What Is Kanban Project Management?

The project management world is awash in strategies and methodologies. Among them is something known as kanban. As a relative newcomer, kanban project management takes traditional waterfall project management and puts a visual spin on it. Kanban can be a good option for teams that are not entirely sold on the pure waterfall model but find agile management too unstructured.

To understand the kanban strategy, it is important to understand where it came from. Kanban management is a form of lean project management which, in turn, is a form of the body of knowledge (BOK) strategy developed by the Project Management Institute (PMI).

Improving on the Waterfall

The PMI came up with BOK as a means of improving on the traditional waterfall model. Waterfall project management divides projects into a series of incremental steps. Atlanta-based Janiko Group says that waterfall management is the most well-known project management model in use today.

A big downside to waterfall management is being unable to move on to the next step until the previous step is complete. The PMI solution was to replace steps with phases. They went on to define clear rules for each phase so as to produce more reliable deliverables that would enable project management to proceed at a faster pace.

Improving on BOK

Toyota took the BOK principal and improved on it by creating a project management strategy that focused on three core principles: eliminating waste, limiting excess inventory, and avoiding overburdening employees. They called it lean project management. This is the model from which kanban was birthed.

The kanban model follows the same basic principles of lean project management. Its main difference is how progress is tracked. Kanban management relies on a visual tool known as the kanban board. A kanban board can be either physical or digital, though it is mainly digital these days.

Visualizing a Project

Kanban project management is easy to recognize thanks to its visualization. To start with, all of the work in each of a project’s five phases is subdivided into small, manageable tasks. Each of those tasks is visualized with a marker on the kanban board. Tasks are assigned to individual team members who work on nothing else.

Each task is visualized on the board as either ‘to do’, ‘in progress’, or ‘done’. The three categories are generally represented by three different colors. Tasks move across the board throughout a project’s life, making it fairly easy to learn the status of the project simply by looking at the board.

More Focused, Less Multitasking

There are many different strategies for governing project management. Managers preferring the kanban method often praise it for its greater focus and less multitasking. This may run contrary to the way we tend to think in the modern era. We tend to associate multitasking with greater productivity. But that is not always true.

For many types of projects, multitasking actually harms productivity. It is far better for team members to focus on one task at a time. That’s the strength of the kanban method. With each team member being assigned a single task, the entire group is collectively focused. Under a multitasking scenario, each team member is forced to worry about too many things all at once. Distractions increase and productivity suffers.

Kanban project management is the hottest thing in the project management world right now. Its proponents say it is the ideal management strategy for any and all projects. That’s not really true, but it does work very well in a lot of situations. Kanban succeeds by way of visualization and task focus. When it works, it tends to work very well.