Kanban basics from A-Z in IT outsourcing (Part 1)


The last 20 years have observed the booming and rapid adoption of Agile software development. Through our last post Agile software development at a glance, we know that Agile refers to a collection of lightweight frameworks and practices, like Scrum, XP and Kanban, that are widely-embraced due to their versatility and effectiveness.

Together with Scrum and XP, Kanban is the next commonly adopted practice in both on-shore and offshore software development outsourcing settings. The latest 12th Annual State of Agile report (2018) shows that the “use of Kanban grew from 50% to 65%” from 2016-2017 alone. Kanban is also believed to be the “best method for executing lean thinking in practice”. As a result, Kanban is one important Agile methodology that Axon Active has been applying since our inception in 2008.

kanban board and software outsourcing teamwork

Use of Kanban board provenly enhances software outsourcing teamwork.

What is Kanban? What are the benefits of using it? How to learn more about Kanban? This article will give you the answers to some of your most basic questions about Kanban, particularly in software outsourcing industry.

1. What does “Kanban” mean?

The word “Kanban” comprises “kan” and “ban”, which literally mean “visual” and “card” (“board”, or “signal”) in Japanese. Generally, Kanban means visual board, signboard or visual signal. Kanban methodology is widely known for the use of Kanban board – which makes use of visuals, or cards on a white board or glass wall. In IT outsourcing (ITO) industry, Kanban is increasingly employed to enhance the effectiveness of Scrum and other Agile methodologies.


2. What is Kanban board?

A basic Kanban board includes three columns, based on 3 basic types of tasks: to-do, doing, and done. Kanban board gives visuals of how tasks progress in the development cycles as they move from column to column.

Kanban board is not confined to one single team or one iteration. In fact, it promotes the visualization of the whole workflow and encourages the collaboration of individuals in a team and collaboration of multiple teams across many functions and organizations.

kanban board: to-do, doing, done

Basic Kanban board version

The power of Visualization Scrum Breakfast Vietnam event in Da Nang (Vietnam) by Axon Active.

“The power of Visualization” Scrum Breakfast Vietnam event in Da Nang (Vietnam) by Axon Active

3. Elements of a Kanban board

Kanban board. to-do(backlog), doing(WIP), done

Elements of a basic Kanban board

3.1 To-do

Items in To-do column is called backlogs. Backlogs are tasks, or to-dos, that clients and development teams have in mind that need to be completed. Backlogs can be a breakdown of a bigger ambitious plan for the software, and there is no upper limit for backlogs in To-do column.

Advanced application

Some companies afford a Stories or User Stories column before To-do to give development teams better pictures of where the backlogs come from.

3.2 Doing

Items in Doing column is called works-in-progress, or WIPs. Unlike backlogs which are not constrained by an upper limit, WIPs needs one to make the whole process work efficiently.

In practice, people may habitually start off a project with 10 tasks, but they normally fail to get all 10 tasks to Done in the end. Delays in software development cost both clients and development teams time, money and other resources, while hurting client’s trust. This is when limits on WIP come to the rescue. WIP limit sets the maximum work items that a developer is handling and to accomplish at a time.

Benefits of WIP limits

Successful application of WIP limits guarantees development teams two seeable benefits:

  • It encourages monotasking mindset and avoid multitasking – which wastes the team 50% more time in generating 50% more mistakes. Time and time again, studies by Stanford University, Iowa State University, and McGill University show monotasking workers score much higher indexes of productivity and performance than their peers. Obviously, using Kanban allows teams to deliver products of much higher quality and boost client’s trust in team’s capabilities.
  • WIP limits help a team-member to stop starting new tasks and start finishing pending WIP, normally postponed due to unexpected obstacles (“bottlenecks”). In Scrum work environments, Kanban is usually incorporated; and in such a case, bottlenecks are easily revealed through daily stand-up meetings (daily Scrum) and resolved much more fruitfully with the help of other team members or whole team’s effort.

