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A brief history of agile project management with Kanban

Guest Blogger: Dan Fries

Where did the modern practice of agile project management derive from?

While a few TED talks about agile project management touch on the subject of who learned it from whom – for example, whether the idea derived from the agile software development methodology defined in 2001 – but a review of the history of these approaches is inconclusive.

The real point is that a chicken/egg topic of origin discussion is mostly a waste of good breath. What really matters is the observation of methodologies that work and how they can be successfully adapted or emulated across various fields.

Let’s take a look at some historical uses for agile project management and Kanban.


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Kanban project management during and after WWII

Quite a few of the personnel management strategies used throughout the 20th century came from observations of Allied units fighting during World War II. Following the American occupation of Japan, business leaders from the United States learned from the management styles applied in that country.

Theory Z of personnel management, for example, eventually replaced the micromanagement styles of the Reagan era. As for enterprise planning, American automakers were quite impressed by the Kanban project management system of Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer whose expertise was embraced by Toyota.

In Japanese, Kanban roughly translates to “board”, which can be a whiteboard or a billboard. This planning system is highly visual because it involves the use of cards posted on the Kanban board and manipulated according to a set of management rules. Interestingly, British military aircraft factories during WWII used a system that was similar to Kanban; had the Japanese Imperial Navy and its air service used such a system, the outcome of that terrible armed conflict may have been different.

Kanban project management in manufacturing

The Kanban management system was initially implemented with manufacturing in mind, but it has expanded to other sectors in the 21st century. Agile software developers naturally integrated Kanban to their methodologies, and corporate project managers quickly followed suit. Heavy adoption of data visualization has been a staple of modern enterprise, and this fits perfectly into the Kanban system.

Before delving into how agile project management can be enhanced by Kanban, it helps to review the principles of this system:

  1. The daily workflow must be visualized in such a way that it displays context. This is the “to-do” aspect.
  2. The work in progress must be balanced for the purpose of making the flow as even as possible. Depending on the project, this may require estimating when teams or individuals will complete tasks or reach milestones. This is the “doing” aspect.
  3. The workflow must be enhanced in a way that allows teams and individuals to work on the next most important task once the current one has been completed. This is the “done” aspect.

In addition to the above, project managers who choose Kanban as part of their agile methodology should communicate to their team members that improvement is meant to be a continuous goal. In other words, workflows can be upgraded by means of discussion when tasks are completed.

Kanban project management in action

As can be expected, Kanban is heavily used in Japan. It is taught in a matter-of-fact way to school children because they are naturally attracted to its visual structure and colorful cards. Because of this early adoption, and because Kanban project management is very intuitive controlling workflows, this methodology appears in a variety of capacities in many different industries.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Example 1: Kanban for manufacturing

At Toyota plants in Japan, Kanban was initially implemented with paper cards that would be attached to auto parts. Speaking of visuals, imagine assembly line workers at the Motomachi plant putting together Toyota Corolla models in the 1960s, their tasks are guided by color-coded cards attached to plastic bags containing the exact number of bolts required to attach the water pump to the engine. The card may also contain information about how to obtain or order more of these bags if needed.

Tokyo Imperial Palace

Example 2: Kanban for crowd management

At the majestic Tokyo Imperial Palace, visitors are issued plastic cards as they begin the tour. Japanese locals likely know that they are being managed by a Kanban system, but foreigners may not be aware that palace guards are controlling the flow of visitors since the number of cards is limited according to capacity.

Example 3: Agile software management with Kanban

Let’s say a contractor is looking for 10 enhancements to her custom human resources software, and she needs them completed in two months. The developers explain that they can realistically deliver six enhancements within 60 days. Upon agreement, a Kanban board is created, using five columns that represent project stages and six rows that represent each of the enhancements. The five columns are derived from agile project management and are labeled as follows:

Next > * Analysis * > To Develop > * To Accept * > To Deliver

When a row item corresponding to a Kanban card progresses to “To Accept”, developers meet with the client to demonstrate the enhancement. Reactions are duly noted for the purpose of improvement, which will be implemented for the next Kanban card representing another enhancement. If the workflow improves and the project can move faster than the agreed upon 60 days, another realistic discussion can take place about when the remaining four enhancements can be delivered.

Choosing the right Kanban board for project management

Not all Kanban management systems require the use of a board. In theory, they may not even use cards. It is possible for a project manager to hold a meeting with her trusted team and plan a simple assignment without any visual aids. In fact, an infantry squad leader may choose such an approach to execute a tactical patrol route. If the leader intends to stay in place, the Kanban board can be drawn on the sand and later erased for operational safety. Notwithstanding these examples, Kanban boards are useful tools that beg to be incorporated into agile project management.

Kanban Project ManagementIn essence, the Kanban board is used to “pin” cards depicting progress. As previously explained columns represent stages and the cards are actual assignments or work items to be completed, and the visual flow moves from left to right. Let’s say a corporate human resources team is tasked with implementing a new interviewing and screening policy within a week, an agile way to manage the project planning could be:

Meet and Discuss > * Write Policy * > Deliver to Principals >
* Communicate to Team * > Monitor and Enforce

If all the HR team members are expected to be in the office within the week of the project, the Kanban board can be created using a localized, digital platform such as MindManager. Should remote team members need to be involved, however, you can hold video conferencing sessions where you screen share your MindManager Kanban board with all attendees. As a group, you can discuss roles, progress and timelines and build out your Kanban board in real time. You can then publish the Kanban board through MindManager, and send the link to all team members for use throughout the project.

If the project contains sensitive information, or changes to policy that you don’t want leaked out to the team too early, it is better to publish a password-protection Kanban board and set up credentials that limit role-based access and enhance privacy A potential drawback of physical Kanban boards, which digital project management platforms such as MindManager can help prevent, would be cards with sensitive information getting lost.

Advanced agile project management with Kanban

Extremely complex projects can be managed with agile approaches that feature Kanban systems. Once again, digital project management platforms may be preferred because of the amount and complexity of project data associated with larger tasks.

If the project features more than 10 Kanban cards, project managers using Post-It notes on a whiteboard could be at risk of losing information. This is not an issue with a digital Kanban system. While it is true that the U.S. Air Force was known to use physical Kanban cards and plastic bags as recently as 2008, this is a military branch where discipline rules the workplace.

In the end, it should be noted that not all principles of Kanban may precisely correlate with agile project management. Kanban does not generally favor prescribed roles, and there is no predetermined need for speed. To this end, it is up to project managers to check which aspects of their chosen methodology can be visualized with Kanban.

Whereas Kanban is very open to changes because they may not interfere with the movement of cards from the left to the right column, agile projects are better in terms of making batches of priorities and completing them as soon as possible.

History has shown that most work teams react favorably to Kanban project management. The same cannot always be said about agile project management because some team members may be used to other methodologies. Company culture will always determine how to mix these two strategies, but friction is less likely to happen when the digital Kanban board is rolled out, and tasks are presented to the team on easy-to-use cards.

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