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Unpacking Kanban’s 4 principles for better project management

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

July 21, 2023

The Kanban method gives organizations a step-by-step process for reducing waste, boosting efficiency, and streamlining workflows. Not only is the process amazingly useful — it’s also rooted in simplicity. From its birth in Japanese car manufacturing, to its widespread application across industries around the world, the Kanban system has stood the test of time. Yet, as enduring as these Kanban principles are, they are far from static.

Over the years, Kanban has evolved and adapted, moving beyond its manufacturing origins into the digital world. While its core tenets remain centered around visual management, just-in-time production, and continuous improvement, its interpretation has shifted, adapting to fit a range of working practices, tools, tech, and industries. 

From the production floors of Toyota in the mid-20th century to the digital project management boards of today’s tech industries, we’ll take a closer look at how these principles have grown into what Kanban is today — a tried-and-tested philosophy built around four principles and six practices. Let’s dive in! 

What is Kanban?

In its simplest form, Kanban is a visual system for managing work as it moves through a process. Originating from Toyota’s manufacturing system in the 1940s, it has since been adapted to fit a range of industries and projects.

Picture a board with cards moving from left to right, each representing a task and each column a stage in the process. That is a basic Kanban workflow. But it’s so much more than sticky notes and whiteboards (or more commonly these days, items on a digital board). It’s a philosophy, a methodology, and a tool with a core set of principles aimed at improving productivity and teamwork.

What are the four principles of Kanban?

The Kanban methodology is anchored in four core principles. These provide a framework for achieving continual improvement, efficiency, and a culture of leadership. They acknowledge the current status quo, while encouraging innovation, respecting existing roles, and promoting leadership.

The first principle of Kanban: start with what you do now 

The first principle involves recognition of your current process as a starting point, no matter how chaotic or dysfunctional it might seem. This may sound deceptively simple, but it’s a powerful idea that lays the foundation for Kanban’s approach to improvement. Unlike some methodologies that require a full overhaul, Kanban says, “Let’s take a look at what you’re doing right now,” which is a delightfully non-intimidating place to start. 

But it’s not just about not spooking your team and senior management. Beginning with your current process, regardless of its efficiency, acknowledges that your current situation contains valuable insights about the way you work, including what’s working and what isn’t. Kanban respects it and uses it as a launchpad for improvement.

This principle also helps you reduce resistance to change, which is common when managers try to introduce new systems or methodologies. By starting with the current process, the transition to using Kanban becomes less about starting from scratch and more about refining what you’re already doing. Typically, you’ll do this by visualizing your current process on a Kanban board, and take it from there (we’ll talk more about the next steps a little later on). 

A Kanban board created in Backlog 

The second principle of Kanban: agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change

While the first principle asks you to acknowledge and visualize your current process, the second principle lays out the approach you’re going to take for improvement: steady, gradual change.

But why incremental? Why not aim for a massive overhaul all at once? Well, for starters, massive changes can be disruptive, stressful, and meet with resistance. They can create confusion and mistakes. On the other hand, smaller changes are easier to implement, less disruptive, and easier for team members to manage.

The term ‘evolutionary’ acknowledges that changes aren’t random but are instead responses to the needs and issues revealed by your current process. Just like evolution in nature, these changes are adaptations designed to improve the efficiency of your workflow in its unique environment.

The pursuit of incremental change also promotes a mindset of continuous improvement. It encourages teams to always be on the lookout for small ways to improve the process, experiment, and learn. It’s about making a commitment to continuous improvement rather than chasing an impossibly ‘perfect’ system.

In practice, this might involve regular team meetings to discuss potential improvements, setting up feedback loops to assess the impact of changes, or using metrics to track performance over time.

The third principle of Kanban: respect the current process, roles, responsibilities, and titles

This principle reaffirms Kanban’s understanding approach to change and its respect for the existing organizational structure. But why respect the current process if you want change? 

Respect in this context doesn’t mean accepting inefficiencies or resisting change; it’s about acknowledging that the current process, with all its complexities, has been shaped by historical decisions and learning experiences, all of which have value. 

Respecting the current process also helps ease the transition toward improvement while avoiding problems from a sudden and total overhaul. But this principle goes beyond just the process. It extends to respecting roles, responsibilities, and titles. This means recognizing that each team member has a unique contribution to make. It respects the organizational hierarchy and the functions that people serve within it.

