Kanban basics from A-Z in IT outsourcing (Part 2)

In the last article Kanban basics from A-Z in IT outsourcing (Part 1), we have gone through the definition of Kanban, introduction of the use of Kanban board, its elements, the history of Kanban methodology, as well as distinguishment between Kanban board and Kanban methodology.

In this article, we are going to look deeper into Kanban’s characteristics, values, core principles and practices, and the industries Kanban is currently in use.

7. Characteristics of Kanban methodology

Kanban’s WIP limits are built upon pull system (a lean manufacturing strategy) for reduction of waste. At Axon Active, our ICT team has made use of Kanban methodology to effectively manage their ever-increasing number of “tickets” (aka WIPs) that need them to tend to on a regular basis. It is obvious that the use of Kanban board allows Axon Active’s ICT team to easily visualize their own workload as a team and individually, and spot and reward high-performance team members. This in turns motivates other team members to be on par with the high-performance ones by working better – in terms of quantity and quality of their tasks. In the end, Kanban methodology motivates the whole team to achieve more, improves team performance, and enhances team spirit.
Kanban board flow. To-do to doing to done.
All of these are possible thanks to the WIP limits and pull system, which can be understood in the various ways below:

Characteristic 1: Continuous improvement

In the traditional push system, supermarkets offer customers what they already have in stock. And supplies are typically overstored compared with the buying demands, overburdening supermarkets with excruciating inventory costs.

In the pull system, creation of a product is only initiated based on demands and is always kept up with customer requirements and preferences. This enables continuous improvement in the development of products, reduces waste (time, money, labor), and enhances productivity and customer satisfaction.

Characteristic 2: Customer focus

In push system, goods are ready-made and the one-size-fits-all products cannot fit buyer demands exactly. With pull system, companies get a chance to learn carefully about customer’s requirements for a product before making it. Pull system enables teams to generate products snugly-fit with client’s preferences and easily win client’s heart for future business.

Characteristic 3: Stop starting, start finishing

As mentioned early, the WIP limits gets the teams to stop starting (new tasks) and start finishing (current WIPs). As a result, they have to monotask. In other words, they can only “pull” new Todos to Doing when the Doing column gets freed up. According to Agile Alliance, Kanban works especially-perfect with intangible work process.

Characteristic 4: First in first out

Kanban emphasizes first in first out strategy of the lean approach. That means the tasks which are initiated first must be “done” foremost. This eventually leads to elimination of long-pending WIPs and the resulted wastes of time, money, and labor. As a result, Kanban’s first in first out strategy eases the workload, shortens development-cycle time, speeds up production, and allows software teams to make continual deliveries to customers.

Characteristic 5: Predictability

WIP limits and Cycle time, which can be easily counted by teams, give Kanban workers and clients the “predictability” of when a task is done. This allows the teams to make different kinds of estimates and planning ahead to customers. It’s important to note that “there is no such thing as 100% predictability” (, 2013) and “a reliable prediction method [like Little’s law] can only function on the basis of a stable system” (Klaus Leopold 2017, p.19).

Characteristic 6: Versatility

Compared with Scrum, RUP, or XP, Kanban does not require time boxes and leaves a lot more “elbow room” for flexibility when changes happen. For that reason, Kanban is the most adaptive (rather than prescriptive) Agile methodology.
Fit For Kanban training courses provided by Axon Active in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang.

Fit For Kanban training courses provided by Axon Active in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang.

Characteristic 7: Slack

a. Traditional look on “productivity”

From management’s perspective, it has been a good working attitude for many years to see everyone in a team “as busy as a bee” all the time. They also believe that it’s a good practice to ram as many tasks as possible to the teams and push them to go fast. Because it feels like all resources (labor, time, and money) are utilized to the best of their capacities.

However, this push system of working has proven to only produce more valueless items (or “wastes”) time after time. A study on four internally-developed projects at four companies using traditional engineering approaches conducted in 1996 by The Standish Group in the Modernization Clearing a Pathway to Success report has found that among the functions and features studied, only 7% were always used while 45% were never used. It means the traditional mindset on productivity is not really practical in bringing the effectiveness and efficiency it was once thought. As a result, a new way of looking at productivity was necessary.

b. Limited capacity and capability

While push system imposes the expectations management have on the teams, pull system respects the reality of the team’s limited capacities and capabilities.

