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How Kanban Works

Updated: Jul 15, 2023

How Kanban Works in 6 Easy Steps

Did you know that large enterprises like Spotify, Nike, Apple, Pixar and more use Kanban every day?

Kanban is one of the simplest Agile ways of completing work. Kanban is great because it allows you to simplify complicated workflows. It also helps you visualize all your work while the work gets done.

At its core Kanban is a workflow management method that has become very popular lately in knowledge work like digital product development.

Let's take a look at how Kanban really works in just 6 steps:

Step 1: Visualize your flow of work

The first step in Kanban is visualizing your flow of work. This can be captured as a board with columns. The board can be as simple as Backlog. Ready. In Progress, and Done.

In the backlog column you capture all the things you want to work on as cards. Once the requirements have been documented and understood and are ready to work on, they move to the ready column. Usually the cards in the ready column are already prioritized, reviewed and refined by the team.The team pulls any cards that are ready into the in-progress column once they start working on them. When work is complete, the cards get moved to the Done column. Every team will have their own version of columns based on their own workflow.

Step 2: Limit the Work in Progress

The second step is limiting the work in progress. To help ensure items are being completed at a steady pace, Kanban imposes limits on the number of items that can be worked on in any of the workflow steps at any given time. These are called Work in Progress Limits, or WIP limits.

It doesn’t benefit anyone to have lots of work in progress but not to accomplish anything at the end of the day.

Step 3: Manage the flow

The third step is managing the flow. The goal of managing the flow of work is to complete work as smoothly and predictably as possible, while maintaining a sustainable pace.

Kanban aims to help in optimizing flow which can be achieved by monitoring flow metrics, identifying and addressing bottlenecks, and continuously improving the workflow.

Step 4: Make the process policies explicit

The fourth step is making the process policies explicit. Kanban policies are internal team agreements that define a set of guidelines that should be followed in the course of work by a team. They define how you will operate when executing work using Kanban.

These are helpful to set a common understanding across all your team members, which will improve quality and increase efficiency. Some of these policies are things like:

filling the board with work items with things like when, how much, or by whom.

Also with the definition of when a work activity is completed and the work item can move on, which is also called a pull criteria. Or the rules of the Work In Progress Limits also called WIP Limits.

Step 5 & 6: Implement feedback loops and collaboration

The fifth step and sixth steps are implementing feedback loops and collaboration. Kanban emphasizes the importance of getting feedback as a way to identify areas for improvement.

It also encourages collaboration and experimentation to identify and solve problems, improve continuously, and evolve the processes to better meet the needs of the customers.

This is how Kanban works in 6 simple steps.

Some of the biggest companies use Kanban for their business operations and technology teams.

They use what is called the Kanban Method, which is a proven Agile way of efficiently completing work in large enterprises. It’s very popular in service teams, support and operations teams. Especially in technology.

If you want to learn more how to apply the Kanban method like a professional in a practical and hands-on way, check out The Kanban Guide to Boosting Your Scrum Master Career.

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