Introduction to Kanban

The term ‘productivity’ is somewhat overused these days. What does it mean, exactly? How do you define being productive? Most importantly, how do you avoid becoming embroiled in the many productivity best practices and regimes that exist and that can, inevitably, prevent you from actually getting anything done?

For instance, there are literally hundreds of apps out there which promise to help you reach the bottom of your to-do list, rid you of paperwork and make you more productive than you’ve ever been. In reality, one often spends more time setting up such tools, thus throwing away countless hours that could be better spent… you guessed it – being productive! The process of being productive should be a simple one, and that’s why the Kanban principal exists. But what is Kanban, and how could it benefit your working day?

In this post, we’re going to take a detailed look at Kanban and explain why it demystifies productivity and makes the ability to get things done accessible to all. Welcome to our short guide to Kanban. We’ll start right at the beginning by looking at who invented Kanban and how modern society has adapted this brilliant practice.

A brief history of Kanban

Kanban (看板) means ‘signboard’ in Japanese and defines the process by which an instructional card is sent along the various stages of a production line. Who invented Kanban ?

Kanban was invented by Taiichi Ohno, an engineer at Toyota, he developed Kanban to improve manufacturing efficiency Its origins lie in manufacturing, but the inspiration for Kanban actually came from the world of supermarkets.

In the late 1940s, car giant Toyota began studying supermarkets’ methods for restocking shelves. They found that, rather than rely on vendor supply, staff were instructed to only restock items when they neared sell-out. This meant that order quantities were based on consumer demand, working on the principal that shoppers only buy groceries they need at the time they need them.

As a result, stock levels were based entirely on the number of products the store expected to sell, safe in the knowledge that future supply was assured and inventory aligned with consumption. It is a blindingly simply technique but one that maximises stock, reduces overheads and ensures the entire business and its customers are never left short-changed.

This got Toyota thinking. What if they could apply the same principals to the manufacturing process? Smart enough to realise that the ‘just-in-time’ delivery format used by supermarkets could just easily translate to the process of achieving consistently high levels of manufacturing output, they set about developing the Kanban methodology.

Modern day Kanban

The guiding principals of Kanban haven’t really changed (we’ll get onto what they are a little later), but the methods by which it is implemented is rather different in modern day society.

Chiefly, this is down to the role technology plays in Kanban. Although there is certainly nothing wrong with the old-fashioned white board and sticky note approach, there are now a number of compelling software applications that take the Kanban methodology and make it portable, easily collaborative and addictively video game-like.

Kanban has also extended far beyond its initial application in manufacturing and can now be found as a principal method for managing teams and work in sectors from web development to copywriting. We’ll provide some examples of Kanban boards in such industries later on in this guide.

How does Kanban work?

Experts believe that the brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text. We live in a world with an awful lot of text, be it in the form of emails, social media updates or tasks lists, but its effectiveness pales in comparison to that of visual material.

The best way to picture Kanban at work is to imagine a white board with three columns labelled ‘To do’, ‘Doing’ and ‘Done’
and a bunch of sticky notes added to each. On each note you’ll find a description of a particular task or project and the column in which it resides denotes its status.

Below, we’ve put together an example of this in the wonderful Trello app, which is based on the Kanban methodology:

guide to kanban - example

Yep, you’ll spot that we still have text present, but it isn’t overbearing and is organised in such a way that makes it obvious to the owner of the Kanban board what they need to do next, what is currently on-going and the projects that have been completed.Most importantly, the board provides a no-frills and instantly recognisable method of workflow; you have a job to do, you start doing it and you complete it. It’s as simple as that! The brilliance of this method lies in the fact that, at any time, you can look at a Kanban board and find out the status of each job. Consider it a picture of work which changes as projects progress.

Kanban works best in teams, but is equally good at home for solo workers and is a compelling extension to the traditional to-do list.

The 4 principles of Kanban

Kanban hinges on the fact that you can’t get to where you need to be without first knowing where you are and, like any productivity regime, it simply isn’t effective without one or two rules. Kanban hasn’t really changed since Toyota developed it back in the 1940s, and relies on the 4 guiding principals to keep everything in check:

1) The visual model.

Making projects visible in the form of cards or sticky notes placed on a board under relevant headings means the status of every job and the way in which they flow from ’to-do’ to completion is always instantly obvious.

2) WIP limits.

Work in progress (WIP) limits are essential in Kanban. Imagine the example board above with hundreds of cards in each column – it would be a mess and entirely counterintuitive. WIP limits exist in order to prevent the pipeline being pushed beyond its limits. The fewer WIP items allowed, the quicker they progress through the WIP board.

3) Flow.

