A Beginner’s Guide to Kanban Methodology
Have you ever wanted a simple, easy way to organize tasks so you know what needs to be done at a glance? The Kanban methodology is built for you!
Made mainstream by apps like Trello, Kanban can make long to-do lists and overwhelming piles of tasks easily digestible for individuals or teams both big and small.
Let’s dive into everything you need to know in this guide to Kanban methodology, especially how to best use it to ramp up your efficiency.
What is Kanban methodology?
Kanban is a very visual workflow management method in which each task, or work item, is represented by a card on a board. The cards are organized in different steps or work states using vertical columns.
When a task changes states, it can be moved from left to right into the appropriate column.
Columns can be organized in endless ways, but the most popular method is:
- To do
- In progress
A Kanban board can be used to organize tasks for a single person, or for a larger team. In the second case, you can assign owners to each task — so that anyone who looks at the board can quickly see who is currently working on what.
The goal of the Kanban methodology is to gradually improve your processes, reduce the time cycle of your tasks and projects, and create a more predictable workflow.
Each team member is encouraged to focus on a limited number of tasks in progress at once. Kanban boards make it very apparent when there are too many ‘work in progress’ tasks, so you can reallocate resources or make other necessary changes.
The origins of Kanban
The word ‘Kanban’ comes from the Japanese word for ‘card you can see’ or ‘billboard’.
Kanban methodology was actually conceived in the 1940s and stems from Lean methodology. It was first introduced by Taiichi Ohno, who worked as an industrial engineer and manager for Toyota, but it only came into use for I.T. and software development about 15 years ago.
The concept was popularized by David J. Anderson’s book, Kanban – Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business in 2010, after David spent years developing and honing the methodology.
A guide to Kanban methodology tools
Typically, you have two choices for using Kanban: go the old-fashioned analog way, or use project management software that utilizes Kanban boards.
You don’t need any complex tools to start using Kanban! By nature, the Kanban methodology works exactly like sticky notes.
Each task is listed on a sticky note, and your columns — or work states — can be written on a whiteboard, chalkboard, or the walls themselves (though you may want to ask first before you do that last one…).
Although this method makes it easy to start using Kanban, there are definitely some drawbacks to keep in mind.
Pros: Virtually no learning curve, visible at all times in an office, anyone can use it
Cons: Only available in one location, sticky notes can get lost or damaged, no way to notify team members automatically
Project management software with Kanban boards
Many project management tools either use Kanban as a main method, or include Kanban charts as a feature.
- Trello: Trello is the modern king of the Kanban board, and it’s great at what it does. It’s nearly as easy as using sticky notes! Click to add a new card, give it a name, and you’re off to the races. Trello also recently built an app with Post-it Notes that allows you to take photos of sticky notes and turn them into digital Trello cards — eliminating most of the cons mentioned above!
- Wrike: You can easily visualize multiple projects at once with Wrike’s dynamic, customized Kanban workflows.
- Jira: Development tool Jira offers a Kanban view as well. It comes fully-loaded with powerful features to manage projects, such as viewing everyone’s tasks at once or filtering for only one or a few individuals.
- Asana: Apart from other powerful features, Asana also offers a Kanban view for all your tasks.
If you’re currently using a tool that doesn’t offer support for Kanban boards, like Basecamp, Unito can easily sync your projects to tools like Trello, Asana, or Wrike, and give you an at-a-glance understanding of your workflow!
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When to use Kanban
Because Kanban methodology breaks up your workflow in work states, it’s best suited to visualize smaller chunks of work.
Unlike more long-term, structured project management methods like Gantt charts or the more iterative SCRUM, it works best when there are no hard-coded deadlines looming your way.
Flexible projects when priorities can change on the fly
By default, Kanban is an agile method of project management, which makes it easy to implement for flexible projects.
If your priorities tend to change on the fly, you need a workflow that allows you and your team to adapt quickly without disruption. With Kanban, it’s as simple as drag-and-dropping your tasks from one state to another.
If your tasks don’t require a high number of iterations, Kanban is simple enough to accommodate your workflow.
Burning through small tasks quickly
Do you have small pieces of work to manage, like quick fixes or minor requests?
Kanban works great in this case — in fact, several development companies use a public Trello board, like Subnautica and HabitRPG, to go public with all the updates they’re performing to improve their software. This makes it easy to create transparent workflows and encourage open communication, either from inside or outside your organization.
Kanban is incredibly easy to pick up and implement — and in many cases it can help boost productivity and keep your team on the same page.
But you may encounter projects for which Kanban falls short. It doesn’t provide the time-management and communication tools that some teams need to maximize their efficiency.
Do you have immovable deadlines on the horizon? Are you trying to break down project deliverables for clients or your internal team? Do you want to identify task dependencies?
Gantt charts are perfect for creating a visual representation of a project timeline. They help your team see everything that needs to be done before a certain time and provide that extra pressure to get things done.
Like Kanban boards, PERT charts are visual tools, but they are definitely less user-friendly. Instead of cards, your project is broken down in a diagram using numbered nodes. These nodes can represent events or milestones in your project rather than individual tasks.
If your project contains many dependencies, PERT charts are useful, since they use arrows between the nodes to illustrate this. In Kanban, there’s no easy way to show dependencies.
If your tasks need several rounds of iteration before you can mark them as ‘complete’, a more robust SCRUM methodology might be better for you.
This is especially important for software development. While Kanban methodology can be used for small fixes, for the main development cycle it may not be robust enough to support all the iterations you’ll need to go through to get a polished product.
Lists are some of the most straightforward ways to showcase a pile of tasks. Tools like Asana and Trello provide a list view of all tasks, which makes it easy for anyone to understand what needs to be done.
Although lists don’t provide an at-a-glance visualization of your project, they have the advantage of being universal tools that everyone has used at least once in their lives, even if it was just a grocery list!
Kanban Methodology Resources
- Wrike has a quick guide on how to create a more customized Kanban board
- Trello provides this useful resource to turn your sticky notes into Trello cards
- Atlassian gives a comprehensive, step-by-step tutorial on learning the Kanban methodology with Jira
Not sure if Kanban is right for you? Check out our guide to Gantt charts.