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Beyond the board: How Kanban works within agile

Kanban is a system for managing the flow of work. Developed in the 1940s, the system was originally designed to improve manufacturing efficiencies by tracking production. Surprisingly, when Kanban first started out, there was no visual board at all. It was a foundation of principles that made the Kanban system.

Despite the common belief that Kanban is a board for tracking work, it is in fact the foundation of principles that are core. The board is a great visual aid to show you what is happening, but the principles are what make the system. The principles envelop the six rules of Kanban – a topic we have covered before in the PRINCE2 blog. These have been developed further over the years as Kanban has been adopted by a range of industries, from project management to IT development, sales and marketing to QA and testing.

In a recent podcast interview, CEO and founder of Kanbanize, Dimitar Karaivanov talks of the evolution of Kanban -

“In 2018, I believe it was, we had the publishing of the Kanban Maturity Model, which is a whole new body of knowledge that maps all the Kanban practices across six maturity levels. And now, apparently, we have more than 150 Kanban practices.”

Its expanding diversity of uses allows Kanban to be used across almost any industry, and hand in hand with other frameworks such as agile.

Kanban and Agile - a perfect pairing

Agile practice is the ability to create and respond to change. At PRINCE2 we offer training to become PRINCE2 Agile certified, an accredited course which combines the flexibility of agile with the framework of PRINCE2. Within the course, you will learn key agile principles which allow for continuous delivery and adaptability.

The agile manifesto outlines that:

  • individuals and interactions should be valued over processes and tools
  • working software over comprehensive documentation
  • customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • responding to change over following a plan

Much of this manifesto works cohesively with the principles of Kanban. For one, the focus of Kanban is on individuals and interactions. Delivery is a priority but not at the expense of overloading team members. As is the case within agile, Kanban sees the team as the most important figure in the process.

Take for example, the issue of blockers. Blockers in Kanban are unforeseen factors which cause delays for a task on your board to progress forward. In this situation, individuals will ‘swarm’ on the blocker, even if it means stepping outside their area of expertise, as a proactive way of problem solving. This interaction is also evidence of collaborative practices being commonplace in Kanban, just as they are in agile. The work queue and managing the flow are shared responsibilities.

Those working in agile environments value working software, and likewise Kanban is mostly used in digital, interactive forms, usually as a board. Typically, there will be columns which represent the state of the task. When a task is finished by a team member, it is pulled to the next column by the person who will complete the next task. For example, pulling from ‘programming’ to ‘testing’. Various software applications are available for creating Kanban boards, and within agile working this becomes an invaluable resource.

Further parallels can be drawn in that Kanban often entails daily Kanban meetings, much like daily scrums, though the format of these is more focussed on solving workflow issues and overcoming any blockers. Kanban also promotes having risk review meetings and service delivery reviews; and it values metrics. Its transparent, collaborative framework for working means that Kanban and PRINCE2 Agile work together seamlessly.

Responding to change over following a plan

Arguably one of the biggest things agile and Kanban have in common is prioritising responding to change, over following a plan. Kanban offers a structure for working flexibly, and in that way, it mirrors PRINCE2 Agile. Getting things done is a process, but plans need to be adaptable. Kanban is all about visualizing your work, limiting work in progress, and maximizing efficiency. It involves planning, execution, iteration, and reflection.

Change can happen at any time, and by recognising this, Kanban allows for agility. Daily meetings or ‘feedback loops’ are key to the Kanban practice as they advance collaboration and develop innovative, experimental practices. Agility and innovation are vital in order to harness change, as well as for identifying opportunities for progression.

Agile and Kanban both have incremental delivery and continual development at their heart, whilst always being focussed on the bigger picture. Kanban encourages teams to learn and improve continuously as part of its value-centric approach. All the while, it continuously eliminates waste and removes obstacles.

“Start from where you are at now and constantly look to inspect and improve.” - [Source]

But Kanban isn’t just for teams. The project manager should be heavily involved in feedback loops and in the board, flow, and metrics. They should utilise this information to feedback and communicate with senior management as well as stakeholders. In that way, Kanban works within agile both in daily practice and when strategizing and addressing the wider picture.

The Kanban system is increasingly used within project management and features in the PRINCE2 Agile guidance. To find out more head to our PRINCE2 Agile course page.