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How to Implement an Effective Kanban System


If project management is a part of your job, or if you’ve simply been on a project team, you’ve probably run across the Kanban System already, even if no one has called it that.

Kanban system in agile is a great way to organize and track your projects, but like so many things, if it’s not implemented well, it can be a waste of time–or worse–actually make your projects more difficult to manage.

What is Kanban system?

Kanban System is a visual system for organizing workflows. Originally created in a Toyota Motors manufacturing plant, the method takes its name from a Japanese word meaning ‘sign’ or ‘billboard’.

Up until the introduction of Kanban methodology in the 1940s, most manufacturing facilities operated on a ‘push system’, meaning that supplies were delivered to production plants based on previously forecast demand whether the production line was ready for them or not. With Kanban, Toyota production system created a ‘pull system’ in which actual consumption by customers triggered the need for more production and thus for more supplies.

As different industries have implemented Kanban, the system has been adapted to meet the needs of those industries. When the kanban system is properly implemented in project management, it helps prevent bottlenecks, encourages continuous improvements, and balances demands against available capacity.

Types of Kanban system

Kanban started out as just one way of organizing work in a production environment. The adoption of Kanban by diverse industries resulted in various forms of how to implement a Kanban system, some of which are easily adaptable to the digital world, and some that work best in the physical realm.

1. Bin system

The bin system is an analog system useful in physical production environments. In a simple two-bin system, identical bins are filled with an equal number of parts. When the first bin is emptied, it’s sent to be refilled.

Supplies from the second bin are used, and the first bin is refilled before the second is emptied, preventing shortages of materials and interruptions in production.

2. Card system

In any Kanban system, the cards themselves are sometimes called kanban cards, which can lead to a bit of confusion if you’re not aware of how the word is being used. For the sake of clarity, we’ll just use Kanban for the system and card for the physical (or digital) cards in this post.

Though most Kanban Systems utilize cards in some way, the card system is a specific subset of Kanban Systems. In this method, cards are made to represent each item that needs to be produced or a task that needs to be accomplished. In an analog environment, the cards, which contain key production information, are placed at the beginning of the production line when the item is needed, signaling production to begin.

The card accompanies the product through the production process and remains with it until the item is shipped, purchased, consumed, whatever the case may be. At this point, the card is returned to the beginning of the production line, signaling the process to begin again.

In a digital workspace, the cards usually represent tasks to be accomplished or single items that are part of a larger project. Things like “write questions for user survey” or “create a blog post from survey results”.

On a digital Kanban board, each of these items is represented by a card, and the cards are moved down a row of columns that represent the stages of your team’s flow of work. Columns can be labeled To-do, Doing, Done or any sequence of steps that are specific to your process.


3. Work In Progress System (WIP)

A WIP is a “work in progress”. One of the most valuable aspects of an effective Kanban System is WIP limits. Why? Because every team has limited capacity. This often means tasks will accumulate, causing team members to multitask ineffectively or to neglect some of the tasks entirely.

WIP limits ensure that only a predetermined number of tasks can be considered “In Progress” at any given time. This helps the team focus only on the tasks they truly have the capacity to complete simultaneously. WIP limits are determined by assessing the capacity of your team.

In a digital Kanban System, WIP limits can be enforced by rules that allow only a certain number of cards in the “Doing” space at once. If someone attempts to move an additional card to space once the WIP limit has been reached, a dialog box or other warning will alert the user to the WIP limit. Then that team member can help accomplish some of the backlogged tasks.

Six rules to implement an effective Kanban System

The Toyota Company devised six rules for the successful implementation of the Kanban System. Some of these rules apply more readily to analog systems, but it’s important to understand how the kanban system works is that the basic principles that make Kanban such an effective way to operate.

Let’s take a look at the six rules to implement an effective kanban system.

effective kanban system

1. Customer (downstream) processes withdraw items in the precise amounts specified by the kanban card.

This rule eliminates “just in case” orders from the people or departments further down the production process. There’s no need to tax your team with doing extras that no one currently needs.

2. Supplier (or upstream) produces items in the precise amounts and sequences specified by the kanban card.

In analog environments, breaking this rule would result in over-production, which means resources unnecessarily tied up in overstock. Applying this rule in the digital world means only working on tasks as they’re actually requested.

This prevents wasted effort that can come from guessing at what might need to be done before anyone has initiated the request.

3. No items are made or moved without a kanban card.

In order for any system to work, the team has to stick with the system. This means the cards become the golden standard for what gets done, and everyone can trust that the kanban board is giving an accurate picture of the project progress. If there’s no card for something that must be done, make a new card.


4. A kanban card should accompany each item, every time.

In a physical production environment, moving stuff around without a kanban card would wreak havoc on the production system. In the digital world, the cards are the system, so it’s essential that team members utilize the cards properly so everyone stays organized.

5. Defects or incorrect amounts are never sent to the next downstream process.

This is a pretty straightforward rule in manufacturing process: don’t send along broken products! It’s not hard to apply this to the digital workspace either.

Whether it’s software code, a blog post, or a marketing plan, team members must ensure defective and inferior items are corrected before moving them to the next phase of the project.

6. The number of kanban cards is reduced carefully to lower inventories and to reveal problems.

Simplicity is one thing that makes Kanban so helpful. In analog production, too many kanban cards mean too much inventory, which is a waste of resources.

As your team improves its processes in the digital sphere, you can reduce the number of kanban cards to reveal where your team can become more efficient.

Implement Kanban online using Kissflow Project

Whether you’re producing auto parts, software, or marketing pieces, Kanban can help your team task management to operate more efficiently. Kanban board can be as simple as sticky notes on the wall or rows of business cards on your desk, but electronic kanban boards add functionality to the system. Digital Kanban boards, sometimes called e-kanban, allow users to add detailed information, incorporate deadlines with reminders, and track task progress.

There’s an ever-growing field of Kanban software options for utilizing kanban boards online. When choosing one for your organization, you can look for a project management software that has a kanban board supporting both web and app-based platforms for maximum flexibility.

An attractive, intuitive interface goes a long way toward making sure you and your team consistently utilizes the board and realizes its potential. Beyond these essential features, there are dozens of variables that differentiate one Kanban board example from another, and it’s important to pick one that works well for your team.

Kissflow Project utilizes kanban boards to help your team operate efficiently. With rule-based WIP limits, automatic notifications, and an intuitive drag and drop interface, Kissflow Project can help your team collaborate for success with digital Kanban. Start using it for free right now