Advice of Axon Active expert

According to Scrum Alliance expert and Axon Active’s CIO Sebastian Sussmann (2019), it is important to note that a board without WIP limits in Doing is not a Kanban board. With the use of WIP limits, development team leaders and members can quickly revisit the team’s most valuable work and redirect their focus on the most important tasks at hand.

And because of this, Axon Active’s ICT team has applied Kanban over the years to develop and maintain some of the most stable and secure offshore IT infrastructures. This enables our development teams to solely focus on creating values for our clients.

multitasking = 50% more time + 50% more mistake
Devday 2015. mr Sebastian Sussmann's topic agile project manager in it

Scrum Alliance expert and Axon Active’s CIO Sebastian Sussmann

Advanced application

In certain contexts, Doing can be jazzed up with smaller columns like Review, Deployment, or Testing, to help the teams become aware of work-progress in much more details. Columns like Pending can also be created for items that stumble upon obstacles that are not inclusive in the team’s scope-of-work and decision-making power.

hybrid kanban board. to-do, pending; in-process, doing, review, testing; done

An example of advanced Kanban board

3.3 Done

Items in Done has no special name; we just simply call it Done items. Once the items are moved to Done, that means they are completely accomplished and there’s no future follow-ups or turning-back to previous columns.

Advanced application

A few more columns in Done like Production, Delivery, or Approval can come in handy for teams of sales, marketing, or events functions. It is due to the fact that the needs to follow up production of marketing merchandise, delivery of products from one place to another, or management approval for production designs and costs are typically required.

3.4 Other elements and relevant terms

  • Swim lanes: Another way to visualize person-in-charge (or department-in-charge) and their tasks is by dividing the Kanban board with horizontal “swim lanes”. Swim lanes help managers easily spot each team member’s individual workload and how their work “flow” goes.
  • Avatar: a visual representation of the person-in-charge of particular tasks. Color code for different members’ cards can also be used.
  • Lead time: the total time length from when a task (ticket) is created in To-do until completed (Done).

In fact, lead time can be calculated using Little’s Law formulae (below, only for stable system with no bottlenecks – which influence the throughput). The law was originally invented by MIT Professor John Dutton Conant Little for service system but has been widely-applied in software development outsourcing industry.

average lead time (day) = avarage WIP/average thoughput
Lead time & cycle time. Lead time = to-do to testing. Cycle time = doing to testing.

  • Cycle time: the time counted manually by teams since a ticket starts being worked on until it’s finished. It makes product deliveries predictable for both teams and clients.

4. History

Kanban methodology originated from the Toyota Production System (TPS), which was invented by Toyota manager Taiichi Ohno in the late 1940s – early 1950s. TPS was a model borrowed from supermarkets’ logistical control system, aiming to reduce costs of excessive inventory by managing stocks at levels sufficient and in time for customers’ purchasing. TPS, or just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, did so through the use of cards to keep managers abreast with automotive in-stock supplies. It is interesting to know that till this day, JIT manufacturing model is still favored by Toyota, Harley Davidson, Dell, ZARA, Walmart, Oral-B, and McDonald’s.

taiichi ohno. Evolution of Toyota production system.

Taiichi Ohno (on front cover) and his book, Evolution of Toyota Production System (published in 2017)

Kanban boom

The booming of Kanban in software industry is marked by the publication of two books.The undeniable success of Kanban application in automotive manufacturing in the 1950s had convinced David J. Anderson to adapt Kanban to the software industry in 2004. When working on a project with Microsoft’s IT department, he had introduced Kanban to the team to help them visualize their workflow. This positive experience at Microsoft has led him to apply Kanban at Bill Gates’ Corbis from 2006-2007 (see Recommendations for Kanban learning resources section below for his free downloadable presentation on this occasion).

