Advanced Kanban: Optimizing Complex Systems

Advanced Kanban

Advanced Kanban: Optimizing Complex Systems

The Kanban tool  is an integral part of the Lean manufacturing system, known for its simplicity and efficiency. 

It originated from Toyota's production process, which means "billboard" or "signboard," and has been adopted by different industries as a visual workflow management tool. The Kanban lean manufacturing system is designed to improve work management by focusing on timely delivery and ongoing improvement. By displaying tasks on a Kanban board, teams can improve communication, reduce unnecessary work, and quickly identify problems.

Historically, Toyota created the Kanban methodology to control its manufacturing logistics chain. Taiichi Ohno found a solution to implement a system where production is based on customer demands. 

He took inspiration from supermarkets, which only stock what customers need and restock accordingly. Implementing this idea, Toyota introduced the use of physical cards called Kanban cards to signal the need for more parts between different stages of production. This allowed them to produce parts only when necessary, reducing waste and making their operations more efficient. 

Over time, Kanban expanded beyond manufacturing and adapted to different industries, transitioning from analog to digital platforms.

Understanding Complex Systems

Complex systems consist of many interconnected elements that interact in complex ways. These elements can be found in various domains, such as manufacturing, software development, project management, healthcare, and many other industries.

Kanban offers a simple and visual approach to managing complex systems that teams from different backgrounds can easily understand and implement. At its core, Lean Kanban Is a pull-based system that emphasizes the just-in-time (JIT) production philosophy to reduce waste and improve efficiency. The system can benefit manufacturing in several ways, from reducing inventory costs to improving workflow visibility.

Teams can create visual representations of their workflows to better understand and manage a complex system using Kanban. These visual boards typically consist of columns representing different stages or manufacturing steps, each represented by a card placed in the respective column, indicating its current status. 

One of the fundamental principles of Kanban is limiting the amount of work in progress (WIP) at any given time for each column. This prevents bottlenecks and maintains a steady flow of work. It also helps avoid overloading team members and ensures that work is completed before taking on new tasks.

Kanban encourages a culture of continuous improvement within teams. Regular meetings, known as "stand-ups" or "daily huddles," allow team members to discuss progress, share challenges, and identify potential improvements. This approach allows teams to adapt and optimize processes over time, increasing efficiency and better outcomes. 

Advanced Kanban Concepts

Kanban is a change management system that promotes gradual improvements to an existing process. Instead of making major changes all at once, it focuses on implementing numerous small changes, which helps minimize the risk to the overall system. 

The evolutionary nature of the visual Kanban system ensures that there is minimal resistance from the team and stakeholders involved. The initial step in implementing Kanban is to make the workflow visible. This is achieved by using a Kanban board, which can be a simple whiteboard with sticky notes or cards. Each note or card on the board represents a task.

In a classic Kanban board setup, you typically have three sections or columns:

  • To-do list: This column contains the tasks that haven't been started yet. It represents the backlog or a list of pending tasks.
  • In progress: This column consists of the tasks that are currently being worked on or are in progress.
  • Completed: This column includes the tasks that have been finished or completed successfully. It represents the tasks that are done or finished.

This simple visualization provides clear insight into how the work is distributed and helps identify any potential areas where progress may be hindered. Lean Kanban boards can display more detailed workflows depending on the complexity of the process and the necessity to visually analyze and address specific parts of the workflow to eliminate obstacles.

Kanban in Different Environments

Modern businesses must address complex issues and challenges efficiently to remove bottlenecks and prevent unnecessary delays. By closely monitoring processes, project and department managers can gain a more insightful picture of the issues, how to address them, and when to move on. Management can customize Kanban to suit users' preferences and requirements in various ways. Here are a few examples.

  1. Kanban in Software Development

    Kanban is widely adopted in software development because it improves productivity, collaboration, and efficiency. Software teams can create Kanban boards to visualize tasks, track progress, and identify bottlenecks. 

    By limiting work in progress (WIP), Kanban helps prevent overloading team members and ensures a smoother workflow. Kanban boards enable communication between developers, testers, and stakeholders, promoting transparency and faster feedback loops.

