What is kanban? A guide to implementing kanban successfully

Last updated: April 2024

An example of a basic kanban board with three columns for the status of work items

Kanban is a workflow management system that helps agile software development and product teams define and manage work and continuously improve performance. The term means "billboard" or "placard" in Japanese — which hints at the trademark kanban workflow organization system based on cards. Each card on a kanban board represents a work item and is moved across the board in vertical columns that represent status. A team's kanban board is always in motion, and new cards are pulled from the backlog and added to in-progress work as team capacity allows.

Kanban is not a methodology. Rather, it is a system that agile teams use to continuously deliver high-value work, features, or user stories. Overall, kanban encourages flexible planning, frequent delivery, and regular improvement — which is in line with agile philosophy.

Although kanban has its roots in agile, many teams today (product, design, marketing, and otherwise) rely on kanban boards as a simple and effective way to visualize work and boost productivity. It stands out because of its pull system:

  1. First, work is only pulled onto the board when there is an actual demand for it (versus when it is anticipated).

  2. Second, you can only pull work when you have the capacity to complete it.

This makes good sense in the context of product development. A product manager can prioritize features that will deliver the most value to customers and the business prior to sending the work to development. Once the work arrives on the development team's kanban board, developers can carry it out.

At Aha! we work with both product management and development teams, so we have a unique point of view on how to implement kanban successfully. We provide kanban-style workflow boards in both Aha! Roadmaps and Aha! Develop. (We also provide a kanban whiteboard template for early-stage planning.) These tools work together seamlessly so product managers can determine the "why" and the "what," collaborate with engineers on the "when," and let those technical folks figure out the "how."

This guide provides an overview of the origins of kanban, important kanban principles, and how to implement kanban (with or without our tools). Use the following links to jump ahead to a specific section:

Manage work on a kanban board in Aha! software — start a free trial.

A kanban-style workflow board in Aha! Develop with swimlanes

This is an example of a personalized kanban board in Aha! software.

The origins of kanban

Taiichi Ohno introduced kanban at Toyota in the mid-20th century. He was an industrial engineer and eventual executive at the company. Today, he is considered the father of the Toyota Production System, which inspired lean manufacturing in the United States.

Toyota was struggling to compete with the American car market at the time. So the company looked at how other supply chains handled fulfillment by matching inventory levels with consumption patterns — specifically studying supermarkets. Stores stocked products based on what they could sell in a given time. Customers bought what they needed since they knew they could buy more later. This led Toyota to see consumer demand as part of the manufacturing process: a required input precedent to production.

Most car manufacturers still followed Henry Ford’s method, producing a great quantity of parts that were piled beside the assembly line and used as needed. But this approach required huge amounts of upfront capital, which was challenging in post-World War II Japan. Ohno aimed to eliminate overproduction by introducing new inventory only when absolutely necessary. Factories were reorganized so that parts production and assembly happened at the same rate, with assembly workers taking parts only as needed. They called it the “just-in-time” method (JiT) — but more on that later.

Remember that supermarket research? Ohno realized that there needed to be some exchange that triggered restocking the shelves. So he introduced paper cards called kanban. Once a material was used, a kanban card would be sent back to parts production indicating to the team exactly what was used and how many more were needed to restock.

The kanban method was a significant success, evolving to support processes across many different supply chains. In short, anything that required visualization of a large volume of in-progress work could be a candidate for the new system.

Kanban in a modern context

The next evolution of kanban occurred in the early 2000s when the method was adopted as a project management tool by IT and software development teams. Many assumed lean manufacturing principles would not extend to knowledge work. But a 2004 case study of IT teams at Microsoft proved the efficacy of these concepts in managing change requests and backlogs. One of the authors of that case study, former Microsoft engineer David J. Anderson, was credited as among the first to apply kanban to software development. He went on to write many books about agile and lean methodologies. (And he even opened a kanban “university” as well as his own eponymous school of management.)


