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Agile Kanban: Visual Tracking Beyond the Team Room

by Deborah Hartmann Preuss on Jan 16, 2008 |

When it first appeared, Agile was largely a developer-driven initiative. As a result, many teams optimized only a part of the software product's "value stream." Once development got sorted out, many teams discovered they'd sub-optimized, i.e. improved development but still hamstrung by constraints outside their control. Lean emphasizes optimization of key bottlenecks wherever they happen in the value-stream - for software, this could be anywhere between the initial request for a solution and the final delivered solution in the hands of the customer. In this InfoQ article, Kanban Applied to software development: from Agile to Lean, Kenji Hiranabe explores the history of Lean manufacturing's "Kanban" visual tracking tool, and how it differs from the commonly-seen Agile taskboard. He proposes that by moving from our Agile tracking systems to the Lean Kanban approach, we can see more far-reaching improvements happen across the organisation.

Hiranabe suggests that teams can use Kanban to increase visibility beyond the teamroom, to encourage real improvement throughout the value-stream. His solutions include Agile Kanban for research-oriented teams with little repetition in their work, and Sustaining Kanban for production-support work, where tasks are more predictable and repeatitious.


The article includes a detailed analysis of the properties of Kanban, and explains how it fits into a process as a tool for Kaizen and to control Work-in-Progress:

  1. Physical: It is a physical card. It can be held in the hand, moved, and put into or onto something.
  2. Limits WIP: It limits WIP (Work-In-Process), i.e. prevents overproduction.
  3. Continuous Flow: It notifies needs of production before the store runs out of stock.
  4. Pull: The downstream process pulls items from the upstream process.
  5. Self-Directing: It has all information on what to do and makes production autonomous in a non-centralized manner and without micro-management.
  6. Visual: It is stacked or posted to show the current status and progress, visually.
  7. Signal: Its visual status signals the next withdrawal or production actions.
  8. Kaizen: Visual process flow informs and stimulates Kaizen.
  9. Attached: It is attached to and moves with physical parts supplied.

The article concludes with an overview of the Toyota Production System. While most software development is quite different from manufacturing, it's this model, adapted for software, which inspires the Lean Software Development movement.



Read the InfoQ exclusive article Kanban Applied to software development: from Agile to Lean, by Kenji Hiranabe.

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Great article, minor typo by Jason Yip

In the conclusion paragraph, I assume that should be "analysed" (or analyzed).

Also, I think in the latest version of The Machine That Changed the World, it claims that Taiichi Ohno learning kanban from an American supermarket is an urban myth. Apparently, he observed this from an American style supermarket in Japan.

I'm also thinking that the difference in kanban styles can be more attributed to the levels of specialisation/hand-offs in the system rather than the type of development (50 vs 90%).

Kanbans work great for agile teams by Nicholas Cancelliere

I have had a problem with teams relying too much on web-based tools and email. Team members would interact with these tools more than one another. At some point you hear comments like "Didn't you see my note on the web site," or "I didn't see your email on that." Information in web-based tools or email is easily lost or ignored. They can provide excuses for not communicating responsibly.

Kanbans keep a simple view of what needs to get done in front of the whole team. They are very visible and their tactile nature helps clue you in to changes as the board physically appears different. You can also see where work is piling up in a way you cannot appreciate through most web-based tools or by email. Teams are less apt to have too many in-progress tasks open, it becomes quickly apparent when this happens.

The team that has switched off the web-based tools and adopted a kanban has seen improvements in collaboration and has demonstrated better self-control in taking on too many tasks at once. It has worked wonderfully. Not every team can utilize them, especially those with members in different physical locations, but if a team is all in one location I highly recommend them.

Re: Kanbans work great for agile teams by Joshua Ewer

Completely agree. I had issues introducing Scrum to a team that had "done agile" (i.e. they had standup meetings). We have MS Team Foundation Server holding all of our work items and scenarios, which is nice, but that tooling completely abstracted how items should flow through a process and ended up being a detriment.


A physical board, while seeming really low-tech, is the perfect way to illustrate the health of a project and keep people on task. I don't know how I'd do it w/ a team that wasn't co-located, but once we saw it done once physically, then we re-introduced tooling which much more success.

Re: Kanbans work great for agile teams by David David

Good article, thanks.
I started using kanbantool.com after I first heard about Kanban for personal use. Then my manager decided to test it within our company. People were delighted at first, productivity increased but after 2 weeks started problems with task limits. Some people were overloaded. Our managed decided to the same limit for everyone-and now everything works smoothly.

Online Kanban Tools by Sergei Podbereschi

For an online Kanban app, I would recommend checking smartQ - www.getsmartQ.com.

Kanban has a potential to be applied not only to software development, but to many other industries - from marketing and HR to service shops.

Lean Project Management & Realtime Analytics by Thomas Schranz

We're currently working on a new tool for lean project management: www.blossom.io It combines lean software development methodologies with realtime analytics of KPI.

Re: Online Kanban Tools by Morgan James

I work in a company with diversified staff in terms of IT skills. The tool we use - KanbanTool - is simple and intuitive for employees of lower level. On the other hand it is also an advanced and flexible support for managers. This is what we needed to organize our work.

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