The Kanban project management approach

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Kanban project management belongs to the Agile family of business operation methods. The “Agile” methodology has been applied to software development, architecture, and other technology areas to improve and speed the development process.

Agile Philosophy

The agile philosophy comes out of a set of 12 principles worked out by a group of “organizational anarchists” who formed themselves into “The Agile Alliance” at a conference at the Utah Snowbird Ski Resort in February 2001. They set down a set of key objectives, seven principles, and a number of principles and practices which they put forward as a way of simplifying project management and systems development and making consulting practices more client friendly and efficient.

The idea of Agile project management involves working with a set of preferences generally reflecting action, customer collaboration, responding to change, rather than fixed planning and extensive documentation. Their preference is on high quality project completion rather than enterprise goals. The focus of the Agile philosophy is engagement in the ongoing project.

Kanban is an extension of Agile philosophy. The Kanban team is only focused on the work that is actively in progress. Once the team completes a work item, they pluck the next work item off the top of the backlog and attend only to that. The team collaborates with clients or product owners to keep the backlog of work items in order. The owner is free to re-prioritize the backlog of work items without interfering with the work on the current task.

Toyota and Just in Time

The name, “kanban” comes from the practice employed by Toyota Motors in the 1940s, of delivering a card or kanban to a working team to signal that they have excess capacity and are ready to pull more materials. This practice evolved into modern “just in time” manufacturing methods.

Kanban focusses on just-in-time delivery, not overloading the team members with extraneous activity. The approach presents all team members with a full view of the entire process at hand from task definition to delivery to customer. Following the Agile doctrine, the Kanban method makes continuous incremental changes, building on existing roles and methods.

Kanban Boards

Kanban puts a strong emphasis on task scheduling toward the completion of a finite project. Work is planned in a time-based manner. Many Kanban organized projects use Kanban boards where subtasks are listed on a time driven scale:

This week.
Tomorrow.
Today.

Alternatively, tasks are organized on an event-driven basis:

Backlog.
Waiting.
Working.

Kanban makes project management visual, rather than streams of words and numbers. It puts the progress of work into an organized visual map. The Kanban board allows the team to see at a glance who is working on what, what work is blocked, where the bottlenecks are, what projects are waiting to be done.

The Employment of Kanban

Spotify is a music streaming service for desktops and smartphones. The company behind Spotify uses Kanban in their operations team. The team recognized that it was not so good at planning very far in advance. Urgent jobs frequently got in the way of ongoing projects. They eventually began employing a “goalie” who would catch all ad-hoc requests and categorize them according to “tangible,” “intangible” and “expedite.” They say the Kanban system kept most “smallish external interruptions…from our day-to-day work.”

Kanban is a natural fit for project management in software maintenance. This work involves fixing production bogs and doing small incremental improvements. Such work lends itself to Kanban because in that kind of work it makes sense to take requests, work on them, and when they are completed find some way of deploying them.

Game development companies successfully employ Kanban systems, because the faster they can get their projects into circulation, the faster they begin to make money.

Kanban also works well in journalism, where reporters work on stories immediately and deploy them as quickly as possible. Anything that’s calendar driven, where the dates on the calendar do not correspond to a pre-determined season or fiscal quarter, tend to be the places where Kanban works well.