Kanban Guide

How to implement Kanban

Choosing a Kanban tool

To begin Kanban, you first need to decide on your setup. Though Anderson
initially conceived of the kanban board as a physical tool, in the ten years
since he published his book, the workplace has changed in significant ways:
Remote work is on the rise and teams are often spread
between cities—if not continents. “For teams that are distributed
geographically, or those who have policies that allow team members to work
from their homes one or more days per week, electronic tracking is
essential,” writes Anderson. Digital boards are accessible anywhere
with a Wi-Fi connection, making them an ideal, flexible solution for modern
teams.

Virtual kanban boards provide numerous other benefits. They solve the
problem of being able to reference old tasks and projects—old cards get
archived, unlike physical ones, which tend to get lost or thrown away.
Digital Kanban boards are also often integrated into project management tools
like Backlog, making them
ideal for managing complex projects. For instance, Backlog's Boards feature
makes it easy for users to provide context to their kanban boards by adding
comments or attaching documents and screenshots. Team members can also easily
switch between views so they can see their entire team's work or just focus
on their own tasks.

Whatever tool you choose, make sure it's something your team likes and
wants to use—this will motivate them to embrace Kanban and drive
process improvement.

How to set up your kanban board

Once you've selected a tool, it's time for the fun part—building
your board. When you first start using a kanban board, the goal is just to
get visual feedback on what you're doing right now. Later on, you can
implement column limits and queues to help control the flow of work through
the system, but the first stage is just to map your process. Here's how:

Kanban board setup checklist

  • Identify a workflow
  • List the kinds of work it processes
  • Create a process for adding new work to the system
  • Define classes of service

1. Identify a workflow

Depending on the kind of work you do, your board might be basic or highly
sophisticated. The only “right” way to set up a Kanban board is
to accurately reflect the work you actually do—your workflow.

Define start and end points

If you're part of a larger organization, there's only so much you can
control. It's important to recognize this when implementing Kanban. Your
Kanban board should begin where you, as an individual or team, take ownership
of a process and finish where your control ends.

Map the steps in your process

Once you've identified the start and end points in your process, it's time
to break down the steps that make up your workflow—what will become
your columns. Handoffs are not necessary between every column, they just
show work moving from one phase to another. With Backlog's
custom status feature, it's easy to map your unique
workflow—here are some examples:

  • Individuals or Small Teams: Projects | Planning |
    In-progress | Done
  • Dev/IT: Backlog | Pending | Design | Development |
    Testing | Done
  • Design: Backlog | Ready to Start | Design | Sign-off |
    Done
  • Product Management: Features | Pending | Development |
    Testing | Sign-off | Done
  • Marketing: Campaigns | Planning | In-Progress |
    Done
  • Sales: Leads | Initial Outreach | Evaluation |
    Negotiation | Closed (Won/Lost)

2. List the kinds of work it processes

The next step is to identify the types of work that moves through your
workflow. Depending on the type of work you do, there may be many kinds or
just one. For instance, the primary type of work that flows through a
salesperson's process is “deals.” A developer, on the other hand,
will process many different types of work, including
“requirements,” “features,” “bugs,”
“maintenance” and so on. If several different kinds of work move
through your workflow, you might find it useful to color-code them for easy
visibility. You might also consider implementing horizontal “swim
lanes” to distinguish between distinct projects or types of work.

3. Create a process for adding new work to the system

Teams typically use a backlog to collect upcoming tasks, which they can
then pull into the input queue at regular intervals—this is part of
keeping WIP as low as possible to maximize throughput, which we'll discuss
further in the next section. What you call your input queue is up to
you—“ready to start,” “pending”, or
“planning” are all good options—what is important is that
you create a protocol for adding new work to it. Ask:

  • How often will we replenish the input queue?
  • Who decides what work should be added to it?

Many teams have regular prioritization meetings to add new tasks, but how
and when you replenish your queue is up to you.

4. Define classes of service

“Classes of service” is just Kanban terminology for work
prioritization—just like first class and economy on an airplane. Teams
typically have a “standard” class of service for routine tasks
and an “urgent” class of service which expedites important or
time-sensitive ones through the workflow.


