Updated: Dec 28, 2022
In the last couple of years, various companies globally have embraced lean-agile ways of working. As a result, there's been tremendous growth in the number of professionals acquiring certifications in these areas. For example, scrum certifications have become increasingly popular, followed by increasing demand for Kanban certifications. Additionally, the Kanban approach complements and strengthens Scrum practices, thus, making it an indispensable method commonly used alongside Scrum.
One such certification is the Foundational Certification in Kanban (FCKB), a Kanban certification offered by CareerSprints.com, which tests Scrum and Kanban practitioners on various Kanban concepts such as its principles, practices, artifacts, terms and metrics. In this detailed post below, I've covered various Kanban terms, concepts and theory which will help you in the following ways:
It will increase your understanding of Kanban.
It will provide a starting point for implementing Kanban in your team, department or company and,
It will help you prepare for the FCKB certification exam.
What is Kanban?
The simplest way to understand Kanban is to view it as an approach to managing daily work. The Kanban approach can apply to any type of work, both professional and personal. Kanban's use has grown beyond the manufacturing industry in areas such as software development, marketing campaigns, customer support, education, product or service management, operational and maintenance work and various other scenarios. The beauty of Kanban is that it enables you to visualize invisible work and understand its current flow state. When work is presented visually, it helps to understand the bottlenecks and inefficiencies in your process. For example, IT departments which typically offer IT services to their internal or external customers have immensely benefitted from using the principles and practices of Kanban.
Kanban history and growth
Kanban emerged in the 1940s in the Toyota car manufacturing company, where Taiichi Ōno, an industrial engineer, introduced the Kanban signalling system to align inventory with customer demand in a just-in-time fashion. Later, during the mid to end 2000s, Kanban was applied by various people in the software industry, and now it has expanded to all types of work and projects in various industries.
Kanban is a combination of 2 words, Kan (visual) and Ban (signal), which mean visual signal. Kanban cards (visual signals) were used in the Toyota manufacturing plants, which signalled the need for inventory from the factory floor to the factory store and from the factory store to the parts supplier.
Kanban principles and practices
For anyone to fully understand Kanban, they must first develop an understanding of its principles and practices. There are 4 Kanban principles and 6 Kanban practices:
4 Kanban principles
1. Start with what you are doing now
Kanban suggests applying the Kanban approach to what you are currently doing because it believes there is value in the current processes, workflows, roles and responsibilities and ways of working. Therefore, it does not encourage sweeping changes at the outset. Instead, applying Kanban to existing processes will automatically highlight bottlenecks and inefficiencies and enable you to plan and implement improvements incrementally.
2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change
While making a change, a big bang approach is usually met with a lot of opposition and resistance that can lead to failure. Kanban encourages making small, continuous and evolutionary changes to processes making it easier to manifest positive change within the organization.
3. Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities, and titles
Kanban does not want you to unnecessarily change the current roles, responsibilities or job titles of people working in the team or the organization. It doesn't intend to force radical organizational changes. Teams can analyze empirical data and collaboratively decide which work elements (roles, processes or policies) they wish to change.
4. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels
Kanban does not propagate a top-down approach, i.e. changes and leadership aren't just a senior management responsibility. Instead, Kanban believes that great ideas and leaders can emerge from any level or department of the organization, and team members are encouraged to lead process improvement initiatives.
6 Kanban Practices
Kanban has six practices that form its core and are incredibly useful in implementing Kanban within any organization.
1. Visualize the flow
Kanban's core strength lies in the visualization of the work; hence, no Kanban implementation can even begin without representing the workflow on a Kanban board. A workflow consists of steps performed in any process, for example, the steps involved in fulfilling a customer request or the steps in product or software development. With the workflow visualized, process bottlenecks and inefficiencies are easier to identify. Further, you can also see the workload on resources in each workflow step which can help balance the workload. Kanban boards range from simple boards with three columns comprising To do, doing and done to more complex boards representing complex workflows.
2. Limit the Work in Progress (WIP)
Too much Work in Progress (or WIP) can be a real problem. Too much work on your plate can result in nothing getting done or work getting done to poorer quality. Therefore, Kanban proposes a simple system of limiting the WIP. Limited work in progress ensures existing work finishes before new work starts because finished work results in value delivery. Stop starting, start finishing in Kanban's mantra, also known as a 'Pull system'. Team members pull work from the 'To do' column into the 'In progress' column only when they have available capacity, determined by the WIP limit set for in-progress work. WIP limits are indicated at the top of the 'in-progress' workflow columns.
3. Manage the flow
Customers want a seamless experience when they are consuming services from providers, and delays can significantly diminish the service experience. Kanban is a system that focuses on achieving a healthy flow state, also called 'one-piece flow' where items flow through different workflow stages without any bottlenecks. With the work visualized and the WIP limits defined, teams can quickly identify where the process is flowing smoothly or if work is piling up, causing delays. When team members observe that a workflow state is obstructed in a process, they can help each other finish work and free up capacity, restoring a healthy flow.
