What is kanban?

Product leaders manage a large amount of critical work at once. You are responsible for planning what the product team will deliver and the timeline for implementation. With so much in motion at the same time, it is useful to have a high-level view of the status of work items — so you can identify delays or blockers and keep everything on track.

Many product managers use the kanban method to visualize the flow of product features by status (e.g., "not started," "in progress," "completed"). Kanban supports agile methods through the continuous delivery of high-value features. As team capacity allows, new features are pulled from the backlog and added to in-progress work.

While the main focus of the kanban method is working more efficiently, kanban also complements goal-first product management. You set the product strategy upfront that determines how you prioritize features. Then, kanban helps you incrementally complete each feature. Even if you do not plan to formally adopt the kanban method, you might find that you can apply some of the principles behind it to get work done.

The history of kanban

The word "kanban" means "signboard" in Japanese. Kanban was developed in the 1940s by Taiichi Ohno, an engineer at Toyota. At the time, Toyota wanted to overhaul its manufacturing processes to improve efficiency and reduce waste. Ohno modeled kanban after the approach that supermarkets used to stock their shelves — matching inventory levels with consumption patterns. Supermarkets stocked just enough products to meet consumer demand, resulting in an optimized flow of products between the market and consumers.

When Ohno brought this approach to Toyota, he aimed to eliminate overproduction by introducing new inventory only when absolutely necessary. Ohno introduced kanban cards — paper cards that represented finished products and production materials. Once a product was sold or a material was used, the kanban card would move back to the production line, indicating to the team that there was new demand for that product or material.

The kanban method evolved to support supply chains beyond car manufacturing as well as modern project management work — anything that requires visualization of a large volume of in-progress work. The biggest evolution of kanban occurred in the early 2000s when the method was adopted by IT and software development teams.

At the time, some development teams were already following agile practices such as scrum. Kanban paired well with the agile concept of delivering software frequently. And it appealed to developers who wanted to ensure a constant flow of high-value work.

How does kanban work?

Kanban uses a physical or digital board to represent a team or organization’s workflow. Each step in the workflow is represented by a vertical lane or column. Column labels can be as simple as “Not started," "Some progress," and "Achieved,” or you can choose terminology that is unique to a specific workflow.

Work items are represented by sticky notes (on a physical board) or digital cards (on a digital board). Cards are moved from left to right across the board to show how each work item is progressing within the workflow.

The kanban method advises pursuing incremental improvement over time, following three basic principles:

1. Visualize the flow of work
High-level visualization enables you to identify bottlenecks, surface process issues, and collaborate to keep work moving or reprioritize as needed.

2. Limit "work in progress" (WiP)
Teams are encouraged to work on a limited amount of features at once. Limiting WiP allows the team to be rigorous about prioritization, favoring the completion of high-value items.

3. Continuously improve
Closely track workflow, quality, lead time, and other metrics to identify processes that can be refined.

Kanban principles can help teams keep tabs on important work items, status, and cross-dependencies. Ideally, everyone is aligned on the work and actively striving to deliver value.

How is kanban used by product managers?

Product managers need to be highly disciplined and organized to keep track of all product work — while also communicating the big picture to stakeholders and cross-functional teams. There are a few ways kanban can help you achieve this.

The first is on the product planning side. If you are planning features and timing prior to sending work over to the engineering team, you can use elements of kanban to define current and upcoming priorities.

Second, engineers can utilize kanban too. In this sense, the kanban workflow would accommodate planning as well as development work. The product manager would prepare features and requirements in a "Ready for development" (or similar) column of a kanban board, while engineers would choose cards to pull into their workflows.

The third way kanban can be used in product management is even more comprehensive. For example, if your product team follows the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®), you might choose to adopt kanban across the organization. Other teams, such as operations and customer support, can use kanban to pull important work into their workflows and continuously improve processes. In this way, product managers and other project managers can begin to view and navigate work-in-progress across the entire organization.

How can kanban be used at scale?

Kanban at scale takes a multi-layered approach that treats the organization as a complete system. SAFe is a good example of this. In SAFe, kanban is used to visualize workflows, establish work-in-process limits, measure throughput, and continuously improve processes — at every level. These levels include:

Portfolio kanban

Kanban is used at the portfolio level to manage the flow of epics. These are large initiatives across the organization that span teams and multiple releases. Portfolio kanban encourages transparency in decision-making processes and provides work-in-process limits across teams.

Solution kanban

Kanban is used at the solution level to manage a team's capabilities. For example, establishing a continuous delivery pipeline could be its own unique kanban.

Program kanban

Kanban is used at the program level to manage features for an Agile Release Train (ART) — which includes all of the work needed to build, test, deploy, and release new software or a customer experience.

Team kanban

Kanban is used at the team level to manage an individual team's workflows. For example, product managers apply kanban when working from discrete planning boards. Agile engineering teams apply kanban when managing user stories and the engineering backlog.

Some organizations choose to visualize all teams on one board with a lane per team to provide better transparency and alignment.

Most product teams today rely on product management software. You can set strategy, build plans, and manage work in the same tool — saving time and improving consistency across projects and work items. Physical kanban boards are challenging to maintain and can quickly become outdated, which defeats the intention of building a fast-moving pipeline of work.

Software like Aha! Roadmaps provides a kanban-style view of product features — so you can visualize workflows and update progress without hassle. Of course, you do not have to strictly follow the kanban method to be successful. Many teams apply kanban principles in some areas of work and not others. See how to customize kanban workflows for your team — try Aha! Roadmaps for free for 30 days.

Aha! is a trademark of Aha! Labs Inc. All other company and product names may be trademarks of the respective companies with which they are associated.

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