Classes of service

Respect your process

The great thing about Kanban is that it isn't a software development lifecycle
methodology or a project management framework—rather, it's designed to work in
tandem with other systems. If your team is already practicing
Agile,
Scrum, DevOps, or another framework, Kanban can give you greater
insight into your existing process and illuminate areas of improvement. For
instance, if you're already using Scrum, you can use a Kanban board to host
your backlog, plan your sprints, and track the progress of tasks
throughout your sprint process. The key is to focus on optimizing these
existing processes rather than swapping them out for new ones.

Get your WIP into shape

The next phase of Kanban is to limit WIP. In order to prevent
partially-completed work from piling up, you need to
limit the total amount of WIP in the system. Here's
how:

Match input to throughput

A team should be able to complete all work items in the input queue in a
given time period. For instance, if you replenish your input queue with new
tasks from your backlog on a weekly basis, your queue size should be the
number of tasks you can complete in a given week.

Set column limits to enforce single-tasking

At least to start with, set each column limit to the number of people
available to complete that kind of task. For instance, if a team has three
developers, the “development” column should have a WIP limit of
three, so each developer can work on one task at a time. If a column reaches
its limit, no new tasks can be started until a space is cleared by the
completion of a task.

Use queues to maintain flow

To absorb the variations between tasks and ensure smooth flow, teams can
add “queues”—column sections that show completed work that
is ready for the next stage. You can put the queue directly after a completed
step (“done”) or directly before the next one
(“ready”), the effect is essentially the same. Queues should also
have limits to avoid creating excess WIP. They typically look something like
this:

Queues

Adjust as needed

Above all, Kanban is a process of experimentation and learning. WIP or
input queue limits are never set in stone. “You can select a number and
then observe whether it is working well,” says Anderson. “If not,
adjust it up or down.”

Eliminate unnecessary work

After you've been practicing Kanban for a while, you might notice that
some tasks end up sitting in your backlog, never high enough priority to make
it into your input queue. After a certain amount of time has passed (6 months
is a good benchmark), delete these tasks. If they end up becoming important
later on, you can always add them back into your backlog.

You might find that reducing the amount of WIP feels uncomfortable at
first and might even cause pushback from team members or managers. Anderson
recognizes this—and encourages teams to lean into this tension.
“The tension created by imposing a WIP limit across the value stream is
positive tension,” he writes. “This positive tension forces
discussions about the organization's issues and dysfunctions.” Take the
reduction of WIP as an opportunity to examine the deeper issues at play and
discuss solutions.

Practice kaizen

Like most good things, Kanban takes time. In fact, Anderson's first Kanban
experiment at Microsoft took fifteen months to enact. Have patience with the
process.

Since Kanban spurs gradual transformation, it's not always easy to see
your advancement day-to-day. It's important to keep tabs on your headway to
drive your motivation and recognize opportunities for further development.
You can use the following guiding questions as a starting point to assess
your progress:

  • Cumulative flow—are the number of tasks across
    columns generally stable?
  • Lead time—how long does it take an item to get
    from order to completion?
  • Due date performance—if tasks have specific
    deadlines, are they meeting them?
  • Throughput—how many items make it through the
    system in a given time period? (ie. one month)

  • Issues and blocked work items—how well is the
    team identifying, reporting and managing stopped tasks?
  • Flow efficiency—what is the ratio between lead
    time and touch time (time spent working on a given task)?
  • Initial quality—what is the defect rate
    (percentage of work completed that escapes with some kind of issue)?
  • Failure load—how many tasks need to be completed
    as a result of earlier defects or failure to anticipate project needs?

What matters is that you're continuously improving, little by little.
Small changes compound into big results.

Yes we Kanban

Kanban is a simple system with powerful results. Crucially, it doesn't
force teams to change their work habits—it allows them to be unique and
become the best they can be through incremental change. David J. Anderson
puts it best when he says:

“Kanban is giving permission in the market to create a tailored process
optimized to a specific context. Kanban is giving people permission to think
for themselves. It is giving people permission to be different: different from
the team across the floor, on the next floor, in the next building, and at a
neighbouring firm. It's giving people permission to deviate from the
textbook.”

Ready to get started with Kanban? Backlog's
Boards feature makes it easy for teams to manage complex
projects, using their existing systems. These virtual kanban boards plug into
Backlog's sophisticated project management and version control platform,
allowing team members to manage their projects—and their
code—from one centralized location. Get started for
free.