Product Management Dictionary

The Product Management Dictionary: kanban

Discover the ins and outs of kanban in product management with our comprehensive guide.

Are you looking to improve workflow management in your product team? If so, then you've probably heard of kanban — a method designed to optimize task organization and promote continuous improvement. In this article, we will provide a comprehensive guide to what kanban is, how it can help improve your team's productivity, and how to implement it successfully.

Understanding Kanban

Kanban is a framework that originated in the manufacturing industry in Japan in the 1940s. The term "kanban" is derived from the Japanese word for "visual signal," and its main objective is to simplify and streamline processes by visualizing workflow, limiting work in progress (WIP), and optimizing flow. In product management, the kanban framework has proven to be an effective method for teams looking to optimize their workflow processes.

Origins of Kanban

Kanban was developed by Toyota to optimize their manufacturing process. The system allowed Toyota to optimize their production cycle by carefully managing the inventory of raw materials and finished products using visual signals. These signals, or "kanban cards," helped managers efficiently allocate resources and ensure that the right quantity of raw materials was available to match the demand for finished goods.

Since then, kanban has evolved and been adapted to various industries and processes beyond manufacturing. It has proven to be a valuable tool in fields such as software development, healthcare, and even personal productivity.

Kanban in Product Management

In product management, kanban helps streamline workflows and improve productivity in product development teams. Kanban boards are commonly used to visualize the flow of work, making it easy for team members to see and manage their tasks, and helping managers improve their resource allocation. This helps avoid bottlenecks that can slow down progress and ensure a smooth and continuous flow of work throughout the development process.

Product development teams can use kanban to prioritize tasks, identify dependencies, and track progress. By visualizing the workflow and limiting work in progress, teams can focus on completing tasks efficiently and effectively, leading to faster delivery of products to customers.

Key Principles of Kanban

Kanban is built on a set of principles that help guide teams in implementing it effectively. These principles include:

  • Visualizing work: By visualizing the workflow, teams can easily see the status of tasks and identify any bottlenecks or areas for improvement.
  • Limiting work in progress: By limiting the number of tasks in progress, teams can focus on completing tasks before starting new ones, leading to faster delivery times.
  • Managing flow: By optimizing the flow of work, teams can ensure a smooth and continuous delivery of products.
  • Making process policies explicit: By clearly defining and communicating process policies, teams can ensure everyone is on the same page and working towards the same goals.
  • Establishing feedback loops: By establishing feedback loops, teams can continuously improve their processes and adapt to changing needs.
  • Promoting continuous improvement: By continuously improving processes, teams can optimize their workflow and deliver products faster and more efficiently.

By following these principles, teams can optimize their workflow and continuously improve their processes. Kanban is a powerful tool that can help teams in various industries and processes streamline their workflows, improve productivity, and deliver products faster and more efficiently.

Implementing Kanban in Your Workflow

If you're interested in implementing kanban in your product team, here are the essential steps to help you get started.

Visualizing Work

The first step is to visualize your work. You can do this by creating a kanban board with columns that represent the workflow stages of your project. These could include "To Do," "In Progress," "Quality Assurance," and "Done." Team members can then use cards to represent different tasks and move them across columns as they progress through the stages.

Visualizing work allows the team to have a clear understanding of the progress of the project. It helps to identify tasks that are stuck in a particular stage and need attention. With a visual representation of the workflow, it is easier to track the progress of the project and ensure that it is moving forward.

Limiting Work in Progress

The next step is to limit the number of tasks that team members are working on at any given time. This helps reduce multitasking, which studies have shown can reduce productivity and increase error rates. By limiting the number of tasks, team members can focus on completing a smaller number of tasks more efficiently.

Limiting work in progress also helps to reduce the workload of team members. It ensures that they do not have too many tasks to handle at the same time, which can lead to stress and burnout. It promotes a healthy work environment and helps to maintain a sustainable pace of work.

Managing Flow

Kanban helps optimize the flow of work by managing the work in progress. Teams can use the kanban board to spot bottlenecks in the workflow and redistribute work to balance the workload and keep the flow moving. This helps ensure that the work progresses smoothly and efficiently through all stages.

Managing flow is essential to ensure that the project is completed on time. It helps to identify any issues that may be slowing down the workflow and allows the team to address them promptly. By managing flow, the team can ensure that the project is completed within the specified timeframe.

