Ask any project manager, director, or high-level manager, “what makes or breaks a successful project?” and they’ll tell you it’s working with people that care.

Every project needs a champion. And if that endorser stops caring, then the project typically dies. The secret to keeping people enthusiastic about your project is holding up the vision of the finished product and making it feel attainable. That’s what Kanban brings to the table.

In this article, we’ll provide the definition of a Kanban system — along with its 4 principles and 6 rules — and also show you how to apply it to every department in your organization.

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What is a Kanban system?

In a professional context, Kanban is a work management system that helps you visualize your work, minimize work in progress, and maximize your work’s efficiency.

A Kanban system makes it easy to understand your work, show it to others, and keep your team on the same page. Kanban came about in the 1940s in Japan. An engineer and businessman, Taiichi Ohno was working at Toyota Automotive in Japan when he created his simple Kanban system.

That grew into a lean manufacturing system meant to optimally control processes, monitor inventory levels, and manage work at each stage of the production process.

monday.com's Kanban board visualizes your team's workflow with a series of cards strewn across a Kanban board.

Kanban (看板) is the Japanese word for “signboard,” which is a way of saying it’s a “visual signal.” Its most common form manifests through a Kanban board with Kanban cards on top showing individual tasks grouped by status.

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4 foundational principles of Kanban

Before diving into how Kanban brings method to the madness in your organization, it’s best if we get weedy on the 4 foundational principles that make Kanban such a successful work methodology:

  1. Start with what you’re doing now

Kanban implementation shouldn’t feel hard. The Kanban system strongly recommends not changing anything about your current process right away. Simply lay it over what you’re doing today and see how things go for a while.

  1. Choose incremental change over radical change

Instead of making sweeping or radical changes, try keeping your current production level and style exactly as is and focus on gradual changes at a comfortable pace over time. Doing so will lead to less internal resistance.

  1. Respect the existing organizational structure upfront

It’s not necessary to change up job titles and responsibilities, or make any major structural changes when applying a Kanban system to your work. Over time, the team will gradually identify and make any changes or tweaks needed to the current process.

  1. Encourage the notion that everyone’s a leader

An effective Kanban system will encourage constant improvement throughout all levels of the organization.

Leadership can come from anywhere on the team since everyone has the potential to share great ideas, implement monumental changes, and find ways to improve the way you work and deliver products and services.

The 6 fundamental practices of Kanban

Now that we’ve broken down each Kanban principle, it’s time to dive into what Kanban looks like in action. Here are the 6 core practices of an effective Kanban system:

  1. Find a way to visualize your workflow

The Kanban tool works best when there’s a visual board full of Kanban cards you can drag around. You can use a whiteboard, an office wall with sticky notes on it, or an electronic Kanban system in the form of software.

For example, monday.com has a built-in Kanban data visualization, so your team always has access to the Kanban board and its corresponding Kanban cards. More on that later.

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Visualizing the process with a Kanban board facilitates transparency and gives your team an easily understood method of getting things done.

Kanban boards can be physical or digital. Sometimes the easiest way to visualize them is sticky notes on a wall or white board.

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  1. Limit all Work in Progress (WIP)

The Kanban method is a pull system that encourages your team to complete their work before taking on new tasks. Doing so provides a sense of focus for the team and signals to stakeholders that there’s a limited capacity for each team that should be carefully considered.

At any given time, you shouldn’t see more than 1 or 2 items under the “in-progress” or “doing” heading for each person. Once a work item card moves over to “done,” they can pull an item from “to-do” to “doing” and repeat the process.

  1. Manage the workflow

A critical aspect of the Kanban system is observing your workflow and ensuring production levels see continuous improvement. Ultimately, that means identifying bottlenecks in your process and carefully monitoring how long work items sit in various stages.

If work is piling up — or staying in handoff stages too long —you may need to make adjustments. With time, your team’s flow will improve and the delivery process becomes more smooth and predictable.

  1. Provide structure to your process policies

Defining process policies more precisely will make everyone’s job easier. You’re essentially creating a framework for “how to work” that everyone understands and feels good about.

Using the Kanban methodology, this process policy creation starts with creating common checklists for each work type, defining task completion, creating detailed descriptions of columns or swim lanes, identifying when to pull cards, and how much WIP is acceptable.

  1. Find time to review and provide feedback

Implementing feedback loops is an integral part of an effective Kanban system. Feedback loops help your team “fail fast” and “fail often,” which sounds counterintuitive but is an ingenious way of getting closer to creating a foolproof work system.

Creating a feedback loop for your Kanban system will only make your system stronger and your team more aligned.

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It’s better to identify if you’re on the right track early than continue down the same path for weeks, months, or even years. Some easy ways to create feedback loops are to schedule regular reviews of the process and set up key tracking metrics that keep an eye on the flow of work.