Let’s imagine the working of a printer. It is obvious that we cannot expect the machine to print faster than the speed it goes. Otherwise, there’s only yelling, frustration, paper jams and a dysfunctional machine! Or let’s look at the road system. The heavier the traffic is, the more frustrated drivers feel, the more yelling they do. And yet the flow of vehicles move on the roads cannot be sped up any faster, if not being stuck in one place. Or, does eating a lot get you to digest faster? What you’ll get is indigestion and a cranky mood, indeed!

In these cases, maximized resource utilization equates to a constrained workflow. And it is true for any organism or any system, including a software development team. Once we push too much work, it will burden the whole system and make it dysfunctional and cease to work.

c. Definition of slack

Slack is the culture where that’s OK for people to not have something to do with the project at certain times. It is a “real useful” approach for traditional problems mentioned above. Though “slightly counter-intuitive”, it is shown that some idle sitting or slacking off in development teams are necessary to balance out the need to optimize resource utilization and minimize wastes for management’s sake and to maximize valuable outputs to customers’ advantage. Slack makes sure the flow of work is efficiently, constantly “flowing” where “slacked” members are ready to work on tasks in the iteration, while resources are utilized according to the flow’s requirements.
flow is more important than resource utilization.

Pull system’s top priority is to make sure the flow is actually “flowing”, whether or not resources are used up to the max.

d. So what do “slacking” members do, actually?

Waiting for their turn to handle their part of the task, like a paper in a printer waiting for its turn to be used!

More precisely, team members use slacking-off time to find faults in the working of the project, help out their colleagues who might be stuck with bottlenecks, code tools or think of ways that generally improve the whole team and the efficiency of the whole workflow.

e. Benefits of slack

In this way, slack allows team members:

  • to freely “pull” the items they have the capacities of doing
  • to have room to “pull” items into the workflow however fast they want

For teams who use Pull, they enjoy two slack’s apparent benefits:

  • the slack or freedom to tackle work the ways that suit them best
  • the job leadership that enables teams to own their work, and move the work-items through the workflow faster.

f. How fast is right?

It’s important to note that the term “fast” doesn’t equate to “speedy coding” or “running faster” literally. In the lean approach of pull system, fast is achieved by eliminating wastes along the way. How?

There are 3 things this lean approach encourages development teams to do:

  • Have continuous, conscious reflection on the values of tasks at hand: “What am I doing right now?
  • Streamline work flow by removing work items that do not bring values: “Does this item really matter to customers?
  • Only focus on valuable jobs that’s worth their attention most: “Now I see what I should focus my time and effort on!

8. Kanban values

Kanban value. Customer focus, transparency, collaboration, workflow continuity, job leadership, self motivated learning, harmony of opinions.

According to Agile Alliance, Kanban’s effectiveness is enhanced thanks to the following values:

  • Focuses on customers
  • Increases transparency: Kanban increases the visibility of workflow in an open and straight-forward way for clients and team members
  • Improves collaboration between team members, and between clients and team members: It is due to the improved visibility of workflow and better collective understanding of work
  • Enhances continuity of workflow: Which is thanks to Kanban’s abilities of quickly identifying bottlenecks stumbled upon by teams and encouraging frequent feedback loops from clients
  • Motivates on-going, self-motivated learning capability and job leadership among team members for continuous, evolutionary improvement of products to happen.
  • Presents ample opportunities for reaching balance and respect for different opinions and capabilities from different perspectives in order to succeed

To see how Kanban can be used in practice, see Kanban in your daily work presentation by Axon Active’s CIO Sebastian Sussmann.

axon active values

Besides the 4 corporate core values (honesty, passion, reliability, and transparency), some Kanban values are also inclusive in the vaster picture of Axon Active values.

9. Kanban’s core principles and practices

Kaizen. Improvement refinement betterment.
There are 6 core principles to Kanban that have been applied by high-tech professionals:

  • Visualize your workflow with what you do now
  • Limit WIPs to produce more valuable work
  • Manage and enhance workflow by frequently revealing and overcoming bottlenecks together as a team
  • Make policies obvious for everyone to follow
  • Continuously learn and take work leadership across all levels throughout feedback loops
  • Make non-stop improvements and evolutionary changes (or Kaizen) using methods and models

agile training courses june 2018

Kanban is one important Agile practice at Axon Active.

10. Motivation to use

10.1 For individuals

According to a study by Ikonen, M., Pirinen, E., Fagerholm, F., Kettunen, P., & Abrahamsson, P. (2011), Kanban is highly favored by IT pros because of a number of reasons:

  • Users believe Kanban is bringing positive changes to their work.
  • The methodology is super easy and simple to learn and use.
  • It is suitable and flexible for users of many different backgrounds.
  • Kanban is adopted because of peer-pressure.
  • The practice is used because the business contexts of users encourage them to do so.

