Kanban Project Management Methodology (Easy Explanation)

The explanation of Kanban project management methodology is confusing for some people because it can stand alone and it can form part of other project management approaches, such as Scrum and Agile.

In many respects, it doesn’t matter whether Kanban is employed independently of these other strategies or not. The principle of visually representing the processes of a project remains the same.

Kanban is a methodology initially designed to manage inventory. If you imagine a shop, whose stock is bought and then replaced, this is something like the idea of Kanban.

The inventory is matched to the demand of the customer to increase efficiency and reduce waste. An order is placed, it is delivered, placed on the shelf, bought by a customer, a new order is placed.

The process remains the same, with a single product moving through the same cycle.

Kanban is Japanese for sign, card or billboard.

The point is that the space on the shelf acted as a visual sign that a new order needed to be placed.

The Basic Principles

Kanban Project Management

The fundamental principle is a card, a visual cue that work needs to be done.

A virtual card replaces the physical sign of the product on the shelf on a computer, or for the technologically backward, a sticky note on a whiteboard.

It is a means of managing a complicated to-do list where the products or deliverables tend to flow through the same processes but possibly at different times.

On a simple level you can create a process that runs from: to do, being done, complete. These steps form the headings for lists.

Under each list, there are cards with tasks that need to be done. When you are ready for a job that is waiting to be done to move to a priority – or to the to-do list – you just drag it across.

This means that Kanban is maybe more of a mindset than a method. It is a means of prioritising activities, working out what should a method now and what can wait.

It allows you to allocate work when a team member has capacity rather than overburdening them. It also allows you to see the flow of work and quickly report to people on the status of the workflow.

How Does Kanban Work?

Some core principles will help Kanban efficiently work as a team. These core principles will help to drive successful outcomes.

#1 The first principle is the visualisation of the work. One of the significant issues faced by most project managers is communication.

How can you help the team see the work needing to be done and their part in the workflow?

The simple process of boards, lists and cards is an effective way to represent the whole of the work to be done. The boards can be physical bulletin boards in the workroom or an IT software where there are different boards.

The cards can be post-it notes or can be drag and drop cards in software such as Trello. The level of complexity of the process depends on the sector.

It is possible to develop a Kanban board that has lists such as: To do, plan, develop, test, deploy, done. This is why it can be used in other methodologies too, as it adapts to the design or most processes.

#2 Secondly, Kanban methods limit the amount of work in progress, managing the workload of the team and ensuring day to day activities are reasonable.

This helps the team feel successful and will lead to more being achieved because less is pushed onto the worker and they are focused on the needs of that day.

#3 This leads to the third principle, which is that it helps the manager strictly control workflow. The ability to prioritise activities is the core strength of the approach.

Better still, this workflow can be whatever processes you have been implementing already. There is no need to create new list headings just to appear smart.

If your process is: stock shelves, sell products, order new, stock shelves – then these are the headings for your lists. Pulling tasks along the workflow rather than push is important. What does this mean?

It means a task is only pulled along the flow when another job has been completed, and the team member can complete the task.

The task is not pushed on a specified date regardless of what else is in the workflow.

All of this makes it possible for the principles of explicit policies, explicit feedback loops, and improved collaboration.

By representing the workflow so clearly and committing to the idea of pull not push of workflow, the team knows precisely how work is allocated and when it should be done.

This allows for precise feedback of information from the team about the progress of the project and naturally improves collaboration between team members.

Project Management Flow


The strength of this methodology is its adaptivity.

It does not impose a workflow on a team but instead gives a method of designing and representing a pre-existing workflow. At its heart, it is a simple matter of moving production along a chain.

If you are selling car parts, for instance, and an order comes in for a spark plug, you can place this in the to-do column. When a worker is ready to process that order, they can pull that work into the doing column. When the worker has processed the order, and it is out for delivery, it can be pulled into the done column.

It is as simple as that.

However, there are some benefits to the model that makes its contribution far from necessary.

The Kanban methodology can be used to continually improve the workflow and make the team accountable for performance. For instance, it is possible to work out how quickly a product takes to go through the process – you can work out your cycle time or lead time.

It is then possible to communicate to your customer the specific timeframe for delivery. It is also possible to work out where efficiencies could be made or where there might be blockages or quality control problems.

In short, the progress of cards across the lists on your boards gives valuable analytics that can help to maximise performance.

On a simple level, this might just be how many tasks are pulled into their area by workers and pushed out to completion.

One of the significant benefits for project managers in larger enterprises is that you can run multiple Kanban boards at the same times and therefore manage many complex projects.

The simple visualisation of workflow allows the manager to follow the workings of multiple teams completing different projects easily.

Therefore, unlike some other methods, it is scalable.

Kanban In a Nutshell

Kanban Methodology

Overall, Kanban project management methodology is simple, flexible, scalable and offers efficiencies and performance management indicators.

It can be managed using IT packages, but it doesn’t need to be – it can be controlled using a whiteboard, quickly scribbled headings and sticky notes that move along the board.

This means that your choice of workflow is just that. How you choose to organise your work is represented by the flow diagram of list headings scribbled onto the whiteboard.

The tasks placed under these can have as much detailed included as you like. In packages such as Trello, you can attach images, documents, produce checklists for tasks and more. Or, you can simply scribble write a report on sales of plastic ducks and expect that the worker understands this activity.

It is an approach that helps managers answer vital questions about the work being done by the team.

For instance, the manager knows what is being built at that time, and by whom, it reveals which team member might be stuck, and in need of support, it might reveal an inefficiency in the workflow, and it gives a clear indication of when the manager can expect results.

In short, its strength is the visualisation of the project.

One of the problems of Kanban is that it is not a methodology of project management as much as a tool for implementing a methodology. This is where the confusion comes for some.

There are no rules laid out as to how workflow or processes should be designed. It is just a way of representing work to make processes lean – or with minimal waste of time and money.

Therefore, implementing Kanban is an excellent idea if you are happy with the workflow that you already have in place – but you just need better visibility.

However, if you need a radical design of workflow, implementing principles that will completely overhaul and improve the work of a team – then you may need to look to other methodologies such as Agile, Scrum, PRINCE2 and Waterfall, which lay out distinct phases of a project.

Get more information on Top Project Management Methodologies (Made Simple)

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