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Kanban Best Practices & Cheat Sheet

By Kerri Sutey | May 27, 2020 |  Agile Tools,  Kanban,  Lean,  Team

Image of Kanban board columns Idea, To Do, Doing, and DoneThe Kanban Method is a powerful way for Agile teams and organizations to visualize work, identify and eliminate bottlenecks, and achieve measurable operational improvements in throughput and quality. This article is a Kanban cheat sheet identifying best practices, meetings, and key terms.

Kanban Best Practices

Visualize the work
The Kanban Method is a powerful way for Agile teams and organizations to visualize work, identify and eliminate bottlenecks, and achieve measurable operational improvements in throughput and quality. A Kanban board can be maintained electronically within a tool or manually on a wall. Kanban boards can be team-specific, represent multiple teams, and even entire departments and organizations. The work visualized can be of any size tasks, stories, features, initiatives, projects, etc.

Limit WIP (Work in Process)
Limiting WIP allows us to reduce context-switching that can harm our team productivity. WIP Limits are applied to specific activity steps within the team’s process as typically modeled by a Kanban board. A WIP Limit is also known as a “constraint”, but not in a negative way. Teams do not have unlimited capacity, so think of WIP Limits as a descriptor of our reality within the work process and focusing mechanism.

Manage Flow
The main point of Kanban is to visualize how value flows through the system. This value is typically modeled as a work item card. The speed and smoothness of the work item movement across a Kanban board should be monitored and discussed in an ongoing manner.

Make Policies Explicit
Until rules are made explicit it is often difficult to have a discussion about how to improve. Making policies explicit helps create a shared understanding about how teams will move work through their system. Explicit policies for Kanban may include WIP Limits, Definition of Ready, Definition of Done, approval processes, and general team working agreements.

Implement Feedback Loops
Kanban is an evolutionary process of continuous improvement. The sooner we can get feedback, the quicker we can pivot if needed. Daily standups, replenishment meetings, delivery planning meetings, and retrospectives are a few practices teams can implement to set up feedback loops.

Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally
Improvements should be small incremental changes over time that build on themselves and effectively fine-tune your team’s flow of value. Once teams have established their Kanban board and are using it, many opportunities for improvement will arise including removal of bottlenecks, creation of smoother flow, reduction of cycle time (from work start to Done), reduction of lead time (from request made to Done), throughput improvement, and variability reduction/increased predictability.

Kanban Meeting Cheat Sheet

While Kanban does not prescribe any specific meetings, many Kanban teams use the following meetings to ensure alignment of effort.

Daily Standup

Purpose: Team coordinates activities for the day which helps ensure they are working on the right priority items

Example Agenda:

The team walks the board, starting right to left, and provides an update to each other on progress and current WIP. Consider having the team answer:

      • Who can help on this item to get it to Done today?
      • What is blocking your work items from completion (flow)? 
      • What did you learn yesterday that would benefit the team?

Weekly Replenishment 

Purpose: Create shared understanding of the work and keep team members focused on the most critical work that needs to be done. 

Example Agenda:

      • Review Definition of Ready (if the team has one) and WIP limits for Kanban Board columns
      • Review the backlog priorities. Together, break work down that is too large. Make a collaborative decision about what work items can be pulled in based on current WIP limits.
      • Identify dependencies & risks to be aware of when starting work on the newly replenished tasks. To reduce risk, determine if any work items can be deferred until later so that more knowledge can be gathered. 
      • Confidence vote: Make sure all the details of the chosen work is clear to the team.
      • Optional/As needed: Discuss further details. Once the meeting has been concluded, there might be some smaller details that need further clarification. If that’s the case, make sure to address them as soon as possible so your team can be fully prepared to proceed with the execution of the work.

Monthly Retrospective

Purpose: Team reflects on how they are working to identify opportunities for improvement and feedback

Example Agenda:

      • Set the stage by reading the Prime Directive: Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
      • Gather the data from the latest metrics such as average cycle time, average lead time, and throughput.
      • Review how often WIP limits were followed.
      • Generate insights from the data. It is important to reflect on the improvements identified from the last retrospective and the impact those changes had on the metrics/process.
      • Decide what improvements to experiments with over the next month.
      • Close the retrospective by checking in with the team on overall team health, team progress and/or decisions made. This is also a great time to recognize and celebrate team successes.

Kanban Terms

Card/Task: Visually represent work items of value. Cards contain information about the work item. They are not different in size because the idea is to break a project down to its smallest tasks and complete them quickly.

Cumulative flow diagram: A visual chart/diagram/report which shows throughput, cycle time, and WIP. Agile tooling can create this for you.

Cycle time: Begins at the moment when the new arrival enters “in progress” stage and somebody is actually working on it until it enters the Done column.

Explicit Policies: Facilitates consensus (agreement) around improvement suggestions and minimizes the chance of misconceptions and lack of understanding.

Feedback Loops: Represent the circulation of info and change between (and during) the team’s meetings (daily standup, replenishment, and retro).

Kanban: The word literally means ‘signboard’ or ‘visual card’. In the late 1940s, it became a term for Toyota’s inventory management system and later evolved as a process management method.

Kaizen: The Japanese word for “continuous improvement”. 

Pull System: No new work is started until started items are finished. When there is capacity, a new item is pulled in.

Swimlanes: The horizontal divisions of a Kanban board, helping to optimize the workflow. The columns represent steps, and swimlanes categorize work. Swimlanes can be used to represent classes of service, projects, etc.

Throughput: The number of items, passing through a system or process. According to Little’s Law, Average Throughput = Average WIP divided by average cycle time. The throughput of your team is a key indicator showing whether your process is productive or not.

Work In Progress (WIP): The amount of work in flight at the same time. 

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