10.2 For teams

In multiple surveys in 2016 and 2017, Kanban helps solve challenges frequently-faced by teams. Some of the outstanding benefits when using Kanban in team contexts, as shown in the table below, includes:
kanban benefits

  • Better visibility of work (with 91% of surveyees either agreed or strongly agreed)
  • Improved development flow (86%)
  • Reduction in WIPs (81%)
  • Improved team communication (81%)
  • Improved team collaboration (78%)

10.2.1 In collaboration

  • Kanban supports better project visibility and project management by bringing the visibility of work to light and emphasizing monotasking mindset. For that reason, Kanban allows development teams to respond and make fuss-free adaptation to changes.
  • Kanban reduces project delays thanks to the first in first out and stop starting, start finishing strategies mentioned in early passages.
  • Kanban promotes equal work distribution as the board lays out clearly who is doing what, whether a work item is compatible with one’s capability, and whether they would need help from other team member(s) to reach the overall goals faster and more efficiently.

10.2.2 In communication

  • Kanban makes sure miscommunication is cleared out of the way. For example, development teams, oftentimes located in the non-English speaking countries, can learn meanings of vocabulary used by their clients that are new to them. Kanban can also avoids misunderstanding of pronunciation and accent differences between regions.
  • Kanban board lays out all the follow-ups needed to be done up front and helps team cater sufficient number of tasks and deliver precise performance for clients.
  • Digital Kanban boards allow clients to be kept in the loop of the project status and keep development teams abreast of client’s feedback instantaneously, despite of time-zone differences.
  • Kanban reduces the meetings that aim to clarify information communicated from clients to development teams, although meetings are still crucial to keep everyone on the same page and increase team spirit.


11. Challenges

11.1 Challenges to use Kanban methodology

Although Kanban proves to give Scrum and other Agile methodologies a boost of effectiveness and efficiency, it does have some limitations worth looking at.

A study of experienced Kanban users from 27 companies by Muhammad Ovais Ahmad, Jouni Markkula, & Markku Oivo in 2016 and another study by Maureen Tanner & Marcelo Dauane in 2017 have shown that there are three major reasons responsible for improper Kanban conduct at workplace.

Challenge #1

It’s the lack of proper training and the resulted misunderstanding of the method. According to the survey, Kanban is predominantly taught through peers and colleagues. “If a set of people have a bad habit, that habit is often duplicated by those they train”.

Challenge #2

The second challenge is the lack of management dedication for Kanban. It is because managers and leaders who are inclined to this behavior are fond of the traditional methodologies and practices and consequently refuse to change.

Challenge #3

The third is the lack of proper preparation before introducing Kanban to the teams. This makes team unfamiliar of the right Kanban practice and therefore unable to decide and respect WIP limits, which play a crucial role in project management success.

11.2 Kanban methodology as a challenge

According to Hamzah Alaidaros, Mazni Omar, & Rohaida Romli (2018), there are three reasons that make Kanban itself a challenge for teams.


By nature, Kanban does not require specific time schedule as in the case of Scrum, which makes use of sprint’s time boxes. As a result, this makes it easy for teams to lose track of and fall behind schedule. However, this challenge can be overcome by incorporating Kanban with – or using Kanban to enhance, other Agile methodologies which is normally the case.


WIP limits are difficult to decide because there is no formula that can help the team decide the optimum WIP limits. Fortunately, this challenge is only confronted in the beginning. As the teams become increasingly well-versed in Kanban, they will eventually learn to decide and flexibly adjust WIP limits that work best for them case by case.


And last but not least, it’s trust issues. As mentioned in the early passage, one of Kanban’s most outstanding characteristics is slack. Which means any organizations and managers who support the use of Kanban in work environment should also learn to trust in their team’s focus on the work and capabilities to deliver performance to the best of their capabilities.

12. Industries using Kanban and recommended Kanban tools for ITO

12.1 Industries

applications of kanban in various industries
Kanban is flexible in application and therefore used within many industries, such as:

  • Automotive and motorcycle manufacturing
  • Information technology and software development
  • Video games and media
  • Finance
  • Fashion retails
  • Fast-food
  • FMCG
  • Among others

12.2 Kanban tools for IT outsourcing

Kanban board can be done in two ways, physically and digitally, which serve equally-important roles in today’s flexible work settings. In fact, physical Kanban board works best internally: for team members or cross-functional teams who meet one another on daily basis in a physical work place.