4. Make process policies explicit
Process policies are agreements a team determines that help govern the way they do their work. Some examples of process policies are the team's definition of done, task or story completion criteria, WIP limits, a description of individual swimlanes or any other process guidelines the team might follow. Process policies can be published as a checklist and must be clearly visible to the team using them on their Kanban or task board. Process policies help the team members develop a shared understanding of how they should work. Process policies can be set at the board level, column or swimlane level.
5. Feedback loops
In any system or process, feedback is crucial to evaluate how we work and determine if anything needs to be changed to improve our ability to deliver value. Feedback also allows us to inspect and adapt our process to meet the needs of a changing business environment. Cadences such as the daily scrums, sprint review and retrospective meetings used in scrum are opportunities to collect feedback and adapt our processes. Tracking metrics such as lead times and throughput also provide feedback on the efficiency of our processes.
6. Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally
The Kanban approach encourages continuous improvement, and to do so, it promotes collaborative experimentation using a scientific process. While applying a scientific method, you form a hypothesis, test it, and make changes depending on the outcome of the test. When the experiments provide good results, the changes are kept, but if the results are negative, you can easily roll back to the previous stable state. Bringing organizational change also becomes easier when you collaboratively work on improving using experiments and feedback.
A Kanban system in knowledge work is implemented using a Kanban board. The board is a way to visualize a process workflow and the work items that flow through it. Each column on the board represents a stage in the workflow. Kanban boards can be physical or digital, created using tools such as Trello. A simple Kanban board can have just three columns, To-do, doing and done, written from left to right, and all of the workflows from the to-do column to the done column. The doing or in-progress column can be further broken down into various workflow steps such as development, code review, testing, deployment etc. When a work item reaches the 'done' column, it means that the work is complete and value has been delivered to customers. Work items can be of different sizes, represent tasks, requirements or high-level product features, and are written on Kanban cards. Kanban boards are used for all types of work, ranging from feature development, sales and marketing activities, content creation, and filling job positions in human resources to managing personal tasks. In reality, each team's Kanban board can vary greatly depending upon the complexity of their workflow.
See example of a software development Kanban board with workflow states on Trello
Other Kanban terms useful for Kanban certification
Kanban cards: Kanban cards represent the task or the requirement that must be fulfilled. Kanban cards flow through the workflow stages. Cards can contain additional information such as description, priority, estimate, assignee, card type (e.g. enhancement or defect) etc.
Work in progress limits: Work in progress (WIP) are the limits set for tasks in different workflow stages. Limiting WIP results in work getting done faster since you can entirely focus on the work at hand instead of wasting time context-switching when working on multiple tasks.
Blockers: When a task is just sitting on a workflow column (e.g. in the doing column) on the Kanban board, then it is obstructed or blocked. Something must be done to get it to flow, or it may create a bottleneck for upstream tasks. For example, when there is a crash on the highway, it blocks or restricts the flow of traffic.
Swimlanes: Swimlanes are rows or horizontal lanes that enable the separation of work on a Kanban board. Different swimlanes can be used to represent different workflows, teams, and classes of service. For example, a sales workflow can look very different from a marketing workflow, and swimlanes can be used to show their respective workflows.
Pull: Kanban systems serve as pull systems instead of push, where work is pulled into a workflow state only when there is available capacity. When work is pushed downstream, it results in work piling up downstream since a push system doesn't care if there is available capacity downstream for work to be completed.
Kanban classes of service
A Kanban class of service is a work item classification system based on its priority, urgency or delivery time. There are four commonly used classes of service in Kanban, i.e., Expedite, Standard, Fixed date delivery and Intangible items. To indicate a class of service on a Kanban board, teams use different colour cards or swimlanes, a horizontal lane similar to lanes on the highway for various types of vehicles.
Expedite: Expedite is an urgent class of service that applies that requires immediate attention and quick resolution. The cost of delay and business loss for undone expedite items is high. For example, e-commerce website unavailability is an expedite item because every minute of failure results in revenue loss. Such as item deserves the highest priority and should be resolved with urgency. Teams must establish strict criteria to classify work items as expedite to prevent stakeholders' potential abuse of this category. Due to its high priority, expedite items can be pulled into the backlog even if it causes exceeding the established WIP limits.
Fixed delivery date: Fixed delivery date work items are items that must be delivered by a specific date, or it may cause business loss, penalties, regulatory issues, loss of competitive advantage or reputational loss. The cost of delay beyond its due date is high for the organization. Items which fall under this category are prioritized where necessary to be finished on or before the target deadline.
Standard: A standard class of service item is ordinary work which follows a regular schedule, and a delay to this item does not cause significant harm or impact to the organization. Since most items fall under this category, standard items follow a "first-in-first-out" policy. One example of a standard item is the addition of a feature to a website or enhancement features.
