Of the different project management methodologies available to businesses, KanBan is one of the most interesting, and effective. This style of lean production dates all the way back to the 1940s, when Toyota was inspired by supermarkets. They observed that grocers refilled their shelves based on the inventory in their store rather than the supply of their vendors. Toyota realized this was an excellent way to match supply to demand. And so Kanban was born. Loosely translated as 'visual signal', Kanban methodology revolves around visualizing your organization's workflow so that you can identify bottlenecks, and respond accordingly.

Despite being around for well over six decades, the Kanban Method for managing production, or in this context projects, only came back into fashion in the mid-2000s, mostly due to the work of author David Anderson. While many organizations implement the Kanban method for software development, this methodology can help nearly any department identify bottlenecks. Some of the top project management software organizes workflow through Kanban methodology, but it's important to understand the core principles before vetting solutions.

It all starts with cards.

Visualization and Other Core Principles

To create a visual representation of your workflow, the Kanban Method involves creating rows and columns on a board, through which cards move. The cards represent projects, while the rows represent respective employees. And the columns? They identify which stage of the development process the project currently resides.

By simply visualizing your workflow on a Kanban board, bottlenecks will become more apparent as cards begin to pile up, which leads to the next core principle of Kanban: limiting work in process and managing the flow of work.

Once you understand where your bottlenecks are, it's time to limit the number of projects you have in your pipeline, so you can work out the kinks in your system. The Kanban Method advocates the use of empirical data to identify hang-ups, rather than simply relying on anecdote.

Once you have data directing your change management, your organization can move on to one of the final phases of Kanban: iterative and continuous improvement. Perhaps Kanban's most interesting characteristic is the freedom it gives teams to innovate within the context of their workflow. In contrast to other types of project management that favors a top-down approach, Kanban relies on the employees within the project team to innovate and introduce changes..

And as the projects change, Kanban will continually measure the effectiveness of your workflow against each new project, leaving the door open for continuous improvement in each phase.

Industries That Use Kanban Methodology

Though Kanban originated in manufacturing and supply chain management, numerous industries have found this hands-off, just-in-time methodology useful for managing their projects. Software development, in which different departments and team members create software modules and interfaces, is a prime example.

However, it is important to note that many software development departments also utilize the Agile Method, which entails one to four week sprints. This work cycle isn't a part of the Kanban Method.

Here are two other industries that have seen a benefit from Kanban.

Game Development

Particularly relevant for businesses given the rise of gamification, game development works well with the Kanban Method due to the significant number of specialists required to properly complete the production of a digital game. Consequently, many sub-projects and tasks are very hands-off, allowing the specialists to develop the graphics, music, and interface of the game.

Again, in a nod to the difference between Kanban and Agile, the extreme specialization needed in game development doesn't work well with the cross-functional teams that agile advocates.


While media companies need to be agile in the sense that they must respond to changes in the news landscape with lightning speed, they aren't Agile in the sense that they apply that particular methodology. Instead, Kanban allows the multitude of small tweaks and fast product cycle to happen without the impediment of a fixed schedule. In fact, speed to market is critical for the survival of media companies, so working within a rigid time frame is almost always impossible.

The just-in-time delivery of Kanban makes perfect sense with the breakneck speeds at which media companies work.

So while Kanban may have originated on the assembly line, organizations that need to identify bottlenecks quickly, and distribute work to departments with as few obstacles as possible are finding a use for this management methodology.