Making Process Policies Explicit

It's essential to make process policies explicit to ensure that everyone in the team understands what is expected of them. This includes things like defining what constitutes a task, how to estimate the time required to complete a task, and how to prioritize tasks based on their importance.

Making process policies explicit helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page. It helps to avoid confusion and misunderstandings that can lead to delays and errors. It promotes a culture of transparency and accountability, where everyone is aware of their roles and responsibilities.

Feedback Loops

Another crucial element of kanban is implementing feedback loops to allow the team to learn from each other and make continuous improvements. Regular check-ins and retrospectives can help identify areas for improvement and facilitate discussions on how to make changes to improve the workflow.

Feedback loops promote a culture of continuous improvement. They allow the team to identify areas where they can improve and make changes to the workflow to address these issues. By implementing feedback loops, the team can ensure that they are always learning and growing.

Continuous Improvement

The final step is to promote continuous improvement by reviewing the workflow regularly and making adjustments as needed. This includes evaluating the effectiveness of the kanban board, assessing the workload, and modifying process policies to better align with the team's objectives and goals.

Continuous improvement is essential to ensure that the team is always striving to do better. It helps to identify areas where the workflow can be improved and allows the team to make changes to address these issues. By promoting continuous improvement, the team can ensure that they are always delivering high-quality work.

Kanban vs. Scrum

When it comes to managing workflow, there are several different frameworks to choose from. Two of the most popular methodologies are kanban and scrum. While they share some similarities, there are distinct differences between the two approaches that can impact your team's productivity and success.

First, let's take a closer look at kanban. This framework is based on the idea of visualizing workflow. Teams using kanban typically create a board that displays all of the tasks that need to be completed. Each task is represented by a card that moves through various stages of completion. This system allows team members to easily see what tasks are in progress, what tasks have been completed, and what tasks are still waiting to be started.

One of the key benefits of kanban is that it is a flow-based system. This means that work is continuously moving forward, with team members focusing on completing one task at a time. Kanban is particularly well-suited for teams that have a high volume of ongoing work, such as customer support teams or software development teams that are constantly fixing bugs and making improvements.

Now, let's turn our attention to scrum. This methodology is based on the idea of iteration. Teams using scrum typically work in short sprints, with each sprint lasting anywhere from one to four weeks. During each sprint, the team focuses on completing a specific set of tasks, known as a backlog. At the end of the sprint, the team reviews their progress and determines what they need to do in the next sprint to continue making progress towards their overall goal.

One of the key benefits of scrum is that it emphasizes teamwork and collaboration. Team members work closely together to achieve their goals, with each person taking on specific roles and responsibilities. This framework is particularly well-suited for teams that are working on well-defined projects with clear deliverables, such as a marketing team working on a new product launch or a design team working on a website redesign.

Choosing the Right Method for Your Team

So, how do you know whether kanban or scrum is the right approach for your team? The answer depends on a number of factors, including the type of work your team does, the size of your team, and your team's overall goals and objectives.

When deciding between kanban and scrum, it's important to consider the unique needs and goals of your team. Assessing your team's workflow and objectives can help you determine which approach is the best fit for your team. Some teams may even find that they benefit from using a combination of both methodologies, depending on the specific project or task at hand.

Ultimately, the most important thing is to choose a framework that helps your team work more efficiently and effectively. Whether you choose kanban, scrum, or another methodology entirely, the key is to continually assess and refine your approach to ensure that you are getting the best possible results.

Kanban Tools and Resources

There are several tools and resources available to help teams implement kanban effectively. Some of the most popular ones include:

Popular Kanban Tools

  • Trello
  • Asana
  • Jira
  • LeanKit
  • Kanbanize

Books and Courses on Kanban

To learn more about kanban, there are several excellent books and courses available. Some popular ones include:

  • "Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business" by David J. Anderson
  • "Kanban from the Inside" by Mike Burrows
  • "Kanban Fundamentals" on LinkedIn Learning

Online Communities and Forums

Finally, there are several online communities and forums dedicated to kanban, where participants can share best practices, ask questions, and learn from each other. Some popular ones include the Kanban University, the Lean Kanban Conference, and the Agile Alliance.


Kanban is an effective method for optimizing workflow and promoting continuous improvement. By visualizing work, limiting work in progress, managing flow, making process policies explicit, establishing feedback loops, and promoting continuous improvement, teams can increase productivity and improve the quality of their work. Whether you're a product manager looking to optimize your workflow or part of a development team looking to improve your processes, kanban is a powerful tool that can help you achieve your goals.