What is a Kanban System?

Kanban System illustration image

“Kanban is just a board” – is one of the most popular Kanban myths. The truth is that the Kanban board is just one of the elements of the Kanban system. In this article, we will dig deeper into the kanban system's meaning and explore all the elements of it. 

Kanban System meaning 

In the Official Kanban Method Glossary Kanban University defines Kanban System as a model of a Kanban service delivery workflow. They also say that a Kanban system is designed using STATIK and contains the board, work items represented as tickets (cards), policies, metrics, and cadences.  

In this article we will provide you with the brief description of each of the elements of the Kanban system. We will also give you some tips on where you can learn more about each of them. So, keep reading to learn what the Kanban system really is! 

STATIK exercise in Kanban 

Let’s start where you should start when it comes to Kanban – with STATIK. STATIK means Systems Thinking Approach to Introducing Kanban developed by David Anderson, creator, and pioneer of the Kanban Method. This approach helps you understand how your system works to introduce Kanban in the right way. It allows you to see how a system behaves as a whole, but not the components of it in isolation.  

There are eight steps to follow to complete and introduce Kanban in an organization. You will use learning from one step to another to inform and influence the team in a collaborative environment.  

STATIK steps are the following: 

  • Step 1: Understand what makes the service fit for the purpose of the customer. 
  • Step 2: Understand sources of dissatisfaction with the current system (internal and external). 
  • Step 3: Analyze the demand. 
  • Step 4: Analyze the capability. 
  • Step 5: Model workflow. 
  • Step 6: Discover classes of service. 
  • Step 7: Design the Kanban system. 
  • Step 8: Socialize the design and negotiate implementation. 

Note that STATIK is applicable to each service. For multiple services, you will need to repeat the exercise. As a result, you will be able to design your Kanban system. Think about the system as a whole with its goal to improve the flow of value to customers.  

Download a STATIK step-by-step instruction by David Anderson from KMM+ for free. Create your free account to get access to a variety of free materials available for exploring or downloading.  

 

STATIK instructions for download illustration

Kanban board 

One of the main elements of the Kanban system is the Kanban board. According to the Official Kanban Glossary, a Kanban board is a visual display of cards that represent the work items in a Kanban system. Commonly, the Kanban board is arranged in vertical columns that represent activities. Some boards have horizontal swim lanes to further enhance the visualization of: 

  • policies (agreements you introduce to your process),  
  • types of work,  
  • classes or service (used for indicating the urgency of work),
  • other attributes that are important for the management of the work.  

You can also use color coding or other card elements (e.g., different decorators) for better visualization on boards. Cards move rightward from column to column and represent the progress of the work items moving through the system. Advanced boards can also have Work in Progress limits and other policies represented visually. 

The Kanban board should reflect the processes of the Kanban system. Boards help to visualize work, establish a clear workflow, make work transparent, and improve collaboration.  

There are different board types: 

  • Individual Kanban board. 
  • Aggregated individual Kanban board. 
  • Delivery Kanban board. 
  • Aggregated service delivery board. 
  • Upstream / discovery Kanban board. 
  • Project Kanban board. 
  • Portfolio Kanban board. 

However, this list is not exhaustive. If you'd like to explore more, you can check some physical Kanban board examples here. Learn what type of board you can introduce at each stage of the evolutionary development of your Kanban system – explore the Kanban Maturity Model Practice Map Poster on KMM+ (available for free subscribers). If you want to dig deeper into the topic of the evolutionary change using the Kanban Method, read the Kanban Maturity Model book (available online on KMM+) or join the Kanban Maturity Model course from David J Anderson School of Management (in English) or Kanban University (other languages available). 

Kanban board illustration

Kanban ticket (card) 

A ticket(also referred to as a Kanban card) in the Kanban system represents a work item, a deliverable, or its component resulting from the demand and placed in the system to be worked on by the service. Kanban tickets, as Kanban boards, help to visualize work and are a part of visualization practice, one of the 6 Practices of the Kanban Method. In fact, without the Kanban board and Kanban tickets, the knowledge work would be invisible.  