Intangible: Intangible items are a class of service which may not require immediate attention but, if not fixed, could result in significant risks or issues in the long run. Improvement activities such as code structure improvements, quality improvements and day-to-day work optimization are examples of intangible items. Unfortunately, many teams risk never prioritizing intangible items, which causes the accumulation of technical debt and reduces organizational agility. Therefore, scrum teams try to solve one intangible task per sprint, which reduces their technical debt and avoids problems in the long run.
Important Kanban metrics
Kanban aims to reduce wastage in any process, positively impacting the delivery time and reducing the time for customers to realize value. Below are some metrics which help Kanban teams track the benefits of using a Kanban system.
Lead time: Lead time is the total time taken from request to completion of a task. E.g., you send an email to a company requesting information or a service. The lead time is the company's total time to supply the information via an email response or provide the service.
Cycle time: Cycle time is the total time taken to work on a request until completion. E.g., continuing with the email request example above, the total time it takes for the service provider to fulfil your request from the time they start working on it. The email response request would be 'waiting' in the To do column until someone is ready to pull it into the 'doing' column. From the time the request is moved to the doing column until finished is the cycle time. Therefore,
Lead Time - Waiting Time = Cycle Time
Cycle time accurately indicates the amount of time needed to complete a given task.
Throughput: Throughput is an essential Kanban metric. Throughput is a measure of the work delivered within a given period, such as features delivered per week or incidents resolved per day. A high throughput indicates good workflow through a system.
Scrum Vs. Kanban
Kanban and Scrum don't work at odds with each other. Instead, they have numerous similar core philosophies, such as encouraging transparency, feedback loops, improving collaboratively, experimentation, self-organization etc. Various scrum teams use Kanban to augment their scrum practices.
There are also some fundamental differences between Kanban and Scrum, which I've explained below.
Scrum Vs. Kanban uses
Scrum emerged in the world of software and product development. Most software or product development efforts are like projects with start and end dates. Therefore, various practitioners may use Scrum to build and release software or products, which may be a temporary endeavour similar to a project.
Kanban is a visual work management system that allows a continuous flow of work. Business-as-usual and day-to-day operational tasks benefit significantly from Kanban since they flow continuously day after day. Hence, Kanban is used extensively for operational and maintenance types of work apart from project work. Many teams combine Scrum with Kanban to enhance their productivity.
Scrum Vs. Kanban roles
Scrum proposes three roles with their respective accountabilities: Product Owner, Scrum Master and Developers. They are collectively called the Scrum team.
Kanban does not have any formal roles. However, to reiterate the first principle, 'Start with what you are doing now', Kanban suggests applying the Kanban approach to what you are currently doing because it believes there is value in the current processes, roles and responsibilities and ways of working.
Scrum Vs. Kanban timeboxes
Scrum proposes a timebox for its sprints ranging from one week to a maximum length of one month, within which some work must be completed.
Kanban being a continuous flow approach, does not mandate a strict timebox. Optionally, teams can choose to implement a timebox while applying Kanban.
Scrum Vs. Kanban planning
In Scrum, planning happens at the start of each sprint in the sprint planning meeting.
In Kanban, planning is done just in time or whenever required. A threshold limit is set on the board that acts as the planning trigger. For example, when the work items in the backlog column fall below a set threshold, it serves as a signal to assemble stakeholders and plan for more work to be added to the backlog.
Scrum Vs. Kanban metrics
Scrum uses metrics such as team velocity, which indicates the amount of work the team delivers in a given sprint. Therefore, for each sprint, the team would measure velocity.
Since Kanban focuses on improving flow, Kanban tracks lead time, cycle time and throughput.
Scrum Vs. Kanban team types
Scrum teams are cross-functional teams. They analyze, build and test at least one full functionality per sprint and need the cross-functionality to construct a coherent increment.
Kanban teams may or may not be cross-functional. Therefore, Kanban can be used by specialized teams. For example, Kanban practices can be implemented by the service desk team in the organization where all team members do the same type of work.
Common Kanban Questions
Is Kanban Lean or Agile?
Although Kanban's roots lie in the Lean philosophy (widely applied by Toyota to make work more efficient and remove waste), it shares several attributes with Agile. These shared attributes between Lean and Agile frameworks are delivering value, using small batch sizes, increasing transparency, acquiring validated learning, limiting work in progress and managing flow.
Due to the overlap in their core philosophies, Kanban is considered a subset of both Lean and Agile, and they are both used together by agile teams.
Is Kanban better than Scrum?
While comparing Scrum Vs. Kanban, it's not about which is better than the others. Instead, both frameworks complement each other and work best when used together. For example, scrum teams create sprint work transparency amongst themselves using the Kanban board, which serves as a work visualization tool.
About Kanban certification (FCKB certification)
1. Which is the best Kanban certification in the market?
While several organizations offer Kanban certifications, the Foundational certification in Kanban (FCKB) certification provided by CareerSprints.com is by far the best value for money. This cost-effective certification includes a 'Free Kanban Guide', Kanban class videos, slides and a Kanban crossword to prepare for the FCKB certification exam, and all this is available at just a cost of USD 4.99 only.