What is kanban

Guide: Kanban

Kanban, a structured approach to project management and workflow optimization, originated by Toyota in the 1940s. This system, which is key in the Toyota Production System, later evolved into what we now recognize as Lean Manufacturing. Kanban is designed to coordinate the amount of work in progress with a team’s capacity. This coordination is important in preventing overburdening, ensuring smooth operations, and addressing the common pitfalls of bottlenecks.

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What is Kanban?

Kanban was originally developed in the 1940s by Toyota. Kanban was part of the broader focus to improve operational efficiency, which eventually developed into the Toyota Production System (TPS). TPS was a forerunner to what is now known widely as “Lean Manufacturing” . 

The fundamental aim of Kanban is to match the amount of work in progress to the team’s capacity. This creates balance, which is essential in avoiding overburdening the system and ensuring a consistent, smooth workflow. By doing this the Kanban system can eliminate bottlenecks, which is key as bottlenecks can lead to delays and reduced quality, and Kanban offers a structured method to identify and address these issues. 

Core Principles of Kanan

Kanban has a range of core principles which you should be aware of to extract the full benefit of it with implementation. These include:

Visualize the Work:

A Kanban board is a type of Visual Management tool that provides a clear picture of the workflow and real-time progress. This visualisation aids in understanding the dynamics within the team. Usually, a Kanban board will be divided into columns that represent different stages of the workflow, such as Todo, Work in Progress, and Done. You can see how this might look in our example below. In reality, your Kanban board needs might differ from this and have different types and more stages, these can be adapted to the needs of the process.


Each task is represented by a card on this board, and as work progresses, the cards move from left to right, highlighting the journey of tasks from initiation to completion. This visual progression allows for easy tracking and helps identify any stagnation or backlog in the workflow.

Limit Work in Progress (WIP)

Kanban emphasizes the importance of not overloading the system by imposing WIP limits for each stage of the workflow. These limits are important as they prevent overcommitment and help maintain focus on completing existing tasks before starting new ones. When a limit for a column is reached, the team will focus on completing the existing tasks before moving on to new ones. Applying this approach removes the tendency to multitask and helps to maintain a high quality of work. 

Focusing on Flow

Applying Kanban is not just about visualizing the work but also optimizing the workflow. This principle involves how the tasks move through the Kanban board and identifying points where work gets held up; these points could be potential bottlenecks. By focusing on the flow of the stages where work tends to get stuck or bottlenecks are made, you are able to take steps to address these issues.

How to Implement Kanaban

Step 1: Setting up a Kanban Board

The first step in implementing Kanban for one of your processes will be to set up the Kanban board. These can be physical boards or digital tools. If you are using a physical board, we would recommend considering a magnetic whiteboard, which you can break down into sections. You can then get magnetic WIP cardholders to easily move tasks across the board. Physical boards are usually best for teams in the same location, as they are always visible on the wall for everyone to see. However, in remote teams, digital boards may be ideal, such a Trello.

Once you have decided on the type of board and the location, the next step is to design the board. 

First, you will need to decide on the basic columns: To do, in progress, and done. These should be the minimum basic columns you have. However, you may need additional steps in the process, such as testing or review. It is important to create the columns based on the needs of the process or team. 

Step 2: Creating Cards

Now that you have the board, the next step is creating the cards that will go onto the board. For this you should break down the work into manageable tasks.

Each task will then be represented by a single card. Create a card for each task; on these cards, there should be a clear description of the task. This should include any important details, such as deadlines, the person responsible, priority level, and task category. 

Once you have the cards, you will add them to the board in the appropriate columns, which are indicated by the stage of the process they are in. Most tasks still start in the “todo” column.

Step 3: Establishing Working Process (WIP) Limits

For the most part, the Kanban board is done now, You have the Kanban board and the cards. Finally, before the setup is complete, we need to have WIP limits; this is important for the success of the Kanban process.

To do this, you should assess the team’s capacity. By this, you should understand how much work a team can handle at all times without compromising on quality. This information might need to be gathered with data collection or time trials to understand how long a particular task takes. Once you have this, you can assess team available hours vs activity hours to optimize how much work can be in progress at the same time without causing overburden or impacting quality.

You should then implement and enforce the WIP limits and ensure the team adheres to them. If a column reaches its WIP limit, the team’s focus should be on completing the existing tasks before starting new ones.

At this point, the board should be operational.

Step 4: Monitoring and Managing the Flow

Following the implementation, the Kanban board needs to be continually monitored and the workflow managed. We recommend holding daily stand-up meetings with stakeholders for around 5 minutes to discuss the progress, identify any blockages, and plan the day’s work. These 5 minutes will ensure the team understands the focus and can save much more than 5 minutes within a work day.


Implementing Kanban is a transformative step towards achieving operational excellence. This guide has provided a structured pathway to establish and utilize a Kanban system, from setting up a Kanban board and creating cards to establishing Work in Progress (WIP) limits and monitoring the workflow.

Whether in a co-located or remote setting, the adaptability of Kanban caters to diverse team structures and needs. By embracing its principles and meticulously following these steps, teams can enhance their productivity, optimize workflows, and create a dynamic environment of continuous improvement. As with any tool of this nature, the key lies in consistent application and a willingness to adapt and refine processes for optimal results.


A: Kanban is a project management methodology that originated from the manufacturing industry and focuses on visualizing work, limiting work in progress (WIP), and improving workflow efficiency.

A: Unlike traditional methodologies, Kanban emphasizes continuous flow and allows for flexible planning, responding to changes in real-time. It also emphasizes visualizing work and encourages incremental improvements.

A: The key principles of Kanban include visualizing workflow, limiting WIP, managing flow, making process policies explicit, using feedback loops, and encouraging collaborative and continuous improvement.

A: No, Kanban can be applied to various industries and domains beyond software development. It is a versatile methodology suitable for any knowledge work that involves managing and improving workflow.

A: Implementing Kanban can lead to improved productivity, increased efficiency, reduced bottlenecks, enhanced collaboration, better prioritization, shorter lead times, and improved customer satisfaction.


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Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is a seasoned continuous improvement manager with a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma. With over 10 years of real-world application experience across diverse sectors, Daniel has a passion for optimizing processes and fostering a culture of efficiency. He's not just a practitioner but also an avid learner, constantly seeking to expand his knowledge. Outside of his professional life, Daniel has a keen Investing, statistics and knowledge-sharing, which led him to create the website learnleansigma.com, a platform dedicated to Lean Six Sigma and process improvement insights.

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