Here go the authors and their books that mark the booming of Kanban


Corey Ladas, former Microsoft’s software development manager

Corey Ladas, former Microsoft’s software development manager (Image reproduced from Corey Ladas’ Twitter account)

scrumban book by corey ladas

Scrumban – Essays on Kanban Systems for Lean Software Development by Corey Ladas (published in 2009)

David J. Anderson, now chairman of Lean Kanban Inc and Lean Kanban University in Seattle (USA)

David J. Anderson, now chairman of Lean Kanban Inc and Lean Kanban University in Seattle (USA) (Image reproduced from David J. Anderson’s Amazon author page)

kanban book by david j anderson

Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business by David J. Anderson (published in 2010)

Axon Active’s Scrum Breakfast Vietnam event, “The Real Life of Scrumban team”, enables workshop attendees to have an insightful understanding of how Scrumban teams work in practice.

Axon Active’s Scrum Breakfast Vietnam event, “The Real Life of Scrumban team”, enables workshop attendees to have insightful understanding of how Scrumban teams work in practice.

5. Kanban methodology versus Kanban board

There are two most important features of the Kanban methodology:

  • visualize the big picture of the entire workflow and business value chain from start to end, i.e. from even before the development process happens (such as business problems of customers that give rise to the need of developing requested software products), through the development period, to whether the post-development outputs bring any relevant business values for customers
  • quickly identify the entire workflow and exactly where the problems arisen to tackle them in a timely manner; by this, the flow is optimized.

Although Kanban board helps carry out these important features of Kanban methodology, it is not Kanban methodology.

6. Local optimization and Global Sub Optimization

6.1 Local optimization

Kanban methodology demands users to uptake a lean mindset that reduces wastes and increase delivery outputs in quantity and quality on both local and global scales. If each team in a local outsourcing company can visualize its workflow and the individual workflow of team members and quickly determine the problems and resolutions to solve the problems, we may say that company can optimize its work effectively on the local scale (or local optimization).

6.2 The reality of IT outsourcing situation

However, ITO settings oftentimes – if not always, take place inter-continentally. This stems the need for global solution. Well, imagine a bike with broken brake and bent wheels with a pristine frame and a decent bell. The part of the frame and the bell are doing good jobs, but the whole bike cannot work as originally intended. Now, imagine a software that is good on its own, but doesn’t bring any values to customers’ business or help solve their clients’ problems.

This analogy shows that looking merely at the local scale won’t be efficient enough to work in an international business context, especially that of ITO industry.

6.3 Global sub-optimization

The Kanban methodology asks the users to also take into consideration the interactions and synchronization of itself and the bigger system where software development is just a single phase of its. This whole system can involve many departments:

  • the customers where the software being developed comes into play
  • the customers’ clients who use the product after the development process is over
  • and of course, the workings of the development teams and any other factors (or departments) that brings about the success of the software being developed.

Once there is local optimization in each part of the system on the local scale, it will naturally lead to global effectiveness of the whole value chain, also called global sub optimization.

Axon Active – We do agile, we speak agile.

Axon Active – We do agile, we speak agile.


In the next article, Kanban basics from A-Z in IT outsourcing (Part 2), we are going to explore the characteristics, values, and core principles and practices of Kanban methodology. We will also discuss the motivation for Kanban use, as well as challenges when using Kanban among the practitioners. 🙂

Axon Active – the offshore partner you’re looking for

Axon Active is a tech firm from Switzerland with years of experience in developing agile software and applications for web and mobile platforms. We are the only organization in Vietnam offering official Scrum Alliance’s Certified ScrumMaster and Certified Scrum Product Owner certifications. The exclusive Scrum and agile coaching sessions have enabled distinguished clients like Soreco and CRIF, among others, to successfully adopt Agile working methodologies and observe major digital transformation over the years.

Looking for a well-versed, reliable offshore software outsourcing partner? Learn more about how to start software development outsourcing and let us know how we can help!


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