But it’s important to note that respecting roles doesn’t mean these roles can’t change or evolve. As the team begins to embrace the Kanban system and incrementally improve their process, roles might naturally adapt to better fit the evolving workflow.

In practice, respecting current roles could involve ensuring that everyone understands and agrees with the changes being made, providing necessary training and support during the transition, and fostering an environment where everyone feels their input is valued.

The fourth principle of Kanban: encourage acts of leadership at all levels in your organization 

This principle encourages a culture where anyone can lead, regardless of their title or position.

The underlying belief is this: leadership is not about titles; it’s about actions and attitudes. This means leadership can come from anyone who takes initiative, drives improvement, or inspires others. 

In a Kanban setting, this might be someone who suggests a better way to visualize a complex process on the Kanban board, or someone who spots a bottleneck and offers a solution.

When everyone is encouraged to lead, everyone becomes more invested in the process and the outcomes. This distributed leadership also allows for diversity in ideas and perspectives, driving creativity and resilience in your team.

In practice, fostering leadership could involve creating safe spaces for open discussion, actively soliciting feedback and ideas from all team members, and recognizing and celebrating those who take initiative. But bear in mind — for this to work, there needs to be a willingness among senior management to follow when someone from a more junior position steps up to lead. It’s about creating a culture where everyone both leads and follows, depending on the situation.

What are the six Kanban practices?

Now that we’ve established the core principles let’s take a look at Kanban’s six core principles: visualize the workflow, limit work in progress, manage flow, make process policies explicit, implement feedback loops, and improve collaboratively. These guide teams to evolve and improve their work processes over time.

The first principle of Kanban: visualize the workflow

This is about making the abstract tangible and the invisible visible. Or in other words, mapping out all tasks, stages, and progress in a format that is visible to all members of a team or organization. 

Kanban boards are the go-to here. They graphically represent the flow of work and enable real-time tracking, which helps everyone stay on the same page and work efficiently. 

The workflow visualization is split into various columns, each depicting a specific stage of the work process. For instance, a basic Kanban board may consist of three columns: ‘To-Do’, ‘In Progress’, and ‘Done’. Each task or project is represented by a Kanban card that moves from one column to another as it progresses through different stages. This gives you a clear, comprehensive picture of work status, team responsibilities, and project bottlenecks, all at a single glance.

By making all tasks visually accessible, everyone involved can quickly and easily grasp the state of the work in progress. This encourages communication, fosters a shared understanding of work and workflows, and promotes an open culture where information is easily available. Visualizing the workflow also helps you spot issues and inefficiencies, which paves the way for smarter decision-making and targeted improvements — two integral Kanban principles. 

The second principle of Kanban: limit Work in Progress (WiP)

This one is all about keeping your plate just full enough — not overflowing with tasks, but also not left empty. The Goldilocks principle of task management, if you will. 

Imagine you’re juggling lots of tasks, thinking you’re the master of multi-tasking. But here’s the catch: research shows us that multitasking actually decreases our productivity. When we try to do too many things at once, we’re not really focusing on any of them, and the quality of our work suffers.

Enter Kanban’s second principle, limit WiP. It’s basically telling us to slow down and focus. It asks us to set a maximum limit on the number of tasks we’re working on at any given time. So, instead of juggling ten things poorly, you could be mastering one to three things brilliantly. This way, we can truly concentrate on each task, ensuring it’s completed to the best of your ability before you move onto the next one.

On a Kanban board, you might see this in action with a set number of slots in the ‘In Progress’ column and only moving a new task in when another has been moved to ‘Done’. It’s a nifty way to keep your workload manageable and your productivity levels optimal. Limiting WiP also helps you locate bottlenecks in your process. If tasks are piling up in one area because you’re overreaching your WiP limit, it’s a clear sign that something in your process might need tweaking.

The third principle of Kanban: manage flow

So, you’ve visualized your workflow and made sure you’re not biting off more than you can chew. What’s next? It’s time to manage flow, the third principle. 

Flow is the smooth, uninterrupted movement of tasks through your Kanban board. It’s all about keeping things moving from the ‘To-Do’ column all the way to the ‘Done’ column. Like traffic on a highway, you want to prevent pile-ups and keep things moving at a steady pace. If things are moving too slowly or too quickly, it could signal a problem. 

