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Kanban (which literally means “billboard” or “sign” in Japanese) is a visual work management process that is supported — in some cases — by a visual “Kanban” Board. Since its inception, the concept has been adapted by many methodologies and frameworks, and includes many variations of the original Kanban Board and System.

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What is Kanban?

Kanban (which literally means “billboard” or “sign” in Japanese) is a visual work management process that is supported — in some cases — by a visual “Kanban” Board. Since its inception, the concept has been adapted by many methodologies and frameworks, and includes many variations of the original Kanban Board and System.

In Kanban’s first iteration, Kanban cards were used by Toyota to better manage inventory supply between machines. In traditional manufacturing (which is a “push” system), it’s relatively easy to know when the system is breaking down. Inevitably you see a pile of parts building up somewhere on the factory floor. Kanban was developed to prevent this from happening.

Here's how Kanban worked. Instead of every machine making parts as fast as it could, two carts were put between every machine. On one side were the two incoming carts, and on the other side were the two outgoing carts. Every cart had a "card" in it (hence the name Kanban), which said how many parts it could hold. So once an outgoing cart was full, it got sent to the next station. And once an incoming cart was empty, it got sent back to the previous machine to be filled again.

So obviously, if your incoming cart was empty, you couldn't keep working. But just as important, if your outgoing cart was full (and hadn't been replaced by the returning empty one) you also had to stop working — even if you had a full incoming cart.

This simple approach had several immediate benefits. First of all, it greatly reduced Work in Progress (WIP), and therefore inventory. It automatically adjusted the pace of work to match the slowest step in the process. And it ensured that any mistakes or errors were caught before they had been repeated too many times in an upstream process. In other words, the simple process — two carts with cards in them — made the factory run much more effectively.

What is Kanban Project Management?

Kanban project management is an agile methodology that helps teams visualize their work, improve efficiency, and achieve a smooth workflow. It originated from the Toyota Production System and has been widely adopted in various industries beyond manufacturing.

In Kanban, work items are represented as cards or sticky notes on a visual board divided into columns that depict different stages of the workflow (e.g., "To Do," "In Progress," "Done"). Team members move these cards across the board as they progress through the workflow.

How does a Kanban Board work?

On a basic Kanban Board, sticky notes are used to signify work and what phase the work is in (e.g., Backlog, Work in Progress, and Completed). There are a number of rules that manage the use of a Kanban Board such as no one person can have more than one (or two if one is blocked) items in WIP at the same time. As another example, once someone completes a task, the sticky note is moved to the right into the next phase and only then can the knowledge worker “pull” another sticky note from a previous step, or the backlog.

In software development, Kanban was introduced to better manage Iterations (or Sprints depending on the Agile framework you are using). The problem developers were finding with iterative development was suddenly they had a number of tasks to get done within an Iteration, but there was no way to manage the tasks, so they ended up working on many tasks at once.

With the use of a Kanban Board, Sprints or Iterations became more manageable. Developers could see where the work was piling up. They could also easily identify what needed to be done next, and only work on one or two tasks at a time vs. multi-tasking across many tasks.

Kanban and Agile Methods need to be adapted for hardware development

Although implementing traditional Visual Work Management or Kanban (manual or electronic) is usually better than nothing, there is a better way — combining the benefits of Kanban with a Gantt Chart.

Redesigning and rebuilding of hardware is a complex process

This simple Kanban system works well for work that always goes through the same steps in a process, such as software development. However, Kanban on its own falls short in more complex processes such as hardware development. Visual work management's early beginning and subsequent evolution in software development was relatively easy because of the unique properties of software development projects. But that’s not the case for hardware.

This previously written series provides more detail on the differences between Software and Hardware development. However in summary, hardware projects differ from software projects in the following ways:

  1. High variety of project and activity types
  2. The number and complexity of project dependencies
  3. Lead times and other forced ‘wait time’ within the processes
  4. Limited modularity (high impact of change across the design)
  5. Increased delay and total cost of the average change
  6. Increased number of development teams and team members working concurrently
  7. Larger variety of skills and knowledge — more specialists
  8. The cost of delay of a product launch can be in the millions

So, although implementing traditional Visual Work Management or Kanban (manual or electronic) is usually better than nothing, there is a better way — combining the benefits of Kanban with a Gantt Chart.

Read the series: The difference between hardware and software development

The benefits of Gantt and Kanban for Hardware Development

Gantt is not waterfall and waterfall is not Gantt

As stated above, Gantt Charts are not Waterfall and Waterfall is not a Gantt Chart. Activities on a Kanban Board can just as easily be laid out on a Gantt Chart with the added element of time and dependencies.

In hardware development, being able to visualize these added elements — time and dependencies — makes all the difference. In fact, it's a critical component to managing hardware projects as projects can last years and dependencies are manifold.

For example you can’t test a part until it’s been purchased and received. And if it’s not a standard part, it has to be made by someone. But it can’t be made until it’s been designed, approved, and purchased. The dependencies are almost endless. And many of those steps are done by people with different skills, in different departments.

Hence, we’ve adopted this approach to visual work management in Playbook.

As team size and variety of skill sets increases, the number of interactions increases exponentially, and so does the likelihood of communication breakdowns. In order to combat this increasing complexity, good processes and tools are essential for keeping everyone on the same page. That said, processes and tools cannot completely replace individuals and interactions. In hardware development we need both to achieve our goals.

Is Kanban Lean or Agile? Where does Scrum fit in?

Kanban is both Lean and Agile. As stated above, the concept of Kanban was born in Lean manufacturing. The concept and name was later applied by teams using Agile to better manage the flow of daily work that happens during a sprint. i.e. where sprint planning happens at the beginning of a sprint, and the retrospective happens at the end, the days in between are managed via a ‘daily scrum’ and Kanban is a great method to drive the daily scrums.

What is Scrum?

Scrum is the type (subset) of Agile development that institutes the concept of a sprint and the practices involved. Scrum is an iterative framework — the foundation of which is self-organizing teams that are created to solve development problems. Work is completed in small batches called Sprints and learnings are fed back into the system for the next iteration. Sprints usually last two to four weeks. Scrum generally uses a board called a Scrum board to manage the work, and the scrum board is often a Kanban board, though there are other types.

Playbook is Lean and Agile

Playbook combines iterative development, self-organizing teams, and daily meetings (Agile/Scrum) with both long and short-term planning. The benefits to this approach are that it supports principles that are critical to keeping projects moving forward, daily.

  1. Daily meetings, fast feedback and instant visibility of blockages
  2. Pull vs. Push task management
  3. Decentralized planning for self-organizing teams
  4. Managed capacity loading across teams and projects
  5. Correct priorities, daily to ensure the project stays on track - or finishes ahead of time

Decentralized and Rolling Wave Planning

Decentralized planning begins with defining the overall project at a high level, and then having the team members fill in the necessary detail in the near term phases of the project. Rather than pick an arbitrary two week time frame, the teams normally plan to the next significant milestone. Then, once the project is going, the teams utilize Rolling Wave Planning to update the plans on a weekly cadence and continue to add detail as necessary.The delivery of documentation is still required in hardware development. It has been the dream of mechanical designers for over twenty years now to never need to create another drawing. We are still dreaming. Slowly, we are getting away from it, but we are still at a point where many companies rely on drawings to procure parts. This is one example of documentation we cannot yet eliminate, though we will keep working toward it.


If you want to win at the game of hardware product development, combining the benefits of Kanban with a Gantt Chart is the winning combination for hardware teams. It ensures team members are tracking daily, without losing sight of the long term goal — an exceptional product, launched on time, or better yet, ahead of schedule.

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