Lean vs kanban: Which should you use?

Work has changed a lot since the advent of the information age, and the makeup of the workforce has evolved with it. In 2019, the number of knowledge workers worldwide passed 1 billion. Today’s most valuable companies don’t manufacture tangible products or mine resources — they drive technological innovations that make our lives better.

The way we organize and measure this kind of work is different from the processes and success metrics that ruled the industrial age, requiring major updates to how we manage work.

That’s why, during the software development boom of the 1990s and 2000s, a number of technologists developed new workflow methodologies to better organize their teams and projects. Collectively, these systems are generally referred to as agile and include methodologies like scrum, lean, and kanban.

These workflow management techniques helped developers and programmers create the software that made the information age possible. As more and more work becomes knowledge- and technology-based, these methods are finding wider applications in business operations, finance, sales, and marketing — pretty much every type of work that involves recurring and repetitive processes.

Two of the most popular workflow methodologies are kanban and lean. Each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses and applies best to specific situations. When it comes to lean vs kanban, which one should you implement?

An overview of kanban

Kanban is a Japanese word that means “signboard” — a name referring to the visualization that sets it apart from other methodologies. Back in the 1950s, Toyota wasn’t quite the powerhouse it is today. To compete with U.S. automakers like Ford, a Toyota engineer named Taiichi Ohno created a manufacturing process that prevented waste by ensuring products were only made as needed.

The biggest challenge was finding a way to signal when it was time to produce more of a particular item. Ohno implanted a signaling mechanism directly into the process itself. He attached a kanban card to each product that would stay with it through the entire manufacturing process. Once the product was finished, a worker would take its card back to the beginning of the manufacturing line to signal it was time to produce another one.

This method was then adopted by software developers in the 1990s, who updated kanban workflows to suit their purposes. Kanban proved incredibly beneficial for creating new product features, fixing bugs, and handling other types of recurring, request-based processes.

In a modern kanban workflow, all work is displayed on a kanban board. On it, a project is broken into multiple board columns to represent different stages (usually “to do,” “in process,” and “done”).

Kanban cards represent specific tasks, and their position on the board indicates their status. This visualization helps team members understand how to take each item through a workflow and how much they have on their plate. Similarly, an outsider can look at a kanban board and see a project’s status without asking anyone for an update.

Another defining feature of the kanban workflow system is the limit on work in progress, which dictates how many items can be in process at any given time. Unlike an assembly line where work is fed to employees, kanban workflows empower workers to “pull” work into their task list according to their capacity. This improves focus by reducing context switching, allowing employees to work more efficiently and with less stress.

When you’re considering lean vs kanban, think about whether your organization’s projects would display well on a kanban board.

An overview of lean

Whereas kanban manages recurring processes, the lean methodology is best at creating new products and business ventures. Software developers created lean to reduce the time between ideation and delivery of a minimum viable product (MVP).

In traditional workflows, developers would come up with an idea for a new program or software improvement, build it, and deliver it. However, if they hadn’t developed the original idea enough, then the product wouldn’t fare well in the market or even survive the building process. Meanwhile, development costs piled up with no way to recoup them with a product.

The lean methodology, on the other hand, emphasizes experimentation and evaluation to create a minimal viable product. This ensures product development teams deliver real value to customers rather than execute an idea that’s not worth pursuing. To keep projects from getting lost in the weeds, lean emphasizes a number of principles for developers to focus on.

One of the most important of these is innovation accounting. Most companies are able to measure their success based on revenue and number of customers. For startups formed around nothing but an idea, innovation accounting keeps teams focused on less tangible success metrics that can determine their potential value.

For example, a startup with a minimal viable product is doing better than a startup still in development. Other metrics, like cycle time, can also help teams assess their performance.

Sometimes, even with a lot of careful research and ongoing improvements, a product doesn’t pan out. Thankfully, lean development culture also embraces major business pivots. Following the methodology, Groupon famously pulled itself from the ashes as a failed activism app to become a multi-billion dollar company.

Lean vs kanban: Which one is best for your team?

Both kanban and lean shine in different circumstances. It might not be a matter of choosing between lean vs kanban, but instead using the different methodologies based on your needs.

Lean is great for quickly developing new products and bringing them to market. Kanban helps teams maintain and improve products once they’re already in production.

Your team can implement both of these workflow methods with a tool like Jotform Approvals. Through Approvals, you can develop a form-based workflow with conditional logic, automatically routing forms to the appropriate team members. You can also generate automatic email notifications about changes in product status.

Best of all, Jotform provides customizable forms that integrate seamlessly with agile workflow management platforms like Trello and Jira. It also integrates with Zapier for even more robust capabilities. Jotform can help you build a workflow that allows your organization to do its best work.

Photo by George Milton

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