To manage flow effectively, you need to monitor several things. One is the lead time — basically, how long it takes for a task to go from start to finish. If lead times are getting longer, it might mean there’s a bottleneck somewhere that needs freeing up.

It’s also important to keep an eye on throughput. This is the number of tasks being completed in a given timeframe. A sudden drop in throughput might mean there’s an issue slowing down the progress. And remember, just like the other principles, managing flow isn’t a one-time thing. It’s a continuous effort that involves constantly observing and tweaking to ensure tasks are flowing smoothly and efficiently.

The fourth principle of Kanban: make process policies explicit

Think about a game of football. Can you imagine if no one on the field knew the rules? Hilarious? Yes. Chaotic and pointless? Also yes. 

It’s the same with your work. If no one on the team gets the ‘rules’ or guidelines for how tasks move through the workflow, things will get messy fast. This is where the fourth principle comes into play. It’s all about clarity and transparency. It involves defining clear guidelines about how tasks should be handled at each stage of the workflow, so everyone knows exactly what’s going on.

This could include guidelines on task assignment, how many tasks someone can work on at a time (remember the second principle, limit WIP?), what needs to happen for a task to move from one stage to the next, or how to handle a blockage in the workflow. The clearer these policies, the less room there is for confusion.

Having clear policies creates a common understanding among everyone. It’s not about bossing people around or creating tough rules. It’s about helping everyone know the plan so they can work together more effectively.

So, make sure to put those policies out there. Write them down. Put them on the Kanban board. Discuss them in meetings. The more visible and understandable they are, the better your team can work together to get things done.

The fifth principle of Kanban: implement feedback loops

Imagine you’re learning to play a musical instrument. You strum a chord or hit a note, and then you listen. Did it sound right? Or was it a bit off? 

That listening and adjusting? That’s a feedback loop. It’s about taking action, assessing the results, and then using that feedback to improve.

Now, apply that same concept to your workflow. Implementing feedback loops in Kanban is about continuously assessing and learning from your process to make it better. It’s about looking at what’s working, what’s not, and making adjustments to improve.

Feedback loops can happen at different stages and frequencies. They can be daily stand-ups, where the team chats about what they’re working on, plans for the day, and any challenges they face. They might also take the form of retrospectives or project post-mortems, where the team reflects on a finished project or a specific time period, examining what went well and what could be improved.

The frequency and form of these feedback loops are adjustable, based on your team’s needs. Maybe you need quick daily check-ins, or perhaps a weekly or bi-weekly retrospective works best. The key is to have regular moments where you pause, reflect, and adjust.

The sixth principle of Kanban: improve collaboratively

This principle is the finishing touch. It takes all the principles we’ve discussed before and ties them all up in a bow made of continuous improvement.

The key word here is ‘collaboratively’. This isn’t about a single person or a manager making all the improvements. It’s about everyone in the team being involved in spotting issues, suggesting changes, and working on improvements. 

Improving collaboratively involves using all the information and insights you’ve gained from visualizing the workflow, limiting work in progress, managing flow, making process policies explicit, and implementing feedback loops. You take all that good stuff, and use it to continuously refine your workflow.

It’s about asking questions like ‘how can we streamline our process?’; ‘where are the bottlenecks, and how can we eliminate them?’; and ‘how can we work more efficiently?’ It’s a continuous cycle of learning and improving that keeps the process effective. 

And here’s the thing: improving collaboratively isn’t just about making your workflow better. It’s also about building a stronger team. When everyone’s involved in making improvements, it builds a sense of responsibility. It brings everyone closer together, and ultimately, leads to a more productive team and better quality work. 

How project management software can help you master the Kanban principles 

Backlog, our own PM platform, brings the principles of Kanban to life in a digital environment, helping teams visualize and improve their workflow, whether they’re remote, hybrid, or all working in the same room.

Thanks to an easy drag-and-drop interface, managers can create digital boards that reflect your current workflow, including various stages of progress and different tasks. This gives everyone on the team a clear visualization of the existing process.

The platform also offers file sharing, task assignment, issue flagging and comments that make it easy for anyone to take the initiative. Plus, with automatic data collection and monitoring, you can make small, gradual modifications to your workflow and track the impact of these changes over time. 

In short, Backlog is a powerful Kanban ally, providing all the tools you need to help you on your way to more efficient processes, no matter how calm or chaotic your workflow is today. 



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