  2. Kanban in Manufacturing

    The principles of Kanban can effectively optimize manufacturing processes across various sectors. By implementing a pull-based system, where work is initiated based on customer demand, Kanban helps reduce inventory, minimize waste, and improve overall efficiency. Visualizing the production flow and setting clear limits on work in progress enable manufacturers to identify constraints, balance workloads, and improve production cycles.

  3. Kanban in Healthcare 

    Kanban is a valuable tool in the healthcare industry where smooth and efficient processes are critical. From managing patient flow in hospitals to optimizing supply chains in pharmaceutical companies, Kanban provides a visual framework to streamline operations. Medical staff can better organize their tasks, prioritize care, and reduce wait times by visualizing patient status. Additionally, Kanban boards can manage inventory levels, ensuring that critical supplies are readily available when needed.

  4. Kanban in Marketing and Advertising

    Marketing and advertising organizations can greatly benefit from Kanban. Marketing can use Kanban boards to track campaigns, projects, and deliverables. By visualizing the status of each task, team members can collaborate effectively, align their efforts, and meet deadlines. Its flexibility allows marketers to adapt to changing priorities, adjust strategies, and ensure that campaigns are executed smoothly across different channels.

  5. Kanban for Personal Productivity 

    Beyond organizational settings, Kanban can also be applied to improve personal productivity. Individuals can create personal Kanban boards to manage tasks, set priorities, and track progress. By visualizing their workload, individuals gain a clear overview of their commitments and can avoid overwork or underwork. 

Advanced Kanban Metrics and Analytics

Key performance indicator (KPI) metrics are the lifeblood of any effective agile project management. They play a crucial role in tracking a team's progress and performance using the Kanban methodology. Four important metrics in Kanban lean manufacturing provide valuable insights into the workflow: lead time, cycle time, work-in-progress, and throughput. Let's explore these metrics to understand how they help monitor your team's performance and progress.

  1. Lead Time 

    Lead time measures when you add a new project to the Kanjan board to the point where the team marks the task as completed. It gives project managers a complete picture of how long tasks take to move through the Kanban workflow.

    This metric gives project managers a complete picture of how long tasks take within the system, helping them plan better and allocate resources effectively. 

  2. Cycle Time 

    Cycle time focuses on the duration of the "active work" phase in the Kanban system, measuring the time between a team member's beginning of a task and its completion. Task cycle time begins when the task enters active workflow, regardless of the start date.

    By analyzing cycle time, you can assess your team's efficiency and determine if any improvements are needed during the active phases of tasks.

  3. Work-in-Progress

    "Work-in-progress" refers to the number of tasks currently in the active or in-progress stages within the Kanban system. It indicates the amount of work ongoing at any given time and gives a snapshot of tasks that are neither in the backlog nor complete. 

    Monitoring work in progress is important to balance the workload and identify bottlenecks. Ideally, team members should focus on one task at a time.

  4. Throughput 

    Throughput is the number of tasks or work items your team can complete successfully within a specific time frame, such as a day or a week. It measures the team's productivity or output over that period. This metric is essential as it directly reflects your team's productivity levels. It helps you make informed decisions about future task assignments and project timelines.

Scaling Kanban

Kanban emphasizes gradual progress rather than sudden change. It allows you to begin from your current state without disrupting your existing processes or roles. You can continuously improve and customize the Kanban system to suit your specific situation.

Many believe that Kanban's principles and practices are beneficial for improving team process efficiency. However, it's important to note that no specific book or guide on Kanban states the method can only be applied within teams.

You can effectively plan and track tasks, limit work in progress, manage flows, make process policies explicit, implement feedback loops, and improve collaboration at every level of the organization, regardless of their complexity.


Kanban visual system is a flexible framework that helps teams visualize and improve their workflow. It focuses on the steady movement of tasks through different stages. Work is pulled when there is capacity, allowing for variability in work item sizes and priorities. Kanban boards track task progress, and they are a handy tool for teams with variable workloads and frequent changes who want to optimize their workflow without making drastic process changes.


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