4 Important Kanban Principles to Remember When Leading an Agile Team

What is Kanban?

Kanban is a method developed by industrial engineer, Taichii Ohno, who inspired lean manufacturing at Toyota Production System. It is a visual system that uses cards or boards to monitor work items more easily, while also providing insights into the progress made at each stage of work. Kanban boards can be used to visualize both the workflow and the limits of WIP (work in progress).

While it works best with consistent, similar-sized packages of work, it can also easily be adapted to various Agile practices. In this article, we’ll look at the basics of the Kanban method and some of the benefits of value as it applies to leading an Agile team.

The Kanban method takes designated elements of work and places them onto a visual columnar table posted in a common space for a work team. Acting as an information radiator, the Kanban board makes it easy for the team (and others) to see the current status of all current work items and for the team to see who is responsible for what at any given time. It is very fluid and flexible. Whether done with formal software, such as Jira, or sticky notes on a wall or whiteboard, the work items are easily seen and reassessed constantly depending on where they lie in the current workflow. The number of columns can vary by project based on needs and preference. Bare minimum, the Kanban would have three columns: Backlog, Work-in-Progress (WIP), and Completed. A sample is shown below.

Example of a Kanban Board
Example: Kanban Board

What are the Kanban Principles?

There are 4 principles of Kanban, which assist in creating the Kanban Board and help to ensure that the team is always working on the most valuable tasks. They are: Visualize the Work, Limit the Work in Progress (WIP), Focus on Flow, and Continuous Improvement. Let’s take a high-level look at each.

4 Principles of Kanban
4 Principles of Kanban

Visualize the Work

By putting the work items into an easy-to-read visual it becomes much simpler to see where items currently reside in the workflow, who is responsible for doing the work, and what has been completed. The sticky note format of a Kanban work item will contain only a few summary pieces of information such as a high-level work description and currently assigned individual. The nature of Agile requires the ability to add work items quickly throughout the life of the project. Kanban boards can be adapted to include prioritized work not yet being addressed (Product Backlog) as well as work currently being focused on (Sprint/Iteration Backlog) to accommodate this flexibility.

Limit the Work in Progress (WIP)

Kanban is a Pull rather than Push System. Similar to an ideal Just in Time activity, limiting the work in process helps to prevent overload on the team and allows the team to enjoy quick wins without a sense of never being able to get to it all. This helps with focus by minimizing the number of moving parts constantly being pushed onto team members and can even allow for team members to self-select the work they will do…something that is a key element of many Agile disciplines, such as SCRUM. In the Daily SCRUM meeting, one of the questions that each team member answers is: what are they committing to work on for that day? Kanban works well for this. As each team member designates the work item(s) they will work on in the morning, their name can be added to the work item, it can be pulled from the Backlog/Pending column on the Kanban Board, and everyone knows who has it so you avoid duplication of effort. If a team member gets stuck on a piece of work and is unable to complete it, they can set it back into the Backlog/Pending column, pick another piece of work, and someone else on the team can then pick up the initial piece of work for completion.

Focus and Flow

Leveling the work of a team helps to address the waste of waiting. By having the finite Backlog/Pending items, as team members complete work they simply reach back to the list and grab an item they are prepared to work on. It also helps to address the peaks and valleys of work that often occur. Combined with a WIP cap, the team can avoid the debilitating pressure of a mountain of work being pushed onto them. That sense that you can never catch up can undermine morale and result in negative impacts from lowered work efficiency to turnover. At the same time, using the Pull approach ensures work is ready when the team is which helps to minimize the efficiency loss of waiting and, possibly even more critical, prevent boredom when there simply isn’t enough to do. Despite the fact that Agile enhances the ability to accommodate rapid changes in work items to meet the evolving business needs and definitions of value, a sense of consistency is very beneficial to the team’s focus and morale. A consistent flow of work allows for the team to celebrate quick wins, which narrows and enhances focus and builds the sense of accomplishment…both of which encourage the sense of ownership Agile seeks.

Continuous Improvement

Many organizations struggle to focus on Continuous Improvement under the constant push to get more done. Lessons Learned on many projects fall to little more than a check-box exercise at the end of a project where whoever is left tries to remember something meaningful sounding that might have been learned only to ship that document off to some esoteric location never to see the light of day again. By building Continuous Improvement into the DNA of Kanban an emphasis is clearly placed on the team striving to get incrementally better driving toward a goal of near perfection. This applies directly to the 12th Guiding Principle in the Agile Manifesto. The best ideas often come from the people closest to the work. Big Bang change, as noted by James Collins in his book Good to Great, tends to fail under its sheer weight. Having the team constantly on the lookout for ways to make processes and product quality better, including regular touchpoints (i.e. Sprint/Iteration Review meetings), helps to demonstrate the value being placed on Continuous Improvement by leadership and allows the team to make small, incremental improvements. Because the team is constantly doing this and management is actually listening, the team’s sense of ownership of the work processes grows. Just a 1% improvement per week will result in greater than 50% growth over a year even without compounding interest.


The principles behind Kanban are simple, but their impact is profound. By using a visual board to track work items and limiting the amount of work in progress (WIP), teams can optimize their flow and improve their productivity. Additionally, by emphasizing Continuous Improvement, teams can make small, incremental improvements that result in significant gains over time. Taken together, these principles make Kanban an excellent choice for teams looking to adopt an Agile approach.

Whether a true Kanban board or a modified version such as a SCRUM Board, the basic principles of Kanban fit so cleanly with the Agile values and principles that it may seem like they were literally made for each other. Easy to use, easy to learn, and simple flexibility makes Kanban an excellent addition to your team’s Agile toolkit. To learn more about the principles behind an Agile project management approach, agnostic of a particular framework such as Scrum or Kanban, consider a 1-day training course on Agile Fundamentals, hosted by Project Management Academy.

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Stephen Hoogerwerf, PMP
Stephen Hoogerwerf, PMP