Do, Doing, Done: What is Kanban and How to Use it

método kanban
7 minutes to read

This is what you need to know Kanban and how it can improve workflow in every project.

Know what stage each task is in, see everything there is to do in one place, identify, manage and communicate priorities efficiently. These are just some challenges facing every manager, whether in production management or when launching a new app on the market. How do you deal with all this complexity, which increases every day with new demands from consumers, emerging technologies and ever-expanding logistics chains? The answer is not in adding more tools, meetings or emails – but in a simple, lowcost solution born of need in Japan over 60 years ago and that continues to dazzle to this day. This is what Kanban is, how it can improve your business.

What is Kanban and what are the advantages?

Kanban is a workflow management system. Each task is represented on a card that moves along standardized columns representing stages, such as “Not started”, “In progress”, or “Complete”. The team meets around this board regularly and updates the status of their tasks, which makes Kanban both a planning and communication tool.

The word Kanban, of Japanese origin, actually means “card”. It was one of many innovations emerging from the post-war period and its purpose stems from this troubled past: Kanban was first created by Taiichi Ohno, the industrial engineer who transformed Toyota and the automotive industry. Mr. Ohno designed it as a simple planning system, to control and manage work and stock throughout every stage of production. Kanban is a real-time information center, where everyone can visualize the tasks that need to be done, what is being worked on, and what has been completed. It can be a physical board, placed next to the workstation, or a digital Kanban so that distributed teams can keep up.

In an era of increasingly complex technologies, Kanban is of disarming simplicity. It is very effective in tracking and controlling workflows, displaying key data in a way everyone can understand. Often, a glance at the Kanban board is enough to realize at what stage tasks are accumulating or if there are more “cards” coming in or out. With a color system attached, you can even typify actions, such as by difficulty or an area of activity. It applies to virtually any industry, which explains its widespread popularity worldwide.

How does the Kanban Method help companies in practice?

The Kanban Method is the choice of major global brands and emerging start-ups to improve their workflows and increase efficiency. Today, Toyota is a very different company from the one that Taiichi Ono knew and where Kaban debuted. It has over 338,000 employees worldwide and achieved the feat what seemed unthinkable at the time: overpowering the American auto industry and becoming the world’s largest producer in units sold. And through it all, it continues to use the Kanban Method to manage production. Specifically, Toyota uses a Kanban Board with three columns: “Backlog”, “In Progress” and “Completed”, available onsite next to each team.

Spotify, the music streaming service with 60 million users, adopted Kanban in a very similar way, but adding a fourth column called “Postpone”. In this new column, cards are inserted with tasks that need more time to complete. Spotify also uses cards called “Blocked” to designate tasks that cannot be performed for some reason. All Kanban boards are accessible and editable by every employee. It is hardly surprising that tech companies use Kanban. After all, it was one of the inspirations of agile methodologies.

In addition, Zara, the big name in the fashion industry with over 17,000 employees worldwide, also uses the Kanban Method in each store. Workflows are organized with designations such as “Pre-Control”, “Control” and “Post-Control”. But the examples of using the Kanban Method don’t stop there. More and more world giants adopt this system, such as Pixar, Nike, Jaguar, Apple, captivated by the many advantages of the system.

What are the advantages of Kanban?

Kanban has several advantages, especially in terms of productivity, and in ensuring a flawless, continuous and clear workflow for all stakeholders.

Reduced idle time

This workflow management system allows all employees to follow the tasks and actions that need to be developed. This means that you don’t have to wait for directions or instructions on what to do next and how to proceed, as everyone has access to the full picture.

Improved quality

The division into production stages clarifies the sequence of tasks, avoiding failures in production and loss of quality of the final product. Thus, companies get work done faster and achieve high quality processes.

Ease of use

This project management tool could not be simpler and therefore accessible to everyone in the team. With a low investment, it is possible to avoid bureaucracies, unproductive meetings, email exchanges that make management a burden for teams.

Streamlined communication

With Kanban, teams can communicate with each other effortlessly. Since information is centralized, everyone to can visualize what has been done and who is doing what.

What are the limitations of Kanban?

Despite the many advantages, the Kanban method also has its limitations. It is very effective in managing simple tasks, but visualization becomes more complex when there are interconnections. Because each task is represented on an individual card, the link is not immediately visible – nor is the impact that changing a task has on everything else. Therefore, Kanban may not be suited for complex projects nor does it replace project management tools. On the contrary, it complements them and is an excellent management tool at the last level of detail.

On the other hand, Kanban requires discipline and training. In most cases, the status update is manual, with brief and focused follow-up meetings. New tasks depend largely on the participants. The way they are written  can make the system more or less effective – descriptions are often too generic or too technical to be understood. It may seem simple, but it always takes some time, usually several weeks, until Kanban updates become a routine, and results appear.

There is still a statistical limitation. Access to execution data, such as average time, on-time completion rate, or workload distribution per person is hard in physical versions. The same applies to supporting documents, such as photographs, procedures to follow, or work orders, which increase visual noise. In digital versions, however, not all teams will have easy access, but access to team stats and support docs is easier. But despite the limitations, this system remains an excellent ally in managing and distributing tasks, as long as it is properly implemented.

How to use Kanban in your company

Implementing the Kanban in your company is very simple. There are three main elements:

  1. Cards: Cards contain descriptions of tasks or actions planned. Typically, each card contains a task, with all the information necessary for its execution, such as the person in charge, deadlines or priorities.
  2. Columns: Columns are the visual representations of the various steps in the workflow. The most commonly used columns are “Not started”, “In progress” and “Completed”. Users can add columns as needed. Cards are distributed by each column according to their status.  It is not recommended to have more than 5 columns, so as not to make the process too complex.
  3. Board: The Kanban board is the area on which cards and columns are laid out.

With these elements in mind, just think of a structure appropriate to your type of activity, considering that each column should represent a phase of a process or project. You may find that you need to add additional columns to your roadmap. Take an Engineering company: it might be helpful to include “Design,” “Code Review,” or “Test” columns. Cards move between columns as they advance in execution.

So when you build your Kanban board, start with a simple framework, explore the features, and gradually improve. Team members can use the cards to communicate with each other, ask questions about a particular task or add information such as images, files, comments, checklists, among several other possibilities.

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