Kanban principles and best practices

Again, kanban is a system and not a work philosophy. Unlike other agile frameworks, there is no list of rules and roles that must be followed to “do kanban right.” But there are some general kanban principles and best practices:

  • Visualize work: Visualizing work and maintaining transparency is critical to kanban. Development work is often “invisible” until it is completed. On the flip side, kanban boards make all items visible so the team can understand the details, status, and progress of everything in motion.

  • Limit work in progress (WIP): You can complete projects faster if you prioritize what is most important, limit how much work each person has, and focus on completion before moving on to the next item.

  • Manage flow: Teams that practice kanban are typically self-directing. Instead of managing the people doing the work, kanban requires careful oversight of workflows and processes so work can be completed smoothly and roadblocks can be quickly addressed.

  • Make process policies explicit: Clear documentation on how the team works together inspires self-sufficiency, increases shared knowledge, and improves onboarding.

  • Implement feedback loops: Feedback loops (also called cadences) help teams communicate with stakeholders and respond to changes in workflows and priorities. Daily team kanban meetings are one example of a feedback loop in practice. Similar to daily standups in scrum, these meetings are opportunities to discuss capacity, report on progress, and raise any concerns.

  • Improve collaboratively: Continual feedback and evolution are key parts of the kanban system. Positive change will always take time. Shifting too fast — and putting too many process changes in place at once — hamper a team's adoption.

  • Consider metrics (without relying too heavily on them): Gauge success through goal-setting and benchmarking. Metrics such as cycle time and throughput can be a good indicator of success. (We will cover some common kanban success metrics later.)

  • Understand JiT: JiT puts an emphasis on delivering the simplest solution to a known issue in small releases to avoid waste (versus anticipating future unknown needs). It might not be a kanban "principle," per se, but it is definitely part of the conversation.

These principles should form the foundation of your kanban approach. Think of them as constant areas of improvement rather than as goals to achieve and check off your list.



Kanban vs. scrum

The best way to recall the differences between kanban and scrum? Think: Where kanban pulls, scrum pushes. Here is a high-level comparison of the two:




There are no defined roles, but some teams have service delivery and service request managers.

Product owner, scrum master, and development team

Release cadence


Defined intervals called sprints (e.g., two weeks)



At the end of each sprint as approved by the product owner


Change can happen at any time.

Changes should not be made to the sprint forecast during the sprint.


There are no defined meetings, but meetings are broken out by team level (e.g., daily standups) and service level (e.g., delivery and risk review).

There are four mandatory meetings: sprint planning, daily scrum, sprint review, and sprint retrospective.

Performance metrics

Lead time and cycle time

Velocity and planned capacity



How to implement a kanban system

Depending on how your team currently works, implementing kanban might entail a huge shift. It has the potential to boost your team's happiness and productivity — but figuring out what works best for you takes time. Keep in mind that kanban is not right for all teams, however. (We will be the first to tell you that kanban alone is never enough for product development.) For the purposes of this guide, here is how to get started:

Make work visual

Set up a virtual kanban board with cards that represent work items. Carefully consider the details and layout of your cards to ensure teammates, stakeholders, and anyone in between can easily parse the work. Categorize the cards in columns — such as "Not started," "In progress," and "Done." Add as many columns as you would like, choosing names that fit your workflows.

Add details to cards as needed

You might add summaries or descriptions of the work items, their statuses, their categories or themes, the releases they belong to, and the teammates who own the tasks.

Set WIP limits

Decide on a limit for the number of cards that can exist at any time in your columns. You can always adjust this later as you get a clearer picture of how much your team can feasibly take on.

At this point, you are ready to get started, but far from done. Kanban requires continuous evaluation and tinkering. Check out our guide on how to set up a kanban board for more details.



