What Is Kanban in Project Management?

Man with stick notes
Sticky notes can be used to plan. Phil Boorman/Cultura/460705777/Getty Images

Kanban is a visual project management and scheduling method. Organizations use Kanban to control various logistical elements, such as inventory levels, during a production process. In terms of project management, Kanban allows a project team to identify team members and their current responsibilities, as well as the current completion stage of each project component, all at a glance.


Often referred to in conjunction with “Lean” or “Just-in-Time” production, the Kanban method emphasizes efficiency overabundance.

It is an example of a “pull system” where people move work through production based on existing customer demand. In contrast with conventional project management and manufacturing methods, which drive workers to continually complete as many outcomes or create as much product as possible, Kanban focuses on actual requirements in real time.

When implemented well, a Kanban approach to project execution has many benefits, such as significant increases in productivity, better product quality, less waste, and an improved work–life balance for the team. If those factors are important to you, consider how you may be able to implement the Kanban method or its principles into your next project.A History of Kanban

First Implementation of Kanban

Kanban (かんばん) is a Japanese word that means “signal” or “signboard.” The Kanban method was first implemented by Taiichi Ohno, an Industrial Engineer at Toyota, as part of the company’s renowned production system, which inspired the Lean Manufacturing movement.

Ohno and his colleagues were inspired by American supermarkets, which seemed to stock only as many items as a day’s customers needed. Toyota’s industrial engineers sought to bring the same measure of efficiency to their assembly line.

Toyota’s first Kanban solutions controlled the replenishment of inventory.

The company’s goal was to keep its inventory levels low, but always adequate to meet demand for parts. In manufacturing environments like Toyota’s, Kanban often takes the form of a multiple bin arrangement, where cards signal the need for parts replenishment.

For example, if the number of bolts in a bin on the manufacturing floor falls under a red line, a worker sends a card back to the nearest inventory bin of bolts. Perhaps this next bin is in a stockroom near the manufacturing floor. The card is then returned to the shop floor, along with the parts. When that stockroom bin hits its red line (i.e. visual ordering trigger), someone there then sends a different card farther upstream the supply chain. It is a literal pull system.

As other companies caught on to Toyota’s process, the Lean movement began and soon spread beyond manufacturing to other departments and types of businesses. As a result, people started to use Kanban in types of work that do not involve physical inventory. Today, professionals around the world regularly use Kanban in marketing, services companies, healthcare, engineering, accounting, and project management.

In the realm of project management, Kanban does not apply to project planning as much as it is a tool to optimize project execution.


The Beauty of a Pull System

Pull systems, whether in manufacturing, retail, knowledge work, or anywhere else on the value chain, are called lean and agile because they minimize inventories and allow the production system to change as quickly as possible as demand changes. In other words, they provide you only what you need—no more, no less—when you need it. This minimizes cost because less partially completed work gets caught in “bottlenecks” in the system. It also reduces waste due to obsolescence. Obsolescence is what happens when the requirements or customer needs change between when you start to create something and when the work is finished. 

Benefits of Kanban in Project Management

  • The Kanban system optimizes for a continuous flow of value-added work, from start to completion. It can be the fastest way to deliver value frequently, which can be a major competitive advantage in business.
  • Kanban limits work in progress, which limits multitasking—which, in turn, improves project quality.
  • Kanban lets project managers reprioritize plans and deliverables at any time based on new information such as a changing business climate or increased customer demand. This flexibility is what’s frequently referred to as agility: an organization’s ability to shift course at a moment’s notice with little to no wasted effort or material.
  • Kanban allows a whole team to visualize their work from beginning to end. It thereby enhances collaboration, as it leads to better transparency and accountability.
  • Kanban exposes bottlenecks in work processes.
  • Kanban supports continuous improvement (read more about improving through project lessons learned).

Obtaining these benefits means two things: implementing a Kanban Board and, more importantly, changing the behaviors of a project’s team and management.