prioritized. Usually, the first column on the board is the backlog.

Work in Progress (WIP) — the current amount of work that has not yet been completed.

WIP limits — a regulatory limit on the number of tasks a team can work on simultaneously to avoid overload and context switching.

Service classes are policies that help Agile teams prioritize work items and projects.

Cadences (Kanban Cadences) — cyclical meetings that facilitate evolutionary change and delivery of services that meet or exceed customer expectations.

Kanban software — digital systems that support the practical application of Kanban methods and principles for use by teams and organizations of all sizes.

Process Policies — these are the rules or guidelines that the team using the Kanban board develops to use consistently.

Scrumban — the hybrid methodology was initially intended to ease the transition of teams from scrum to kanban


How does Kanban differ from other Agile methodologies like Scrum?

While both Kanban and Scrum are Agile methodologies, Kanban focuses on visualizing and optimizing workflow, while Scrum emphasizes fixed-length iterations (sprints) and prescribed roles. Kanban is more flexible and adaptable to existing processes, making it suitable for teams looking to improve their workflow gradually.

Can Kanban be used in non-software development contexts?

Yes, Kanban principles and practices can be applied to various industries and contexts beyond software development, such as manufacturing, marketing, sales, and even personal productivity. The core concepts of visualizing work, limiting work-in-progress, and continuously improving are universally applicable.

How do you determine the optimal WIP limits for a Kanban team?

WIP limits should be set based on the team's capacity and the nature of the work. A good starting point is to set the WIP limit to the number of team members or slightly higher. Monitor the flow of work and adjust the limits as needed to minimize bottlenecks and optimize throughput.

What are some common pitfalls to avoid when implementing Kanban?

Common pitfalls include:

  1. Not fully embracing the Kanban principles and using the board as a simple task tracker

  2. Setting WIP limits too high or not enforcing them

  3. Neglecting to regularly review and optimize the process

  4. Focusing too much on individual performance instead of overall system throughput

How can Kanban help with managing dependencies between tasks?

Kanban's visual nature helps teams identify and manage dependencies by making them visible on the board. Teams can use techniques like color-coding, swimlanes, or special markers to highlight dependent tasks. This visibility enables better coordination and planning to minimize blockers.

What metrics besides cycle time should Kanban teams track?

In addition to cycle time, Kanban teams can track metrics such as throughput (number of tasks completed per unit of time), lead time (time from task creation to completion), and flow efficiency (ratio of active work time to total cycle time). These metrics provide insights into the team's performance and help identify improvement opportunities.

How often should a Kanban team review and adjust their process?

Kanban teams should regularly review and adjust their process as part of their continuous improvement efforts. The frequency of these reviews can vary based on the team's needs and the rate of change in their environment. Many teams find that weekly or bi-weekly cadence reviews are effective.

Can Kanban be used in conjunction with other methodologies or frameworks?

Yes, Kanban is highly adaptable and can be used in conjunction with other methodologies or frameworks, such as Scrum (often called Scrumban), DevOps, or Lean. The key is to understand the principles behind each approach and integrate them in a way that benefits the team and the organization.

How does Kanban support collaboration and communication within a team?

Kanban promotes collaboration and communication by providing a shared, visual representation of the work and the workflow. The Kanban board serves as a focal point for discussions, planning, and problem-solving. Regular cadence meetings, such as daily stand-ups and review sessions, further enhance collaboration and communication.

What role does leadership play in a Kanban environment?

In a Kanban environment, leadership is encouraged at all levels, not just from designated managers. Leaders are responsible for setting the vision, fostering a culture of continuous improvement, and empowering the team to take ownership of their work and their process. Effective Kanban leaders focus on enabling the team's success rather than micromanaging tasks.

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