Kanban has two meanings in Japanese. Both meanings are incorporated into the Kanban Method Kanban written in Kanji (Chinese characters)

  • 看板 means "sign" or "large visual board
  • Kanban written in Japanese alphabet, hiragana かんばん means signal cards(s).

The Kanban method is not a method for project management nor software development. But rather, it is a method to visualize your work, promote more innovation via improved collaboration, and increase service delivery efficiency. Kanban is a "Fit for Purpose" method because every Kanban system is different and based on its context. It will continue to evolve as you collect and evaluate empirical data points in the process. Better Kanban systems organize work, not people. Therefore, organizing work rather than people makes everything simpler.

5 Core principles of Kanban

  1. Visualize the workflow
    1. Understand and model the current process (workflow steps).
  2. Limit the work in progress (WIP)
    1. Assign explicit limits to each step in the workflow
  3. Measure and manage the process
    1. Cycle time: Average time to complete an item, start to finish
    2. Step time: Average time for an item to complete a given process step
    3. What is your feedback loop?
  4. Make Process Policies Explicit
    1. Precisely define the criteria that must be met for an item to exit a process
  5. Continuously optimize process (recognize opportunities)
    1. Decrease cycle time
    2. Increase predictability
    3. Increase stability

Examples of Classes of Services:

Examples of Classes of Services:

Expedite: An expedite backlog item has an unacceptable Cost of Delay (CoD), meaning it requires immediate attention. It can be pulled into development, even in violation of current WIP limits.
Typically, there can be only one expedite item in the system at a time, and teams may need to swarm on that item to make sure it moves through the system rapidly.
Standard: Represents the baseline class of service, applicable to work items that are
not expedited. Most backlog items should fall into this category. The CoD is linear for standard items, meaning that value cannot be achieved until delivery occurs.
Fixed: Work items that need to be completed on or before a specific date. These items are
Date: pulled into development when necessary to be completed on time.
BAU: Business As Usual work that is being done by the team, but is not part of the Epics/ Features or Stories work that is being accomplished. It is shown in the Kanban so all work is visible.

Kanban Principles:

Principles #1: Visualize the flow

Principles #2: Establish WIP Limits:

"Kanban is based on a very simple idea. Work In Progress (WIP) should be limited and something new should be started only when an existing piece of work is delivered or pulled by a downstream function.

Principle #3: Measure & Manage Flow

Kanban Metrics: Cumulative Flow and Kanban Parameters

  • The cumulative flow diagram shows the progression of work by status as it moves through the system
  • Based on story points per state e.g. ready/in progress/done/accepted benefits
  • Show clear insight into how the work is progressing through the system
  • Provides insight into potential bottlenecks

Principle #4: Make Process Policies Explicit

For Example: Each Phase has an explicit definition of done

Other examples of Process Policies may include:

  • The Product Owner will re-evaluate the priority of the work on Tuesdays and Thursdays (not every day)
  • The size of the work on each card must be less than 16 hours effort
  • If multiple stories/tasks required to complete functionality, an "epic" may be used
  • Any code ready for the Friday deployment must be frozen on Thursday evening (unless it is an emergency item)

- You need to determine what process policies make sense for your team – every team will have a different workflow

Definition of Done for Workflow States:

An item cannot move from one state to the next unless the work on the item until it satisfies the Definition of Done for the first state.

Examples for custom computer order

  • Parts acquisition state:
    • All parts placed on cart
    • All parts checked off on order's parts list
  • Computer assembly state:
    • Assembled devices are on cart
    • Devices turn on when powered up
    • Assembler signs and completes assembly checklist

Principles #5: Improve the Process

Use Models to Recognize Opportunities Meaning → Continuous Improvement Methods
  • Impediment Resolution
  • Experiential Learning
  • Improve the process(es) to address bottleneck(s)

Think of a process as a pipeline, what comes out is value. Anything that slows down the pipeline is waste. The goal is to increase value delivered AND reduce waste by focusing on the system itself, not the individuals within it.