  1. Improve and evolve using the scientific method. 

The Kanban method helps you adapt to change and improve at a gradual pace that everyone can handle. It also encourages the use of the scientific method — which has you form a hypothesis, test it, and make changes based on your test outcome.

As you make changes and repeat the test, your system should grow stronger, and the impact you make grows larger.

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How multiple departments can use a Kanban system

When people see Kanban, their minds jump straight to engineering uses or some other highly technical field, but there are many uses for Kanban ranging from sales and marketing down to IT and human resources.

Kanban is a multipurpose workflow management system that can keep just about any team on task. Here are a few department examples you can learn from:

Marketing

Marketing teams are likely one of the most efficient juggling teams in your organization. Keeping a steady flow of customer demand is hard work. They write blog posts and newsletters, implement social media campaigns, and do all sorts of design work.

Naturally, they’d benefit from a Kanban system that acts as a central hub for all marketing projects and tasks. With monday.com, they can track their marketing calendar with our quick and easy Marketing Calendar Template.

Plus, they can convert their task lists into Kanban boards to keep a pulse on each project, identify and fix bottlenecks, and keep each marketing process running as efficiently as possible.

screenshot of a marketing campaign laid out as a Kanban board in monday.com

Sales

A lot of people see the sales team as characters out of a Wild West movie. They’re full of energy, always on the move, and seem to adapt to whatever environment or unique scenario they find themselves in.

From the outside in, it can even appear that they lack any formal process or structure whatsoever. Whether that’s true or not will obviously vary by organization but — much like the marketing team — your sales team can greatly benefit from an effective Kanban system.

The Kanban system is flexible enough to accommodate a typical buyer’s journey by creating columns for each step: awareness, consideration, and decision. It can even break it down further into columns for identified, qualified, evaluated, proposal, and closed/won. From there, each customer has their own card, which passes through the columns as they progress through the buyer’s journey.

The board provides a crisp visual that shows you where everyone’s at and helps each salesperson focus on one thing at a time.

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Human resources

Human Resources (HR) may seem like the office police, but they do far more than people see. An HR Kanban board would have the standard task backlog, doing, and done columns — with some variation — but the swimlanes have seemingly infinite possibilities.

HR covers the recruitment of new candidates for each department. They have to prospect, interview, hire, and help onboard them. They have on-going personnel admin duties, including training and development. They also keep track of life events, internal performance issues, process changes, and have their hand in just about every department’s administration and growth.

Needless to say, HR’s workflow runs more smoothly when there’s an efficient system like Kanban in place.

IT and help desk

IT departments and internal help desks cater to every department and are constantly on watch for potential threats to the way the organization does business.

It’s the kind of role that people don’t think about until something’s wrong and is especially pivotal to large and growing organizations.

Modern Kanban was initially tested and applied successfully in IT departments in the early 2000s. IT teams needed to ramp up their productivity so they could shorten lead time and improve customer satisfaction.

The Kanban system with its “pull” approach makes it easy for IT professionals to pull submitted tickets, limit their work in progress so they can focus, and easily showcase how much work they’re completing.

Software development

The Kanban system is a fan favorite for agile software development teams since it provides clearer focus and transparency, faster production output, and flexible planning options throughout the development cycle.

Software development teams favor Kanban for a lot of reasons and especially love its simple nature of keeping everyone in the loop.

The Kanban board ensures the team’s work is highly visual, tangible, and standardized. It also provides insights into whether a task is blocked and needs further examination.

A team using Kanban will naturally have a backlog of items to pull from — which the product owner is usually refreshing and reprioritizing behind the scenes — so developers are assured they’re delivering maximum value to the organization at all times.

Implementing a Kanban system with monday.com

monday.com provides a digital Kanban board that’s mobile-friendly and provides your entire team with real-time access to project updates.

On monday.com, you’ll have various boards for a wide variety of uses, and you can convert any of them to the Kanban board view, which will create columns based on the status columns.

Status columns in monday.com become your column headers when using the Kanban view.

Using Kanban software for project management or simple task management is the most common use, but teams worldwide use monday.com’s Kanban boards for a wide variety of tasks — from inventory management and tracking supplier relations, to keeping up with construction projects.

Tracking your organization’s workflow in a highly visual and effective framework like Kanban is easier than ever, thanks to monday.com.

Finding your workflow

Every project needs a champion, and every champion needs a fully stocked arsenal to keep them prepared for anything.

In project management, Kanban is a champion for many teams, and monday.com’s Work OS provides a well-equipped platform that your team can use to implement an effective Kanban system in no time. We’re confident that if you embrace the Kanban philosophy and apply it to your daily tasks, your team will have a greater sense of focus and feel empowered to do their best work.

If you’re looking for intuitive Kanban software, then try monday.com today!