Kanban is often a vaguely understood term. Two professionals talking about kanban usually have different level of understanding about it, despite both deriving good practical value from their knowledge. Let’s take a closer look at the different meanings of kanban – from the very basic to the most powerful.

So, what is Kanban – a card, a board, a system or a method?

The short answer is – kanban is all of them.

The word ‘kanban’ has its origin in both hiragana (Japanese language) and Kanji (Chinese language). In hiragana, it means a ‘signal card’ while is kanji it means a ‘sign’ or ‘large visual board’.

Beyond the etymology, ‘kanban’ as a concept was popularized by Taiichi Ohno (former Toyota vice president) who took inspiration from how supermarkets stock their shelves and promoted the idea of Just-in-Time manufacturing in Toyota – using kanban cards as a signal between two dependent processes to facilitate smoother – and just in time – flow of parts between them. With time, the idea of kanban evolved to be more than just a signal card. First in the manufacturing world, and now in IT industry, a ‘Kanban System’ is characterized by two key features:

  • Visualization of work items – using signal cards, or some other means.
  • A pull-based system, where work is pulled by the next process, based on available capacity, rather than pushed by the previous process.

A team that uses Kanban System to track and manage the flow of work may often use a board to visualize the items that are in progress. Such a board is called ‘Kanban Board’. Those practicing Scrum may think of Scrum board as a simplified version of a Kanban Board.

Now, what about the Kanban method?

‘Kanban Method’ is a term coined and popularized by David J Anderson who, over the past ten years, has evolved the kanban concept into a management method to improve service delivery and evolve the business to be ‘fit for purpose’. It is not project management method or a process framework that tells how to develop software, but is a set of principles and practices that help you pursue incremental, evolutionary change in your organization. In other words, it will not replace your existing process, but evolve it to be a better ‘fit for purpose’ – be it Scrum or waterfall.

The six key practices outlined in the Kanban Method include:

  1. Visualize your work
  2. Limit work-in-progress
  3. Measure and Manage flow
  4. Make policies explicit
  5. Implement feedback loops
  6. Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally

Please visit David’s blog to get a deeper insight about Kanban principles and practices…

While the idea of kanban has evolved from a signal card to a management method, its emphasis on visualization and pull-based work management have remained intact.

In the end, let’s attempt to link different kanban terms together… Kanban Method is the most powerful version of kanban concept that uses Kanban board (among several other things) and helps teams implement pull-based work management system while pursuing an evolutionary change that enhances their agility.

Please browse our Kanban page below to learn about Kanban training options (in affiliation with Lean Kanban University) if you wish to gain expertise on Kanban Method and/or wish to evaluate its applicability to your team/organization…