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Your Guide to Kanban Software Development

When you think of Kanban, do you imagine a wall littered with colorful sticky notes? Or do you get the urge to brush up on Japanese? As more IT vendors embrace the Kanban software development approach, even more misunderstandings and misinformation is spread around. While Scrum is a widely-known and accepted Agile project management methodology, Kanban possesses multiple advantages over it.

Today I will take you through the basics of Kanban, explain the benefits, and outline potential problems. By the end of this post, you will know for sure whether Kanban is the right choice for your project.
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What Is Kanban Software Development?

Kanban was not initially developed for software engineers. Instead, it was a Toyota Production System that was later implemented across a variety of industries and became one of the Agile methodologies widely used in software development.

You might have heard that Kanban is only acceptable for specific stages of the project, such as quality assurance, maintenance, or customer support. However, I will show you that Kanban is a universal tool, and up to 40% of software development teams are successfully using it to create and launch projects across a variety of scopes and industries.

Kanban software development is grounded in three simple principles:
Workflow visualization
Physical Kanban boards and software tools, such as Trello, provide all members of the team with a clear understanding of the project's current state, bottlenecks, and necessary course corrections.
Work in progress (WIP) limitations
Every column on the Kanban board, regardless of their number, comes with a maximum limit. These limitations prevent the team from taking on too many tasks at once and ensures a seamless workflow for every job.
Workflow enhancement
Time to completion is the most crucial metric in Kanban, and the primary goal is to reduce this parameter. Improved workflow shortens the development timeline and produces continuous results at a steady pace.
kanban, software, development

What Makes Kanban Software Methodology so Popular?

Kanban software development reduces waste by removing activities that do not add value to the project. According to David J. Anderson, the author of Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business,

"Reducing coordination and transaction costs is at the heart of Lean. It is waste elimination in its most potent form. It allows smaller batches to become efficient. It enables business agility. Reducing coordination and transaction costs is game-changing."
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When I think of Scrum, the first thing that comes to mind is an endless number of meetings, discussions, and retrospectives. All are vital to this project management methodology, but they take up at least two days of a two-week sprint. A quick calculation will show that the team spends 20% of their time in meetings instead of producing results. Kanban eliminates the majority of these activities and significantly reduces overhead. It translates into more effective use of your budget. And you don't have to participate in as many scrums and meetings when one look at the board tells you everything you want to know about the state of the project. However, the team remains in constant communication, and feedback loops are critical to ensure everyone is aware of the roadblocks and bottlenecks as soon as they occur.

Agile Kanban software methodology is uniquely flexible and adaptable.

You would never hear the end of it from Scrum master if you introduce changes in the middle of the sprint. However, Kanban has no set time limits and can adapt to scope and priority changes extremely fast. By shuffling the cards through columns and altering their priority status, you alert the team of your wishes, and they can address the new situation immediately with no need to wait for the new sprint.

Increased throughput and fast delivery of individual tasks are other benefits of Kanban software development. The WIP limits nurture the "done" culture by preventing team members from taking on more tasks while other issues are not ready yet. By making the engineers focus on a limited number of assignments, Kanban prevents multi-tasking that decreases efficiency. However, the desired efficiency increase is only possible if the development team works on one project without having a large "background task" that makes it impossible to tell when the developers are idle.

If your Kanban board is done right, the bottlenecks should be obvious at a glance. Whenever one of the columns hits its limit, you know the team needs to reassign resources and work on the tasks that are stacking up. The flexibility of Kanban ensures the team members can swarm the workflow-blocking issues, analyze and resolve them before returning to other tasks. This advantage of Kanban is only possible if you set the WIP limits right and avoid increasing them whenever the team hits maximum.

Done right, Kanban reduces the idle time for individual team members, making the development cost-efficient.

The list of tasks ready for development should always be full so that team members can pull from it at any time. Additionally, whenever individual developers have time, they should automatically switch to assignments from the column that has reached its WIP limit. No one can tell for sure what the limits should be for your project, as they should always be tailored to your goals, team size, and skill set. Traditionally, the number of tasks at one Kanban stage should be smaller than the number of team members. In this case, they can embrace Agile best practices and deliver quality results faster.

Can Kanban Software Projects Go Wrong?

People do not trust easily, and they want to be sure your solution is safe and stable. Every error and bug reduces your credibility and causes customer churn.

The Kanban software development process is not perfect or flawless. Like any other project management methodology, Kanban possesses flaws that can cause problems unless they are addressed throughout the development process. I can think of at least four ways your Kanban project might go wrong:
  • Without Scrum Master, project managers or software engineers might forget to update the Kanban board regularly. Outdated information will cause misunderstandings and stall the development process until someone finds the errors and corrects them. To prevent this issue, the development team should possess self-discipline and an established Kanban routine that ensures the board always reflects real-time information.
  • The teams used to Scrum might make the Kanban board overly complicated. Instead of using a smaller number of bigger tasks, companies may prefer to create individual cards for every tiny assignment and divide them among a dozen columns, making the board unreadable. If you want to avoid this issue, settle on a Kanban board layout before the project is underway.
  • Without sprints traditional to Scrum, project managers might be unable to estimate the deadlines for individual phases or the final deadline. The lack of scrums, meetings, and reviews in Kanban often makes managers nervous and causes tension within the team. If you want to avoid potential troubles, do not choose Kanban for a project that has a set of exact deadlines.
  • Inexperienced project managers might resolve bottleneck issues by increasing the number of person-hours instead of embracing process optimization or promoting advanced engineering practices. Budget creep will be a result of poor management, along with an unclear delivery schedule. Preventing these issues relies on working with a qualified team and an experienced project manager who can harness the power of Kanban software development.

Is Kanban the Best Choice for Your Project?

Kanban software development employs visualization, WIP limits, and workflow enhancement, and it sounds great in theory. But is it right for your project? Consider Kanban for development, if:
  • You want to reduce project overhead wasted on meetings, scrums, and discussions.
  • Your project's scope and priorities are bound to change often, and you want the development team to remain flexible.
  • You want to see fast results and enjoy continuous delivery to assess the features as soon as they are ready.
  • You do not have the resources to hire a large development team and want to avoid bottlenecks and idle time.
  • You are ready for uncertain timeline estimates for individual tasks and features under development.
Most importantly, you should be willing to accept and embrace the principles of Kanban that differ from Waterfall, Scrum and other Agile project management methodologies. Once you do, the benefits of Kanban will become obvious.
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