From Idea To Production: Managing End-To-End Flow With Kanban

Understanding Kanban Fundamentals

Defining kanban and key principles

Kanban is a workflow management method that aims to create efficient and predictable processes by visualizing work, limiting work-in-progress (WIP), and maximizing flow. The key principles of kanban include:

  • Visualization – Mapping out the workflow on a kanban board to see bottlenecks
  • Limits on WIP – Setting constraints to reduce multitasking and focus effort
  • Flow optimization – Smoothing and speeding up the process from start to finish
  • Continuous improvement – Identifying issues and adapting the system over time
  • Collaboration – Encouraging teamwork and communication at all stages

By adhering to these tenets, kanban helps balance the time it takes to complete tasks with the amount of work happening at once. This promotes steady progress towards goals without overburdening workers and systems.

Explaining origins and development of kanban

Kanban was developed by Toyota in the 1940s as a scheduling system to optimize manufacturing processes. Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, came up with the idea to limit work-in-progress to avoid overproduction and excess inventory. The system used visual signals, later implemented as cards on boards, to cue the next step in production when capacity became available.

Kanban, which means “visual signal” or “card” in Japanese, helped Toyota significantly improve operational efficiency and respond faster to demand. This allowed them to compete successfully against American auto manufacturers at the time.

Due to Toyota’s remarkable success, these production principles were more broadly adopted starting in the 1990s under monikers like “lean manufacturing” or “just-in-time manufacturing”. With the rise of software development in subsequent decades, technology teams adapted kanban to visualize progress, set WIP limits, and streamline paths to delivery.

Today, kanban is used globally by companies big and small across industries like media, healthcare, finance, and more. The widespread application beyond its manufacturing roots demonstrates the power and flexibility of key kanban tenets.

Implementing Kanban

Assessing processes suitable for kanban

When considering where in an organization to implement kanban, managers should assess particular processes against a few criteria:

  • Repeatable tasks – Kanban suits ongoing work with patterns amenable to standardization
  • Flexible sequence – The order of work can change to meet incoming demand
  • Visual workflows – The process can be mapped on a board with columns and cards
  • Measurable flow – Metrics can track flow from input to output of system

Application domains meeting these criteria have included manufacturing lines, software engineering, IT service operations, healthcare delivery, game development, and product design. Within these domains, specific processes like code deployments, help desk tickets, and content review are good candidates.

Visualizing workflow with kanban boards

Kanban boards form the backbone of visualization for most implementations. These boards have horizontal lanes representing steps in the workflow, with columns in each lane holding cards that signify work items. Cards progress across the board to mark work completion from left to right – the upstream to downstream flow.

For example, a software team might visualize progress from “Backlog” to “In Development” to “Code Review” to “Testing” to “Deployment”. Lanes can also organize workflow by person, class of service, or priority.

This end-to-end board reveals how work spans different functional stages and who is responsible when. Color codes, tags, avatars, and metrics on cards offer more context on workflows. Seeing accumulation of cards exposes bottlenecks to address.

Managing work-in-progress limits

A key tactic in kanban is to establish work-in-progress (WIP) limits on parts of the board to prevent overburdening. For example, setting a limit of 5 items in testing constrains that queue to focus on finishing existing work rather than starting new tests.

WIP limits force prioritization when capacity is reached in a column, encouraging teams to complete work before pulling in more. This increases focus, quality, and throughput. The improved flow then allows teams to lower WIP limits further over time.

Ideally, WIP limits are mutually agreed upon by team members to balance both process flow and people flow. Leaving slack in the system ensures both materials and workers can progress smoothly.

Tracking progress with metrics

Metric tracking provides the evidence to assess kanban efficacy at the team and organizational level. Quantitative data offers objective ways to see the impact of changes over weeks, months, and years of kanban use.

Common kanban metrics include:

  • Cycle time – The average time for work items to traverse the full workflow
  • Throughput – The number of items completed in a timeframe (per day, week, etc)
  • Work item age – The time a card has been in a specific column
  • Blockers – Issues causing delays or work stoppage

Data visualizations like histograms, scatter plots, and cumulative flows diagram can uncover helpful trends. Managers can then set measurable improvement goals around lowering cycle times, increasing throughput, and reducing aged work in process.

Optimizing Kanban Usage

Identifying improvement opportunities

Even with a well-designed system, opportunities to optimize kanban performance arise over time. Potential areas to address include:

  • Unbalanced workflows – Certain stages take longer than others
  • Quality issues – Frequency of defects found in testing
  • Blocked processes – Stalled work waiting on inputs
  • Demand spikes – Sudden surges overwhelming capacity
  • Unmapped steps – Gaps in visualizing workflow

Data analysis, team feedback, and reviewing metrics trends can reveal these issues. Before changing processes, root cause investigation helps diagnose where and why problems occur. Common causes are bottlenecks from overloaded people, inefficient tools, or communication breakdowns.

Adapting kanban implementation over time

Kanban systems evolve dynamically to drive better outcomes. Making incremental improvements sustains positive momentum. Starting options include:

  • Adjust WIP limits to balance flow
  • Increase visualization to expose waste
  • Automate manual steps where possible
  • Clarify policies guiding work prioritization
  • Improve skill levels with training

More broadly, optimization comes from involving teams, reviewing metrics regularly, and experimenting with changes frequently. Embedding a culture of continuous improvement empowers everyone to help improve the system.

Integrating kanban with other frameworks

While kanban provides robust workflow management on its own, complementing it with compatible operating frameworks can augment benefits.

For example, kanban integrates neatly with:

  • Scrum – for iteration planning and retrospectives
  • Lean Six Sigma – for quality and process enhancements
  • DevOps – for deployment automation
  • OKRs – aligning workflows to objectives and key results

The flexibility of kanban allows it to mesh with various complementary systems. Teams can realize synergies by blending approaches.

Applying Kanban to Software Development

Using kanban for agile development

Kanban works extremely well guiding agile software development. Key synergies with lean-agile values include:

  • Focusing on flow efficiency with WIP limits
  • Enabling rapid response to change through continuous delivery
  • Reducing waste and maximizing value from user feedback
  • Promoting team engagement through a shared visual system

Components like a prioritized backlog, short iterations, retrospectives, and reviews help enhance development kanban. Automating tests and deployments prevents quality and speed backslides.

Managing code review and testing

Two areas ripe for better workflow management are peer code review and testing. These checks ensure software quality before release but can also become bottlenecks.

Kanban highlights issues like:

  • Reviews getting bogged down and delaying development
  • Test environments bottlenecking at capacity
  • Defect resolution delays holding up retesting

Explicit policies guide prioritization, while WIP limits force attention where it matters most. Metrics reveal when more reviewers, testers, tools or environments become necessary.

Coordinating across teams

Scaling agile practices across many teams magnifies the need for synchronization. Making software requires coordination across business analysts, developers, testers, security experts, deployment specialists and more.

Kanban facilitates cross-team integration by:

  • Modeling dependencies to spot hand-offs
  • Marking blocking issues stalling work
  • Escalating delays through shared reporting
  • Balancing capacities to smooth overall flow

Transparency into the full value stream helps identify waste and build cadence. Connecting islands of activity into one delivery pipeline enables complex initiatives not possible in silos.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *