Maybe the simplest way to put it is: With Kanban, you can manage work. It is a method to manage all types of professional services, also referred to as knowledge work.

Using the Kanban method means applying a holistic way of thinking about your services with a focus on improving them from your customers’ perspective.

With the Kanban Method, you visualize invisible knowledge work and how it moves through a workflow. This helps to effectively operate your business, including understanding and managing risks in delivering your services to the customers. With Kanban, you and your business will develop an adaptive capability over time to respond better and faster to changes in your customers’ needs and expectations or within your business environment.

Kanban is widely known for usage within teams, to relieve overburdening and to (re-)gain control over the work done by the team. While this usually brings quick benefits, applying the Kanban Method at a greater scale, e.g., for a line of service usually encompassing the work of multiple teams or different parts of organizations, brings even greater opportunities. Used with a service focus in mind, Kanban is an effective organizational development tool.

Kanban University is “Home” of the method and the global community of Kanban trainers, coaches and consultants who continue to evolve the method and develop its related body of knowledge.

The diagram here shows a software development workflow on a kanban board.

Kanban boards, designed for the context in which they are used, vary considerably and may show work item types ("features" and "user stories" here), columns delineating workflow activities, explicit policies, and swimlanes (rows crossing several columns, used for grouping user stories by feature here). The aim is to make the general workflow and the progress of individual items clear to participants and stakeholders.

As described in books on kanban for software development, the two primary practices of kanban are to visualize work and limit work in progress (WIP). Four additional general practices of kanban listed in Essential Kanban Condensed are to make policies explicit, manage flow, implement feedback loops, and improve collaboratively.

The kanban board in the diagram above highlights the first three general practices of kanban.

  • It visualizes the work of the development team (the features and user stories).
  • It captures WIP limits for development steps: the circled values below the column headings that limit the number of work items under that step.
  • It documents policies, also known as done rules, inside blue rectangles under some of the development steps.
  • It also shows some kanban flow management for the "user story preparation", "user story development", and "feature acceptance" steps, which have "in progress" and "ready" sub-columns. Each step's WIP limit applies to both sub-columns, preventing work items from overwhelming the flow into or out of those steps.

Managing workflow

Kanban manages workflow directly on the kanban board. The WIP limits for development steps provide development teams immediate feedback on common workflow issues.

For example, on the kanban board shown above, the "deployment" step has a WIP limit of five and there are currently five epics shown in that step. No more work items can move into deployment until one or more epics complete that step (moving to "delivered"). This prevents the "deployment" step from being overwhelmed. Team members working on "feature acceptance" (the previous step) might get stuck because they can't deploy new epics. They can see why immediately on the board and help with the current epic deployments.

Once the five epics in the "deployment" step are delivered, the two epics from the "ready" sub-column of "feature acceptance" (the previous step) can be moved to the "deployment" column. When those two epics are delivered, no other epics can be deployed (assuming no new epics are ready). Now, team members working on deployment are stuck. They can see why immediately and help with feature acceptance.

This workflow control works similarly for every step. Problems are visual and evident immediately, and re-planning can be done continuously. The work management is made possible by limiting work in progress in a way team members can see and track at all times.