Kanban enables team leaders and individuals to assess the flow of work. As a result, completion times for future projects can be accurately estimated and future problems prevented by reacting to bottlenecks.

4) Continuous improvement.

Kanban encourages a culture of continuous improvement. The effectiveness of teams and individuals can be accurately assessed by tracking the flow of work, lead times and throughput, and acting on those metrics enables us all to continually improve our working methods.

How to get started with Kanban

One of the limiting factors of many productivity methodologies is the ability to get started quickly. Often, you’ll need to set up task categories, projects types, contexts and colour-coded tags before you can get cracking with anything.

That all takes time and time is absolutely precious. With Kanban, you can get going almost instantly. All you need to do is two things:

– Set up your board and its headings.

– Unload every to-do item from your brain onto individual cards or sticky notes.

But how do you set up your board? Below, we’ve picked out 4 walks of life in which Kanban can be quickly implemented and provide examples of board headings.

At home.

Kanban doesn’t have to be used solely for work purposes. It is just as useful at home and the most basic ’to-do’, ‘doing’, ‘done’ headings will work wonders. However, you can go further, and in the example home Kanban board below, you’ll see just how powerful it can be:

Personal board - kanban guide

As you can see there are more than the traditional three columns on this board. If you look closely you will see that the actual work happens on the last three; Scheduled (To Do) In Progress (Doing) and Done.

In sales.

As any sales executive or manager will know, keeping on top of the sales pipeline can be a devilish task. Below, we’ve put together an example sales Kanban board that neatly visualises the process of nurturing leads from prospect to confirmed order:


If you’re a blogger or copywriter, Kanban can help you retain future post ideas and keep track of the progress of those you’re working on. Infact you can use Kanban based tools like Trello to design your entire content calendar.

Software development.

Programmers will know the importance of retaining focus on software development projects if they are to be completed on time and to their best ability. Kanban goes hand-in-hand with the ScrumScrum is an agile way to manage a project, methodology and enables teams to manage complex software projects efficiently.


Kanban tools

As noted earlier in this post, there are a huge number of tools you can use to get started with Kanban, but we think there are 3 that stand out as the most approachable and that offer the best introduction to Kanban:

Trello. Throughout this Kanban guide, we’ve used Trello to provide examples of Kanban boards and that’s for one very good reason – it is incredibly simple to use. More importantly, Trello makes the process of getting things done satisfying and game-like, thanks to the way in which cards can be dragged between lists. Users can also attach files to cards and use the built-in messaging system to discuss the finer details of each task.

Cardflow. This brilliant iPad app can be used for to-do lists, wireframing and storyboarding – everything Kanban excels at. Cardflow is incredibly fun to use and proves how important visual guidance and illustration is when it comes to being productive.

The old fashioned method. Got a white board? Got sticky notes? Then you’ve got a brilliant Kanban system waiting to be used. This old fashioned method is just as popular today as it ever was and can be implemented and interacted with instantly. For individuals still wanting an app fix, Post-it Plus is a new twist on the more physical Kanban approach.

Is Kanban for me?

Kanban makes the process of doing anything far simpler. We’ve already considered its benefits to the home and within sectors like sales and software development, but it can also be used if you’re studying, planning a new business or moving house.

If you’re wondering whether or not Kanban can work for you, consider how often you ask these questions:

“What stage am I at now?”

“When will this job be finished?”

“Who is working on what?”

“What should I be doing next?”

“What have I achieved?”

It’s a lot, isn’t it? Kanban can provide visual answers to all of those questions, whenever you need them. As a result, you’ll be more productive and – most importantly – happier. As with every productivity method, tool or app you have to decide for yourself. Give it a go and see if it improves your productivity.

Final thoughts

We hope this short guide to Kanban has proved insightful and tempted you to reach for that disused white board and pile of Post-it notes. One of the best things about Kanban is that it can slot into virtually any walk of life without the need to modify existing processes and procedures in any significant way.

However, once you start working with Kanban, you’ll quickly start to spot inefficiencies in the way you or your team do things. You’ll identity bottlenecks, time wasted and the reason certain projects never seem to get finished. Such information is gold dust and encourages that all-important mentality of constant improvement.

Remember the golden rule of Kanban – set your WIP limits and stick to them. While this may at first appear to be rather limiting, remind yourself that Kanban works on a ‘pull’ mentality. Again harking back to manufacturing, ‘pull’ simply means that each stage of the process pulls from the previous stage, thus indicating to the previous stage that it can ‘make another one’. Room will be made for that next job, just as soon as you’ve finished the current one!

We highly recommend that you try the Kanban method of productivity and see if it works and improves productivity in your work and home life. You’ll soon wonder how on earth you managed to get anything done without it.