Photo by berkozel/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by berkozel/iStock / Getty Images


Kanban - A Human Centered Project Management Method for Enterprise

My general observations in managing critical projects in the enterprise today are:

  • High demands from management

  • Multitasking (Context switching) of resources

  • Resistance to change

  • Low efficiency 

  • Non-scalable solutions 

  • Low Predictability of deliverables

Sharing resources on multiple projects is a common issue where work is assigned with strict deadlines. Engineering teams in the technology industry have less time to reflect after project completion.  Since employees are continuously working on multiple projects, there is resistance to adapting to new processes leading to unnecessary waste and high discard rate. This inefficiency can be solved by using an agile method called Kanban.

Kanban is the Japanese term for “signal cards”.  It is a human centered method that organizes and manages work by creating a “pull system”. A pull system is a method of controlling the flow of resources by replacing what has been consumed.  The term Kanban is also interchangeably used as Lean Kanban. Lean concepts are based on limiting Work in Progress (WIP) to improve results. It has the capability to identify and reduce waste. It is based on fundamentals of Kaizen which means “continuous improvement”. It is a scalable solution which helps to balance the demands of the business with capacity and achieve results in a “sustainable pace”, while overcoming employee resistance to change. In Kanban, project managers (PM) are called as change agents when using this method.

By using the Kanban method, team members are empowered by self organizing their work and selecting the tasks. These tasks have the following minimum requirements: task id, description of the task start and end date. The tasks are also categorized as small, medium or large (in a reference to T-shirt sizes).  By enabling employees to self organize teams, it generally reduce coordination costs for the project. Kanban uses a virtual tracking system based on columns to represent state and swim-lanes to show categories. This visual tracking system can be as simple as a card wall or an electronic tool. By using this tool, information is transparent to the knowledge workers on the team. This enables the team to collaborate frequently which is typically on a daily basis. 

Kanban allows teams to manage risks due to transparency of work, thus encouraging decision making and exploring contingencies. 

Kanban encourages leadership at all levels since it is based on defined principles, practices and core values. Kanban also does not follow fixed rules, which makes it highly adaptive. 

When implementing Kanban, one should focus on mapping the value stream, coordinating with Kanban systems like visual control, creating a pull system and setting up Work in Progress (WIP) limits. Other strategies are organizing daily stand up meeting, establishing cadences, allocation rules, and coming up with Service Level Agreements (SLA) as well as classes of service. Additionally,  Reporting to management include crucial metrics like understanding lead time, throughput, flow efficiency and failure load to suggested improvements.

In a Kanban system, it is the WIP that control the quantity of tasks in the system. For example, if we were to use a parking lot, every spot is a Kanban, whether the spot is filled or not. In Kanban, tasks are pulled from column to column and from left to right on the board unidirectionally only when WIP limit is available (empty spot). This lets teams to visually observe work in progress and self organize without the PM’s directions. The system makes it simple to see the bottlenecks as they emerge, and resolve them. Collaboration takes place when team swarm together (in Kanban, swarming means when teams gets together to work on a single problem). To conclude, the development process does not change, however what changes, is the management approach and the way we schedule work into the Kanban system.

There are a few types of Kanban- Personal Kanban, Portfolio Kanban and Scrumban. In personal Kanban, a person can visualize their own work and limit work in progress depending on the bandwidth. Portfolio Kanban talks about not just one project at a time but the entire portfolio of the organization (more for executives to understand the value proposition and prioritization). Scrumban combines the principle of scrum to what you do now and apply it to Kanban.

For organizations unprepared to take the risk for hard and disruptive agile adoption, Kanban offers an alternative path to agility. 

Few of the benefits of Kanban are: quality, reducing work in progress (one task at a time), frequent releases of a working product to gain trust, balancing demand against throughput and prioritization of features and tasks. Kanban teaches three kinds of improvement opportunities: removing bottlenecks, waste elimination and reduction of variability. Kanban can be applied across organizations such as engineering, sales, marketing, procurement, Human resources, QA, and Operations.

When comparing Agile with Kanban, the Kanban process serves people not the other way around as in other Agile models. The product is driven by the emerging needs of the actual customer. Kanban delivers small working products whereas in other agile approaches lots of work gets done before you see the end product. To solve the agile communities quandary you do not need the best people to produce world-class results. What you need is to build trust by frequently releasing, by reducing WIP and shortening lead-time. 

In summary,  Kanban is a proven human centered, project management method that  empowers people to manage their time effectively.