What is Kanban?
Definition of Kanban
Kanban is a workflow framework designed to help visualize work, limit work-in-progress, and maximize efficiency. Kanban boards use columns to represent each step of a process with cards progressing across the workflow, making work status and movement transparent to all. As items advance based on available capacity, new items enter the board in a "just-in-time" approach that smooths flow by revealing bottlenecks, blockers, and opportunities to optimize value delivery across the system.

Kanban is a term that originates from Japanese and translates to "visual signal" or "card." In the context of product management and operations, Kanban is a visual system for managing work as it moves through a process. It aims to identify potential bottlenecks in your process and fix them so work can flow through it cost-effectively at an optimal speed or throughput.

Originally developed by Toyota in the 1940s to improve manufacturing efficiency, Kanban is now a popular method adopted in various industries, including software development, IT operations, and product management. It is a key component of agile and lean methodologies, focusing on continuous delivery without overburdening the development team.

Understanding the Kanban System

The Kanban system visualizes the workflow by using a Kanban board, which is divided into different stages of the process. Each item or task is represented by a card that moves from one column to the next, representing its progress. The goal is to have a smooth and swift flow of work from the "To Do" column to the "Done" column.

One of the main principles of Kanban is to limit the amount of work in progress (WIP). By limiting WIP, teams can focus on completing tasks before starting new ones, reducing the time it takes for a task to go through the whole process. This also helps identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies in the system.

Components of a Kanban System

The Kanban system consists of three main components: the Kanban board, Kanban cards, and WIP limits. The Kanban board is a visual representation of the workflow, divided into different stages. Each stage represents a step in the process, such as "To Do," "In Progress," and "Done."

Kanban cards represent individual tasks or items. Each card contains important information about the task, such as its description, assignee, and any relevant deadlines or priorities. The cards move from one column to the next as the task progresses through the workflow.

Benefits of Using a Kanban System

Using a Kanban system has several benefits. First, it improves visibility and transparency, as every team member can see the status of all tasks at a glance. This helps improve communication and collaboration within the team.

Second, it helps teams manage their workflow more effectively by identifying bottlenecks and areas of inefficiency. By limiting WIP, teams can focus on completing tasks before starting new ones, reducing the time it takes for a task to go through the whole process.

Implementing Kanban in Product Management & Operations

In the context of product management and operations, Kanban can be used to manage the development and delivery of new products or features. It can also be used to manage operational tasks such as customer support, bug fixes, and maintenance work.

The first step in implementing Kanban is to visualize your workflow. This involves identifying all the steps in your process and arranging them on a Kanban board. Once the workflow is visualized, you can start using Kanban cards to represent individual tasks.

Setting WIP Limits

Setting work in progress (WIP) limits is a crucial part of implementing Kanban. WIP limits are the maximum number of tasks that can be in a particular stage at any given time. They are set based on the team's capacity and are used to prevent overloading.

WIP limits should be adjusted as necessary based on the team's performance and the nature of the work. If tasks are getting stuck in a particular stage, it may be a sign that the WIP limit for that stage is too high.

Managing the Kanban Board

Managing the Kanban board involves moving tasks from one stage to the next as they progress, and continuously monitoring the board to identify bottlenecks and areas of inefficiency. If a task is stuck in a stage for too long, it may be a sign of a problem that needs to be addressed.

It's also important to regularly review and update the Kanban board. This can be done in a daily stand-up meeting where team members discuss the status of tasks and any issues or blockers they are facing.

Advanced Kanban Techniques

While the basic principles of Kanban are simple, there are several advanced techniques that can be used to further optimize your workflow. These include the use of swimlanes, buffer columns, and metrics such as lead time and cycle time.

Swimlanes are horizontal rows on the Kanban board that can be used to categorize tasks based on their type, priority, or the team member responsible for them. Buffer columns are additional stages that can be added to the Kanban board to handle tasks that are waiting for external input or approval.

Using Metrics in Kanban

Metrics are a key part of any Kanban system. They provide quantitative data that can be used to measure the effectiveness of the system and identify areas for improvement. Two of the most important metrics in Kanban are lead time and cycle time.

Lead time is the total time from when a task is first added to the board to when it is completed. Cycle time is the time it takes for a task to go from the "In Progress" stage to the "Done" stage. By tracking these metrics, teams can gain insights into their workflow and make data-driven decisions to improve their process.

Scaling Kanban

Kanban can be scaled to manage larger projects or multiple teams. This involves creating a hierarchy of Kanban boards, with each board representing a different level of the organization. At the top level, you might have a portfolio Kanban board that tracks high-level strategic initiatives. At the next level, you might have project or team Kanban boards that track individual tasks.

Scaling Kanban requires careful coordination and communication between different levels of the organization. It's important to ensure that everyone understands the overall workflow and how their work fits into it.


Kanban is a powerful tool for managing work in product management and operations. By visualizing the workflow and limiting work in progress, teams can improve their efficiency and deliver value more quickly. While the basic principles of Kanban are simple, there are many advanced techniques and metrics that can be used to further optimize the system.

Whether you're managing a small team or a large organization, Kanban can help you improve visibility, reduce waste, and create a culture of continuous improvement. It's a flexible and adaptable method that can be tailored to fit any workflow or process.