The Kanban work methodology

The Kanban method is included within the so-called Agile methodologies, which emerged during the 1990s as an alternative to traditional management approach. The term is the result of merging two Japanese words, kan, which means visual, and ban, which means card. It is, therefore, equivalent to “visual cards”, which is a reference to the most distinctive feature of this methodology. When speaking of Kanban, the first image that comes to mind is a board divided into columns filled with multiple visual cards marking tasks and processes.

The main goal of this methodology is to manage how duties are being carried out as a whole, and to be able to do it at a glance as well. The project is divided in tasks, which are then written down on a card or post-it each, accompanied with a brief description and an estimation of the time required to accomplish it. Several columns are then drawn on a board based on the procedures that task must go through like, for instance, design, execution and revision, and as stages are being completed the card is rearranged. The purpose of this is that every member of the team involved in the project is certain about his duties and that each one of them knows what the rest of his colleagues is working on.

The Kanban methodology is also based on finishing tasks before initiating others and making clear what is the maximum number of them that can be accomplished in each stage. This limit is known as Work in Progress. This way an excess of commitment regarding the amount of duties to be carried out by an individual, which could be detrimental to the process eventually, is avoided. It’s much better to set achievable goals and, once they´re accomplished, proceed to the next one.

Another key concept in Kanban methodology is Lead Time; in other words, the time required from the moment a request is made to the moment of delivery. To make the most out of the process, time assigned to tasks must be monitored continuously and recalculated if necessary. In this sense, in order to make the Kanban method truly efficient, it’s necessary to identify where bottlenecks or hurdles are created and quickly discard everything disposable so as to adjust workflow.

Benefits of the Kanban methodology

The implementation of the Kanban method entails a performance enhancement thanks to simple distribution of duties and workflow monitoring. An example of the improvements brought to the table by the introduction of this methodology is the case of a software development team, comprised of 9 people, at the BBC in London. After a year working with this method, delivery time and consistency improved by 37% and 47% respectively, and bugs reported by users decreased by 24%.

Constant monitoring also allows detection of any issue, and since the Kanban methodology is a flexible one, quick fixes can be done on the fly in order to refine the process and obtain better results. At this point, it should be noted that one of the keys to this method is to be realistic about what is written on the Kanban board, and goals must be clearly defined as well. No matter how many objectives are written on those post-it notes in fancy colours, they’re useless if they can’t be carried out. It’s better to set achievable goals, and use them as foundations for improvement on the basis of data collected during the process.

Workload distribution proposed by this Agile methodology allows constant task flow, thus reducing both waiting and task assignment times. Team members are able to know what remains to be done at a glance, and get on with it.

The flexible and not-so-hierarchical structure associated with Kanban makes it more affordable to implement than other methods which need a particular organizational model. In this case, the model already developed by each company, such as departments or work teams, will do the part.

Sources: Javier Garzas, OBS, IEEE Xplore.

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