Lean sounds a bit abstract on its own, but combine it with Kanban project management and it’s easy to build your own Lean project management system. Conceived by Toyota engineer Taiichi Ohno and implemented in 1953, Kanban is set up much like a factory floor, where a part might start out as a piece of metal and then, one step at a time, is turned into a finished part through a series of steps. In the same way when using Kanban, you’ll do some work towards a project, then ship that item on down the line to the next station where something else is done.
Kanban Project Management Structure
Kanban also pulls inspiration from the grocery store model: for maximum efficiency, carry just enough on your shelves to meet customers demand. So, in Kanban, instead of plowing ahead on shipping a complete project, you can leave tasks at various stages until they’re needed—whether that’s half-made, low-demand parts in a factory, un-edited blog posts in your queue without a publish date, or anything else that’s waiting for a need in your workflow.
It’s a lot more laid back than Scrum—there’s no set time for sprints, no assigned roles outside of the product owner, and a zen-like focus on only the task at hand. You could have meetings about your overall projects, or not: it’s up to your team’s needs.
All you have to do is define the stages of your workflow, then setup a way to move each task from one stage to the other. In a factory, you might have different boxes or shelves for each stage: raw materials in the first, half-made parts in the second, and completed parts in the third. For other projects, you might have a card—whether a note in a program, or a physical piece of paper on a board—where you list info about a task, and you’ll move that card to different lists as the task progresses.
Your Kanban system can be as flexible as you want—it’s really just a way to visualize the Agile idea—but there’s four pillars of the Kanban philosophy that can help make sure your projects get shipped. These include:
- Cards (Kanban translates to “visual card”): Each task has a card that includes all relevant info about it; this makes sure everything to complete the tasks is always at hand.
- Cap on work in progress: Limit how many cards are in play at once; this prevents teams from over-committing.
- Continuous Flow: Move down the list of backlogs in order of importance, and make sure something’s always being worked on.
- Constant improvement (otherwise known as “kaizen“): Analyze the flow to determine how efficiently you’re working, and always strive to improve it.
Like Scrum, Kanban fits best with a highly cohesive team that knows what it takes to keep the flow going—but unlike Scrum, it’s designed for teams that are self-motivated and don’t need as much management or deadlines. It’s great for those who lean toward seeing the entire project at a glance.
While the two-week Scrum rule is absent and subprojects can take however long they’ve been given, you should still have an overall focus on efficiency—which should help save resources. If you’re careful to follow Kanban rules and only assign as much work as a team can handle, projects are less likely to go past deadline and team members are less likely to juggle other distractions. And because the product owner can change tasks that aren’t currently being worked on along the way, it allows for flexibility without frustration.
If only one of your team members has a certain in-demand skill, the individual can hold up everything. Kanban is ideal for teams that have members with overlapping skills, so that everyone can pitch in and help move the backlog list to zero. It’s also best for places where time on the overall project isn’t quite as crucial; if you must ship by certain deadlines, TPM or Scrum give you the time management structure you need.