In the Kanban system, these tickets must be movable, so that they travel from column to another on the Kanban board and reflect how the work item progresses till the work on it is complete. This helps to see how much work is done and what the state of the item is before its completion. Certainly, to-do lists will never help you with that. 

Ticket design can reflect the following information: 

  • Ticket number (ID) in the system 
  • Time stamps to track the lead time (ex.: requested / start/end / due dates) 
  • Visualization of time spent or SLA (Service-Level Agreement) 
  • Checkboxes for subtasks 
  • Different decorators, marks, or avatars can be used to reflect risks, priorities, or dependencies on others or who is working on the ticket. 
  • Different colors of the ticket can be used to reflect different types of work/classes of service or parent/child dependencies. 

If the Kanban board design is good and we use Kanban tickets properly, just after having a look at it, the Team or Senior Management will be able to understand who is working on what, which items are blocked or waiting, what types of work are there, and how much of them we have at each stage of completion.  

Check out the examples of the Kanban ticket design on KMM Plus here (available for free subscribers). Explore more about the Visualization Practice from Chapter 10 of the Kanban Maturity Model book on KMM+ 

Policies 

Before we get to the Kanban policies, let’s explore the six general Kanban Method practices, which are: 

  • Visualize 
  • Limit WIP 
  • Manage Flow 
  • Make Policies Explicit
  • Use Feedback Loops 
  • Evolve Experimentally 

Therefore, making policies explicit is one of the General Kanban Method Practices. But what does it mean? According to the Kanban Method Glossary, explicit policies are an explicit description of various agreements that shape how the service delivery works. Kanban policies can reflect how work items move from one activity to another or can include how a team, individuals, and services interact with each other. 

Here are some examples of Kanban Policies: 

  • WIP Limits (at different levels). 
  • Capacity allocation. 
  • Pull criteria / Exit criteria.  
  • Definition of Ready for Implementation 
  • Replenishment Policies: How does the new work get selected? 
  • Standards/definitions of work item types, lanes on the board, ticket colors and layout, etc. 
  • Classes of service for defining how categories of items are treated in a system, etc. 

Indeed, Make Policies explicit is a simple, but powerful practice. To make them explicit, make sure they are concise, simple, well-defined, visible, always applied, and readily changeable. We advise you to make notes of decisions made during the Kanban system design workshop with STATIK. These decisions and standards you discussed will help you with your initial policies. 

Explore more: read Chapter 13: Make Policies Explicit of the Kanban Maturity Model book on KMM+. Or create your free account to get access to the selected content and downloads. 

Kanban Policies illustration

Kanban Metrics 

Metrics in Kanban are providing us with feedback on how a system is performing. Moreover, Kanban metrics are the core of your Kanban system and provide you with the most valuable knowledge about your process. Metrics help to make the Kanban System more efficient, identify problems and bottlenecks, and collect the data to create proper Service-Level Agreements with your clients. 

The most popular metrics are: 

Lead time 

Lead Time– it is the time it takes to fulfil requests from the commitment point till the point when the item is considered to be delivered. 

Delivery rate or throughput 

Completed items per unit of time, measure the completion rate. For example, according to our data, on average 15 work items go through our Kanban board from the commitment point till their completion in a week: delivery rate / throughput = 15 items/week. 

Levels of WIP in various parts of the system 

WIP = work in progress limit. The number of items in the system overall or in certain stages. For instance, a team can decide that given their capacity, they won’t have more than 3 items in the “In Progress” column = WIP for “In Progress” is 3. WIP can be applied to columns, swim lanes, or even the whole system (CONWIP = constant WIP). Your ongoing experience with the Kanban system will help you identify the WIP needed. 

