What is Kanban?

Kanban (Japanese for a signboard or billboard) is a scheduling system for lean and just-in-time production. It is also a framework to support Agile methodology. Kanban controls the logistical chain from a production point of view.

In product management, Kanban functions as a series of visual workflow boards. These boards help product managers confirm if releases are under or over capacity. Ultimately, the goal of Kanban is to help product managers prioritize their work to focus on building what matters most right now.

Kanban was developed by Taiichi Ohno at Toyota in the 1940s. At the time, Toyota wanted to overhaul its engineering process. They sought a system to improve and maintain a high level of production.

Ohno modeled Kanban after the approach that supermarkets used to stock their shelves. Upon observation, he realized that supermarkets were matching inventory levels with consumption patterns. They achieved this by stocking just enough products to meet consumer demand. The result was an optimized product flow between supermarkets and their consumers.

When Ohno brought this approach to Toyota, his goal was to help engineers visualize their workflows. He achieved this by introducing cards, or kanbans, to his team. If the team was over capacity on a project, they could deliver kanbans to other teams. These kanbans confirmed excess capacity and the need for more materials.

The Kanban methodology was later added to as an approach to incremental, evolutionary process improvement for organizations. It was then applied to help guide to software development and product management. The ultimate goal was to streamline workflow between these teams.

Agile product teams often use Kanban to focus only on work that is actively in progress. Once a specific feature has been shipped, the product owner will pull another from the backlog. When working under the Kanban framework, the product owner maintains control over this backlog and is free to re-prioritize as needed.

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