What Are the Principles of Kanban and Why Do They Work?
Kanban is both one of the simplest and most efficient tools to manage workflow in a visual way. It’s one of the important tools used in more complex process improvement methodologies (such as Lean), and its wide-spread adoption is a testament to its flexibility, utility and effectiveness. Kanban is based on a few core principles that ensure successful implementation at scales ranging from the individual to organizations with multiple departments and teams that need to be coordinated.
Let’s explore the 4 core principles that the Kanban approach is based on, and why following them is advantageous.
Our brains are wired in such a way that processing visual information is what we are best at. For instance, looking at charts or graphs gives us a much better understanding of a large set of numbers than looking at the raw data ever could. Kanban takes this visual approach and applies it to the workflow.
In Kanban, each task and each step of the process has a clear visual representation that also includes the most vital information. This is an extremely efficient way to make the current state of affairs in an organization visible and understandable by all. Everybody can infer what they need just by a quick glance at the Kanban board, and all workflow impediments like blockers or bottlenecks become obvious right away. This is extremely beneficial by making communication within the team easier and more efficient, and by uncovering problematic areas that need to be fixed.
2. Limit the Work in Progress
One of the few rules that Kanban imposes is limiting the number of pieces of work that can be worked on at any given moment. The actual limitation depends on those that are managing the particular Kanban implementation, but the simple act of imposing a limit is quite advantageous.
This limit fosters focus and forces proper prioritization. This allows an organization to be efficient in how it utilizes its workforce. Additionally, it eliminates decision paralysis, as it doesn’t allow individual team members or managers to be destabilized by the sheer amount of tasks that have piled up, and prevents the common mistake of trying to do too much all at once. On top of this, having a WIP limitation also ensures that each piece of work will go through the workflow process as quickly as possible, which helps productivity.
3. Focus on the Flow
Despite the fact that this can be partially viewed as a function of the first two principles, focusing on the actual workflow is a core value engrained into Kanban as a tool. It should be viewed as an integral part of its proper implementation. Kanban takes the workflow to the forefront of the team’s understanding of their job, and how their organization functions. While Kanban is being used to manage how individual pieces of work are handled as part of the larger process framework, data about what is going on is collected, so the flow can be described and understood using a system of clear metrics. This understanding allows the organization to gain deeper knowledge about its own inner workings, and sets the stage for the last principle
4. Continuous Improvement
Kanbans have a lot of benefits in the day-to-day operation and management of a team or an organization. It puts you in a position where continuous improvement can be achieved and can become part of the company culture. By making sure everything is visual, and by focusing on the flow and collecting data about the performance of the system over time, Kanban allows improvement opportunities to be identified, and taken advantage of on a regular basis. As this process is repeated over and over again, even the smallest of improvements can start to affect the overall performance of the organization in a positive way. This leads to ever increasing productivity, efficiency and thus competitiveness.