Kanban for everybody

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kanban card 400x200

Introduction

In IT field, Scrum & Kanban are the most common frameworks to develop and maintain software products. Scrum is a light-weight framework, simple to understand, but hard to master. On the other hand, Kanban is hard to understand but easy to implement. It doesn’t mean mastering Kanban is simple, but you would feel easy and understandable with a few Kanban practices.

Unfortunately, not everyone in IT field has experienced in a Kanban team or what if you haven’t heard about Kanban or Agile or Lean? In such situations, you have to learn Kanban first then you would find some challenges to understand and deploy a kanban system.

In this post, I will share with you a few basic principles in Kanban so that you can have a good foundation knowledge before looking into deeply about Kanban method.

kanban [token|card] in the Imperial Palace Gardens, Tokyo, Japan.

“kanban” in Japanese means signal card or token to provide information. Strictly speaking, we don’t need to add “token” or “card” to kanban but to be clearer in English we can say kanban card.

kanban japanese

The Imperial Palace Gardens in Tokyo uses kanban cards to control the number of visitors inside the park. Once the tokens run out, they stop letting people in. This helps everyone inside the garden enjoy better the sight of the blossom, have enough space to relax and take beautiful photos.
kanban token 400x200 Imperial Palace Garden
                                    kanban card                                                                                 The Imperial Palace Gardens

We can observe this kind of system implemented widely around you. For example, only 1 person is allowed to pass through the airport security x-ray check.

airport security check

X-ray security check at the airport

Limiting a number of in-progress works increases throughput and avoid overload.

— In Kanban, we need to “Limit work-in-progress”

kanban systems in supermarkets

Shoppers in a supermarket only buy they need, and the supermarket, in turn, only fills more goods if they are running out. The supermarket monitors their inventory, and when it runs low, orders the next batch. The supermarket doesn’t want to have things sit too long on the shelves or take too long times to replenish with high-demanded goods. Taiichi Ohno observed what had been running in supermarkets and introduced the similar system to the car manufacturing. This system was eventually adopted by Toyota as a whole and known as TPS system.

The pull system in Supermarket

What has been using in supermarkets is the Just-In-Time (JIT) concept. The supermarkets only “pull” more goods depending on customers’ demand and do this just in time. This helps eliminate the overstocking or under-stocking problems and other kinds of wastes.

— Kanban applies the “Just-In-Time” concept —

Two my queuing experiences

The first experience

In 2018 I have been in Italy for a business trip and had a long weekend when the Labor Day, the 1st May was on Tuesday and the office was closed on Monday too. It’s such a great chance for travelling somewhere, especially all the museums in Italy will open without entrance fee for all visitors on the last Sunday of a month. I decided to spend the whole 4 days to only discover Rome & Vatican. I was noticed and self-researched about the great number of people visiting attractive places in Rome but I was really shock to see lengthy queues of people on the day I went to Vatican museums. It’s estimated that there are around 30K visitors a day to Vatican during high season. Therefore, it cannot be lower than that number on a day with entrance free!

Long queues of visitors to the Vatican museums

Different from the Imperial Palace Gardens in Japan, the Vatican museums did not limit the number of visitors (it’s not so good). However, looking the number of people lining along the wall, I predicted it might take me four hours to reach the gate. Finally, I encountered the security check after three and a half hours of inching in the queues. Nevertheless, I was really happy as I entered the gate sooner than I expected. As the flow of people & the queues are completely visible to me, I came up with a safe estimation and felt excited when I achieve the goal as my plan.

… and here is the second experience

3 months after my trip to Italy, I traveled to Singapore with my family on a summer holiday. We went to the Singapore Universal where had a lot of visitors. Inside the Universal, there are many different places to visit. After checking somewhere, we saw many people queuing for a place that seems good for kids then my families decided to join in the lines. Looking at the number of people, I thought it would take max. 45 minutes to take a seat. By the patience & experience I gained in the Vatican trip, I was confident to overcome the challenge. However, I was wrong and it’s a painful experience. After nearly 1 hours, we encountered a door opened to another waiting space with a lot of waiting people whom we couldn’t see from the first place. We tried to keep following the lines in around 30 minutes before denying ourselves as we couldn’t know if there was another door or not. Why didn’t they show us the entire flow of people and the queues? It was so annoying! It’s not just because we couldn’t see that show, but the feeling of being cheated and the time we wasted, the other shows we missed.

Queues of people in different places which the latter is hidden by the preceded one

When works and workflows are not visualized, we couldn’t foresee potential risks or impediments; we could know our real progress; and finally, we couldn’t build a trusting relationship or working environment.

— In Kanban, we need to “Visualize workflow”

Conclusion

“Pull system”, “Visualize work and workflow”, “Limit works in progress” are not all but the most important practices and principles in Kanban method. By this understanding, you can start to implement a kanban system with a simple kanban board then continuously learn and apply extra practices and tools. That is not only a correct mindset of Kanban method, but also for learning and working in the today’s world.

On the above kanban board, works and workflows are visualized with post-it notes; the numbers of in-progress work at “DOING” and “REVIEW” are limited at 2 and 1 respectively.

Notes:

  • “kanban” with letter “k” in lowercase is used at referring kanban card, a system using kanban cards in general or the board containing kanban tokens.
  • “Kanban” with letter “K” in uppercase is used in the context of Kanban method, i.e. Kanban board, Kanban practices, Kanban principles, Kanban Team.

Thanks for reading !

Khiem Huynh, Agile Coach | PMI-ACP | PSM III

Access to my exam guides to practice the online assessments for Scrum certificates provided by scrum.org

Watch my videos of Agile (in Vietnamese) on Youtube channel “Agile Education

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