How to measure success

How do you know whether your team is truly benefiting from kanban? The answer will require looking at your progress through multiple lenses, such as feedback from the team and stakeholders as well as quantifiable data. Arguably the most important factor is whether or not you are meeting your product goals — a much bigger discussion. For now, let's look at some of the common kanban metrics teams use to evaluate performance:

  • Cycle time: The amount of time spent actively working on a task (or card)

  • Lead time: The total amount of time a task spends in your system, from initial recording through to delivery

  • Queues: Stages in your workflow when cards are not active, but are in a holding pattern (for example, "Waiting for review" is a common queue)

  • Throughput: The number of tasks or cards completed in a given time period

  • When will it be done: A forecast of when work will be completed based on historical data on lead times, cycle times, and throughput

  • WIP: Items that are in production, but not yet completed

Throughput Report - Develop

This is an example of a throughput report created in Aha! Develop showing average points completed over time.

Take kanban metrics with a grain of salt, especially at first. Relying on them too heavily can cause stress and undue complexity. The initial aim is to simplify your workflows — not complicate them.



Following kanban using Aha! software

Remember that any work should be grounded in your product goals and initiatives so you are clear on how everything lines up with the bigger picture. There are lots of ways to support kanban using Aha! software — we will cover them here at a high level. (For more specific details, visit our knowledge base or reach out to a product expert.)

Here are a few options:

  • A simple kanban board as a whiteboard template: If you are testing out kanban, you might prefer to work from a lightweight whiteboard template at first. You can set up your board on the whiteboard and work from there. Or you can use the whiteboard for early-stage planning and then convert elements on the board into real work items in Aha! Roadmaps.

  • A workflow board for product managers: Focus on strategic product planning with a kanban board in Aha! Roadmaps. This gives you a real-time view of what is in progress. You can customize your board to display epics, features, or requirements, then group cards into swimlanes to visualize the work items the team is responsible for.

  • A kanban board for engineers: See day-to-day developer workflows on a customizable kanban board within Aha! Develop. Include details such as estimated effort, individual or team ownership, and the status of each work item.

Ready to try this whiteboard template? Get started.

Kanban board large

This kanban whiteboard template might be the way to go if you have a small team — or want to dabble before you commit.

Customization is key. Whether you are on a product or development team, choose a tool that allows you to easily design your kanban board and create workflows that meet your needs. Be patient as you figure out what works best and adjust over time.

FAQs about kanban

What are some common pitfalls when transitioning to kanban?

Kanban boards can be great for streamlining and simplifying workflows. But they can present challenges if not set up or approached mindfully. These include:

  • Overly complex boards: Without carefully defined columns and adequate swimlanes, kanban boards might prove too complex to parse through.

  • Out-of-date information: Teams that rely on physical kanban boards will have limited time to view and update progress on work items. Switching to a virtual board fixes this issue.

  • Capacity issues: Not having reasonable WIP limits — or failing to test and adjust them — might cause team members to feel overwhelmed.

  • Unclear timelines: Timing is not a focus area for kanban boards. This makes it difficult to visualize how long work items have been on a board or the time frames needed to complete them.

How can I tailor kanban to fit the unique needs of my team?

You might choose to make your column types more specific. Adding horizontal swimlanes to further categorize and segment tasks (by things such as function or product line) is a good way to personalize your board. We also think these best practices are a good starting point.

How do I handle tasks that become blocked in kanban?

You could add a tag, flag, or icon to blocked items to differentiate them and make sure they are addressed. You might also add comments or notes to the blocked work item itself. This could include the reasoning behind why the item is blocked, the team members or stakeholders who can help move the item forward, the date the item became blocked, and so on.

Likewise, use an internal wiki to document how to address blocked work items. Some work items could be resolved quickly by your team, but addressing other blockers might require escalation. Define expectations on who can address what kinds of blockers.

And lastly, discussing the reasoning behind blocked items should be a regular part of your feedback loop. Chatting through these issues in daily team kanban meetings, operational meetings, or other meetups specific to your team helps you address issues that cause blockers in the first place.