What you need to know about Kanban project management

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Professionals across every industry sector will be exposed to different project management styles throughout their working careers. These different styles will include a range of unique approaches for tracking work and ensuring that all important tasks can be checked off the proverbial to-do list. Some project management frameworks work better according to the type of project, and other strategies lend themselves well when aligned with individual worker preferences.

 Young people in professional dress sitting near a laptop working together.

Those within the information systems industry will likely become familiar with Agile project management, including the widely recognized Scrum approach. However, this is not the only project management methodology that falls under the Agile umbrella. As the Project Management Institute explains, Kanban is an alternative Agile technique that is often tied into Lean project management practices. Today, we’ll take a closer look at Kanban, including its history, its main tenets and the benefits it offers for information systems professionals.

Kanban: Born from Toyota auto production

This project management style has interesting roots, and one key Kanban example can be traced back to Eiji Toyoda, a Japanese industrialist and former Toyota Motor Company chairman. Toyoda traveled to the United States in 1950 to study American auto production, but the processes of an ordinary grocery chain were what actually caught Toyoda’s eye.

Where the American automobile manufacturing plant Toyoda visited had considerable on-site inventory and waste, Toyoda noticed that the grocery store chain kept a tighter eye on things, and only ordered items as their inventory ran low. Toyoda decided to take the same approach with Japanese auto manufacturing, which was dealing with considerably staunch constraints on resources in the post- World World II era.

Toyoda, inspired by the just-in-time approach of the grocery store, integrated what is now known as the Kanban project management style into the Toyota Production System, helping to reduce inventory on-hand while boosting efficiency across the board. The results enabled the automaker to have more visibility into its supply chain and resource usage.

What is Kanban?

“Kanban” is the Japanese word for “visual signal” or “card,” and this project management style uses such cues to enable more efficient upstream processes. It is also known as a pull system and is one of the more visual project management styles.

As The Balance notes, Kanban typically involves the use of a visual board, that includes a grid and individual cards or notes within each grid square. In the past, these boards were mostly physical paper with index cards or sticky notes, but processes have been upgraded to include the use of whiteboards or digital platform solutions in the same grid/table style.

The grid can include a single row with several columns, each representing different workflows. Processes for the beginning of a workflow begin at the left end of the grid, and work flows over to the right end, nearing the end of the project or work. Cards or grid squares then move across the board according to the stages within the overarching project.

Kanban is also known as a pull system, as stakeholders work to “pull” cards from the starting right end of the grid over to the final left-hand column of the board. Team members will hold regular meetings to review the stage at which each card is in the initiative, and review any obstacles preventing the movement of cards that need to be addressed in order to push the project forward.

The principles of Kanban

There are five key tenets of Kanban, and these apply particularly within information systems and software development environments. These encompass:

  1. Visualizing the workflow: At the beginning of the project, stakeholders create the visual, column-based board described above, where cards within each column represent specific workflows or tasks as part of the project. This visual mapping of project work helps keep things organized and enables project leaders to easily see progress and how close the team is to their final goal or project wrap.
  2. Limiting work-in-progress: Kanban project management aims to reduce multitasking, and encourages team members to focus on a single task before moving on to the next. Kanban provides limits to how many tasks can be taken on at a single time in order to reduce inefficiency. For instance, in the lens of Kanban for software development, a project may have a limit of three items within the Development queue. If new items are ready to move into Development, they must wait until the three already in the queue are addressed and can be moved on to the Testing phase, the Project Management Institute explains.
  3. Measuring and managing workflow: This is where the “pull” element comes into play. As tasks are completed, cards are pulled across the grid on the visual project board. In this way, teams can easily review work that’s in progress, items that have to be begun, and those that are nearing completion.
  4. Creating explicit policies to direct processes: Within Kanban project management, there are clearly defined policies to guide all working processes. Some of these may be outlined by project leaders within the team, and others may come from management or the project owner. These policies can include things like which tools team members are to use in production, or the limits placed on tasks in progress.
  5. Using models to identify opportunities for improvement: Thanks to the visual element of Kanban, team members can leverage the visual workflow board or map to pinpoint any obstacles standing in the way of the team’s progress and work to improve on these areas. Teams often meet on a daily basis to review the board, and team members may notice areas that can be enhanced. In addition, task limits may provide idle downtime for team members, which can then be leveraged to review working processes and find areas for continuous improvement. In Japanese, this concept of continuous improvement is called Kaizen, and it is an important part of the Kanban style.

Kanban is an interesting, alternative Agile project management style that can improve efficiency and support greater visibility. Information systems students will learn more about this and other project management styles within course MG 417 – Project Management, as part of the Information Systems core curriculum. Check out our course descriptions and reach out to an expert enrollment advisor to learn more.

Recommended Reading:

Computer information systems vs. management information systems

What a BS IS can teach you about management



UAB BS IS Course descriptions

Project Management Institute

The Balance