The Kanban Method

Kanban Key metrics:

Value Delivery, Quality Cycle time, Throughput, WIP, Quality

Kanban Ceremonies (Fit-for-Purpose):


  • The standup is a meeting for planning and coordination – Not a status meeting!
  • Teams will meet to discuss:
    • What work has been done since the last standup
    • What work will be done until the next standup
    • What impediments are stopping the flow of work
  • The product owner will provide updates on the backlog and will review work that is completed
  • The team will review the board to determine where blockages exist or where focus is needed

Prioritization (On-demand or On-a-cadence):

  • This meeting is for the team to work with the Backlog Owner on prioritization, and is led by the Product Owner
  • The Backlog Owner ultimately owns prioritization, but this meeting exists so that the team can give input. This is important because certain technical dependencies might exist that the Backlog Owner isn't aware of.

Backlog Refinement (On-demand or On-a-cadence):

  • This meeting should ideally be kept as short as possible
    • 30 minutes on a periodic basis is probably enough
  • In this ceremony, team members meet with the Backlog Owner to review upcoming work
  • The team will focus on getting the work items into an executable state, by adding some of the following details:
    • Estimate/Size/SLAs
    • Detailed requirements or acceptance criteria
    • Test cases
  • There is no "rule" on how often to hold backlog grooming, but the eventual goal is for the team to have a backlog of work that enables continuous flow.

Operational Review:

  • During the Operational Review, team members meet to work on improving processes and team cohesion
  • The purpose of the meeting is to determine what's working well, what isn't working well, and what to do to fix it
  • There are several formats to conduct an Operational Review – keep it interesting and change the formats frequently
  • There is no defined timebox for an Operational Review, but one hour is generally a good starting point
  • These should be held at least every two weeks

Create Your Own Kanban System

It is important to analyze your current workflow for inefficiencies, pain points, and bottle necks. Then look how to improve your workflow via designing a Kanban System. It is okay to start with incremental, small changes and then scale. It is best to draw your current workflow on paper and make it a collaborative session with your team.

Kanban System Design (Elements to Identify & Define)

  1. Work item types.
  2. Workflow states.
  3. Sources of variability (that disrupt planned work & commitments) to be designed out.
  4. WIP limits & queue replenishment policy.
  5. Classes of Service.
  6. Explicit Policies (Similar to Team Agreements in Scrum).
  7. Commitment points.
  8. Replenishment & release frequencies.
  9. Visualization – board & ticket design.
  10. Metrics & reporting.
  11. Feedback mechanisms.

Frequency or On-Demand


  • Recurring events should generally happen with a regular frequency. The specific frequency is a contextual design choice.
  • Choose Frequencies for:
  • Replenishing Backlog.
  • Releases (can be internal or external).
  • Feedback loops
  • Standups.
  • Service Delivery Review (like Demos).
  • Operations Review (like Operational Reviews).


  1. Lower maturity organizations struggle with on-demand replenishment. They are helped by predictable, regularly scheduled events.
  2. On-demand Backlog replenishment may be possible where coordination effort is low and business owners are (almost) instantly available.
  3. On-demand delivery may be possible where automated deployment technology is available, and customers have been trained to take delivery of small increments frequently.

Ticket Design

It is important that you design your tickets based on your context. For example, if some of your tickets are "Bugs", then you would have certain required fields the reporter would fill out related to Bugs. Below is an example:

Benefits of a Kanban System

  • Visibility.
  • Eliminates overburdening.
  • Reduces or eliminates multi-tasking.
  • Controls or eliminates interruptions, disruptive task-switching and variability.
  • Shorter lead times.
  • Better quality.
  • Deferred commitment.
  • Improved predictability.
  • More frequent selection & commitment, more frequent delivery, short lead times.
  • Improved governance & risk management.
  • The ability to evolve processes & workflows in response to a changing external environment.

Kanban at Scale

When you have multiple teams implementing Kanban, whose work is connected, you will need a way to visualize the work together among the different teams. This will help to understand and plan inter-team dependencies, touch points, dates, bottlenecks, etc. In this context, Kanban at Scale, also known as Enterprise Kanban, is needed. Kanban at Scale is basically a higher-level Kanban board and system in an organization that tracks, visualizes, and drives the work among multiple teams, whose work is related to each other. Each team can be treated as a Class of Service since they are working on a specific type of work.


Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business.
Author: David J. Anderson. Published: January 2010. Publisher: Blue Hole Press.