Kanban: To be or not to be (Agile), this is the question

Shakespeare and Agile Discussion

The phrase “To be or not to be, that is the question” is one of the most famous in world literature, originating from the play The Tragedy of Hamlet, usually abbreviated simply as Hamlet and written by William Shakespeare between 1599 and 1601. It’s interesting to observe how a brilliant work with countless other aspects is remembered for a line from one of its characters. Something similar has been happening with the Kanban Methodology since 2015, involving discussions about whether or not it is considered agile.

The Controversy Surrounding the Kanban Methodology

The fact is that there has yet to be a consensus on this issue among the renowned authors in the field or among the members of the community themselves. To convince those who hold views contrary to their own, various authors and community members have generated articles, lectures, live events, and posts, among other content.

The Influence of Language on Agile Methodologies

In a scenario of intense uncertainty, the adage “against facts, there are no arguments” is a way to focus on agreements rather than disagreements. The issue becomes even more complex when the discussion takes a step back for alignment on the definition of related terms but without the same meaning, like Agile/agile in English, where the same word has a different meaning if written with a capital or lowercase letter, or Agility and Agile Methodologies in Portuguese.


Agile Manifesto and Scrum

Created between February 11 and 13, 2001, one of its 17 signatories describes that they began to self-name their respective software development processes as Agile Methodologies. Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland are another two signatories who, according to the Scrum Guide (another reference entirely accepted and respected by the community), were the creators of Scrum. Based on the above, the definition that Scrum is an Agile Methodology is fully settled.

Understanding Scrum and Its Practices

According to the definitions of the Scrum Guide, Scrum is a lightweight framework that helps people, teams, and organizations generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems; it is intentionally incomplete, only defining the necessary parts to implement the Scrum theory; it allows various processes, techniques, and methods to be employed with the framework. And supported by these definitions, most companies add other practices to Scrum, whether agile or not, such as Planning Poker or the Kanban Board with its To Do, Doing, and Done columns.


The Role of Kanban

The Different Faces of Kanban

The characteristic of a simple change in the first letter of the word completely changing its meaning is not exclusive to the term Agile/agile, as the term Kanban/kanban also has this particularity—the terms Kanban/kanban are used in industrial production (mainly automotive).

Kanban’s Origins and Applications

The term Kanban (with an uppercase K) is used to indicate a materials management tool that, in addition to controlling inventory, also manages the entire production of an industrial plant. It was developed by Taiichi Ohno in 1953 at Toyota, based on a signaling device through cards that authorize and instruct the production or withdrawal of items in a pull system. Kanban’s main functions within a process are to keep inventory to a minimum and allow visual control for the execution of activities with precision. Some hospitals for example use Kanban for drug inventory control.

EXIN logo over a person working on a Kanban board (blurred background).

Deep Dive into Kanban: Cards, Boards, and Methodology

Introduction to Kanban Methodology

The term ‘kanban’ (with a lowercase k) refers to the card used in the Kanban tool (uppercase K). A kanban request specifies the type and quantity of the product that the subsequent process should take from the preceding one. In contrast, a kanban production order specifies the type and quantity of the product that the preceding process will need to produce.

Understanding the Kanban Board

The term ‘Kanban Board‘ refers to the location of Kanban tool cards. However, it also pertains to the traditional ‘To Do‘, ‘Doing‘, and ‘Done‘ board, used for various purposes such as organizing the items of the backlog of a Scrum iteration sprint and personal/professional task organization, among others. Before office computerization and the popularization of the Kanban board, secretaries used a desk mailbox for this document organization.

Finally, Kanban Methodology, within the scope of the EXIN Kanban Foundation certification, was developed in 2004 by David J. Anderson and has since been continually improved in pursuit of continuous improvement. It focuses on managing the flow of deliveries through metrics tracking and can be used in any area.


Kanban and Agile: The Symbiotic Relationship

The Intersection of Kanban and Agile Methodologies

While there is yet to be consensus on whether Kanban Methodology has the right to be considered as an Agile Methodology, its symbiosis with other Agile Methodologies such as Scrum, which leads to an improvement in the flow of deliveries. This combination is even authorized by the Scrum Guide, which allows various processes, techniques, and methods to be used with the Scrum framework.

The Kanban Methodology was created by David J. Anderson’s studies on Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s theory of constraints. It goes beyond the simple use of visual cards and Kanban Board, aiming to manage work instead of the people performing it.

Leadtime: A Key Kanban Metric

Taiichi Ohno, in his 1978 book “Toyota Production System: Beyond large-scale Production,” stressed observing the timeline from when the customer gives us an order to when we receive the payment. This referred timeline is one of the metrics of Kanban Methodology, called Leadtime, which is keenly focused on being reduced through the optimization of flow and waste elimination.


Conclusion – Effectiveness Over Nomenclature

When analyzing any methodology, the main question to be answered relates to its effectiveness and not its jargon. This explains the the Kanban Methodology’s secret to success, which is based on various other methodologies that have prospered in their different application areas, as well as its ability to symbiotically tie into other methodologies, agile or not.

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Alysson Ribeiro
This article was kindly provided by Alysson Ribeiro, Consultant, manager, professor, instructor, and speaker. He works as a PMO as an outsourced worker in a public agency. Holder of 22 international certifications, 13 of which were obtained through EXIN. Official instructor of Unicit for the CAPM, Prince2, Agile SHIFT modules, and various EXIN modules: ASM, DevOps Professional, ISFS, PDPE, PDPF and PDPP, Blockchain, Lean Six Sigma and Kanban.