Blocker-related metrics 

Reasons or conditions that prevent work from progressing, and their impact. You can include blockers in your ticket design and identify different types of them. It is a good practice to conduct a Blocker Clustering – to review and analyze your past blockers. As a result, it can help you identify problems in the system and decide if there is something you can do about it. 

Flow efficiency 

Flow efficiency in Kanban measures the share of total lead time which was spent generating value/knowledge. Hence, he higher the flow efficiency, the fewer delays.  

Quality

To measure the quality of service we measure the rate of requests delivered without the need to rework (first time right) to the number of all work items delivered per a period of time. Indeed, this is a valuable metrics to track as escaping defects will generate future failure demand (see below).   

Failure demand  

Demand generated because of previous poor-quality deliverables or demand that never should have been received. Examples can include poor requirements or defects during delivery that require rework.  

Discard / Abort Rates 

Items that were discarded before or aborted after the commitment point.  

Cumulative Flow Diagram (CFD) 

A chart showing the cumulative number of arrivals and departures of work items from each step in the workflow over a time period. CFD is a quick visual indicator of the stability and characteristics of the workflow in terms of amount of work in progress in the different stages. Even though CFD is a chart, it is often considered to be one of the Kanban metrics.  

To clarify, there is no need in having many metrics to start. However, you should be cognizant that “you get what you measure”, so a collection of metrics should be designed to avoid or minimize any gaming of the system while supporting the management of flow.  

Common visualizations of metrics used in understanding a Kanban system are: 

  • Lead time distribution. 
  • Lead time or delivery rate run chart. 
  • Cumulative flow diagram (CFD) 

Check out or download an Official Kanban Guide to explore more about the visualization of the core Kanban metrics.  

Kanban Metrics visualization

Kanban Cadences 

Cadences are different types of meetings or reviews providing feedback from one or more services to review, coordinate, or improve the work being delivered. To sum up, Kanban Cadences are aimed at controlling your feedback loops. You have probably seen the famous infographic of Kanban Cadences by Accredited Kanban Trainer and Coach, by Andreas Bartel (see below). It includes 17 meetings and reviews at different Maturity Levels. But don’t be frustrated – it does not mean you have to fit 17 more meetings into your agenda. 

Kanban Feedback Loops illustration

Have a closer look at this image and you will see that these meetings are aimed to control 7 main areas of feedback opportunities identified in the Kanban Method. Note that the second and third “layers” indicate different types of these meetings for each feedback opportunity depending on the maturity level of your Kanban implementation as it matures and evolves with time. This brings you to 7 Kanban cadences that will have different types of meetings for each one, depending on your maturity level.   

Explore more about feedback loops from the series of KMM Plus Talks videos with Andreas Bartel on KMM Plus YouTube Channel. Check the Feedback Loops poster on KMM+ (available for free subscribers) and the mapped content behind it to learn more about Kanban cadences meetings (first maturity levels are available for free subscribers). 

Build your Kanban system: Start where you are now! 

To summarize, building an effective Kanban system may not seem like an easy job. But the beauty of the Kanban Method is that you can start applying it anytime on top of any current process. “Kanban requires that some process is already in place so that Kanban can be applied to incrementally change the underlying process” says David Anderson, creator of the Kanban Method for intangible goods services. So, start with what you do now. Explore what Kanban practices you can apply already and evolve incrementally. 

To do that, check the Kanban Maturity Model Practice Map Poster. Find the practices that you may already have in your process and see what you can do next. Use the Kanban Maturity Model for guidance about the evolutionary approach in implementing Kanban. It will help you to avoid the two most common failure modes and evolve incrementally while improving the efficiency, quality, collaboration of your team, and transparency of your processes.  

Kanban works and that’s why its adoption is growing every year. Don’t wait on the sidelines - join the community of Kanban practitioners. Learn more about the Kanban Method on Kanban+ and start building your Kanban system now! 

KMM+ on Kanban+ to learn Kanban Method image

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