In the meantime, digital Kanban board suits better with offshore software vendors and clients because of the far distance and online communication mode predominantly-employed by both sides. Some useful digital Kanban boards of our recommendation includes Jira, Trello, and Asana. Of course this is, by no means, an exhaustive lists of currently-available Kanban tools out there 😉 ! Feel free to explore for yourself!

Finally, it’s also important to note that Kanban tools should be treated as a means for support of problem-solving, but not the solutions to problems per se. Because in the end, it’s the human factor and interactions among Kanban team members that matter.


Through this Kanban basics from A-Z in IT outsourcing blog series, you are now equipped with the most fundamentals of Kanban to see how simple and yet flexible and effective an Agile methodology can be – in theory and in practice. Don’t forget to scroll down to see our recommended Kanban learning resources at the bottom! We hope they will come in handy in your journey of exploring and applying Kanban successfully!

If you missed out the first article of this blog series, head for Kanban basics from A-Z in IT outsourcing (Part 1) to get introduced to Kanban.

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 you!

Recommendations for Kanban learning resources

It is important to get to know about Kanban inside out before you can pull it off. Follows are some of our recommendations for Kanban learning resources.
agile software development & testing with scrum

An Agile coaching session, Fit For Kanban, provided by Agile offshore software development outsourcing company Axon Active

a. Local training workshops

Joining events and short-term training couses like Scrum Breakfast Vietnam, Fit for Kanban, and the like is a useful way to broaden your horizon on Kanban, interact with like-minded people locally, and learn from experienced experts of Kanban and other Agile frameworks. Keep yourself abreast of when such an event is organized near you through Axon Active’s news site, Scrum Breakfast Vietnam’s Facebook, or Scrum Breakfast Vietnam – Agile and Scrum’s Meetup now!
how to apply lean kanban scrum breakfast vietnam

How to apply Lean-Kanban for your business workshop organized by Axon Active

b. Websites

As published on Toyota’s website:

c. Videos

d. Downloadable materials

Kanban Roadmap: How to get started in 5 steps, by Leankit (click for free download)


kanban roadmap
­­Essential Kanban Condensed, by David J Anderson and Andy Carmichael (click for free download) kanban condensed
A Kanban System for Sustaining Engineering, a presentation at Corbis in 2006/2007 by David J. Anderson (click for free download) david j anderson microsoft presentation
Chapter 5: Little’s Law – By John D.C Little and Stephen C. Graves, Massachusetts Institute of Technology research paper, as published on MIT website (click for free download) little's law

e. Books

Books remain man’s best friends (besides dogs!) and that is why below are some interesting books for Kanban learning:

Evolution of Toyota Production System (2017)

By Taiichi Ohno


Evolution of Toyota Production System (2017) By Taiichi Ohno
Scrumban – Essays on Kanban Systems for Lean Software Development (2009)

By Corey Ladas

Scrumban - Essays on Kanban Systems for Lean Software Development (2009) By Corey Ladas
Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business (2010)

By David J. Anderson


Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business (2010) By David J. Anderson
Kanban in der IT: Eine Kultur der kontinuierlichen Verbesserung schaffen

By Klaus Leopold and Siegfried Kaltenecker


Kanban in der IT: Eine Kultur der kontinuierlichen Verbesserung schaffen By Klaus Leopold and Siegfried Kaltenecker
Stop starting, start finishing


Stop starting, start finishing By
Practical Kanban: From Team Focus to Creating Value

By Klaus Leopold

Practical Kanban: From Team Focus to Creating Value By Klaus Leopold
Help work to flow: 30+ tips, techniques and games to improve your productivity

By Samantha Laing and Karen Greaves


Help work to flow: 30+ tips, techniques and games to improve your productivity By Samantha Laing and Karen Greaves
Personal Kanban: Mapping Work/Navigating Life

By Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry


Personal Kanban: Mapping Work/Navigating Life By Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry
Real-World Kanban: Do Less, Accomplish More with Lean Thinking

By Mattias Skarin


Real-World Kanban: Do Less, Accomplish More with Lean Thinking By Mattias Skarin
Brain Rules (Updated and Expanded): 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

By John Medina


Brain Rules (Updated and Expanded): 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School By John Medina
Brain at Work: Intelligenter arbeiten, mehr erreichen

By David Rock


Brain at Work: Intelligenter arbeiten, mehr erreichen By David Rock

*Note: most books can be purchased from and


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