The History of Kanban
Ask a dozen professionals what Kanban means and you’ll likely receive different definitions and examples. Even the story about the origin of the word will vary depending on whom you ask. The word “Kanban” originates from characters in Japanese and Chinese languages. In Japanese, “kanban” or “kamban” refer to a “signal card” or a “signboard” (the type of sign some store owners used as a visual label). In Middle Chinese, “kanban” means “printing block.”
The Kanban approach is driven by visual cues - each visual card represents a task or a step within the process that is connected to another task or step toward completion. Visual representations of the connected tasks help teams visualize the required workflow and resolve roadblocks to make sure they stay on track and continuously improve the service and/or product they provide.
When Toyota first considered the use of a Kanban approach in the 1940s, the technique was already in use at Japanese supermarkets to make sure product inventory kept pace with consumer demand. A Toyota engineer, Taiichi Ohno, was inspired by the Kanban technique these supermarkets used to streamline a supply-and-demand system that kept their customers satisfied.
In his book, “The Toyota Way,” author Jeffrey Liker says Toyota uses 14 principles to guide its management and staff. One of these principles (known as: The Right Process Will Produce the Right Results) directly relates to the original inventory focus of Kanban and its intent to eliminate waste (muda) by removing issues such as overproduction, excess inventory, incorrect processing, product defects, workflow bottlenecks, unnecessary transport or conveyance, and unorganized and inefficient work areas for employees.
The other principles concern behaviors and aspects that are still part of Kanban training. Examples of these principles include using “pull” systems to avoid overproduction, leveling out the workload (heijunka) to produce steady and dependable results, and using visual controls so no problems are hidden.
Toyota’s work processes and employee activities are geared toward continuous improvement (kaizen) and ongoing learning through relentless reflection (hansei). Another benefit derived from the Toyota production system (TPS) is associated with the just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing or production methodology, which refers to strategies used to reduce the amount of time associated with supplier responses, workflow lags, and product deliveries to customers.
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The Kanban Method
Kanban has evolved into more than visual cards, of course. For Toyota and other companies using lean manufacturing and production processes, Kanban became an efficient planning, scheduling, and inventory-control system that continually improves in order to produce high-quality products and services. For businesses that need a visual system to manage knowledge work and the proper distribution of tasks, such as software development companies, Kanban has evolved into a version known as the Kanban method.
When Kanban transformed into the Kanban method, so did some of the associated practices, principles, and tools. For example, the material-and-information-flow mapping Toyota used for analysis of its processes evolved into value stream mapping now used by businesses in several other industries, such as consumer services, healthcare, logistics, and software development.
The Kanban method encourages people to properly manage, measure, and optimize flow, which refers to the way teams handle tasks to quickly move work items through the system to delivery. The Cumulative Flow Diagram (CFD), the most common chart used in Kanban, helps teams visually track and forecast projects by seeing how much work they have completed, the amount of work in progress (WIP), and how much still needs to be pulled from the backlog. With this diagram, teams can visualize the entire process, more accurately predict completion dates by analyzing cycle times, and make adjustments to improve the process. Control and distribution charts are other types of tools used in Kanban environments.
At its core, the Kanban method essentially involves a select group of characteristics. Think of the Kanban method today as a set of cards teams display on a large Kanban board to prioritize tasks by viewing them as individual steps toward a goal. By doing so, each team member focuses on a task with the highest priority at a given moment before pulling another task and accepting responsibility for that task. Teams also enforce strict WIP limits because limiting the number of tasks in progress stops unproductive multitasking, keeps team members focused and improves throughput, which ultimately improves product delivery and quality.
By following these guidelines, teams are able to display a series of steps in a visual format that promotes a realistic understanding of the tasks associated with a process. They also are able to see and resolve kinks in the system to avoid slowing down the process, complete one dependent task after another, and keep moving forward. Companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, and Sprint have benefited greatly from implementing Kanban into their employees’ daily activities.
Kanban Training and Certification Organizations
In his book, Kanban, David Anderson explains how his use of Kanban evolved from the approach he introduced to a Microsoft team in 2004 to the Kanban method that exists today. Anderson is the founder of David J Anderson & Associates, Inc. and Lean Kanban Inc.; the latter is the parent company of LeanKanban University. The primary points Anderson included in Kanban, published in 2010, are now summarized in Essential Kanban Condensed, a book Anderson wrote and published with Andy Carmichael in 2016.
Anderson says he studied several workforce approaches to develop the Kanban method into the type of system he used for project work at Corbis a couple of years later. Anderson’s work at Corbis ultimately led to the six general Kanban practices he emphasizes today:
- Visualize the work, workflow, and business risks
- Limit WIP
- Manage flow
- Make policies explicit
- Implement feedback loops
- Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally
To teach others interested in Kanban about these practices and associated concepts, tools, and metrics, Anderson developed several training courses offered through the David J Anderson School of Management, a Seattle-based training center associated with LeanKanban University. You can register to take courses from Anderson and other instructors for various levels of training and receive Kanban certifications such as Team Kanban Practitioner (TKP), Kanban Systems Design (KMP I), and Kanban Management Professional (KMP II).
Costs associated with these courses vary depending on the location, instructor, and class title. Prices for courses in the U.S. generally range from $995 (for one day classes) to $3,350 (for five day classes); however, there is some variation. For example, one six-day class being offered in San Diego costs $7,500, along with a coupon code worth $1,500 off of the class price.
Courses to become an Accredited Kanban Trainer (AKT) are also available, but when we tried to research the cost of these training courses for the AKT certification, we found more than a dozen organizations listed as Licensed Training Organizations on a LeanKanban University web page. The AKT course offered directly through LeanKanban University in Seattle is listed at $5,000 for a five-day class, and a coupon code was provided for a 10 percent discount.
You can also register for a class from Dr. Masa K. Maeda, a well-known Kanban consultant who provides Kanban training and certification. His training covers Kanban, Agile, lean and project management topics and is associated with the Certified Kanban Methodologist certification. The regular price for the two day class is $1,400, but it is currently being offered at a discounted rate of $900. More information is available at the Valueinnova website.
If you have experience with Kanban and don’t need additional training, a Certified Kanban Coach certification from the International Business and Quality Management Institute (IBQMI) is available for $150 and can be completed online. However, some employers may not consider this certification as valuable as others because IBQMI doesn’t require you to attend training classes or have on-the-job training.
Recognizing Reputable Kanban Certification Programs
Robert Key, owner and freelance consultant for Key PM Consulting Services and senior associate faculty member for the University of Phoenix, has worked with certification organizations such as Scrum Alliance, Project Management Institute (PMI), and American Society for Quality (ASQ). He also has worked with Amazon Web Services (AWS), which began offering certifications in 2013 when it developed a program for computer engineers with expertise in cloud computing.
Key says it’s important to recognize the quality of research, materials, and training that goes into establishing programs with credible certifications. Key recommends reviewing which organizations and certifications are highly recommended by industry experts and colleagues before enrolling in a course.
Some websites require visitors to pay a fee each time they retake a certification test. However, these types of programs won’t provide people with the type of deep knowledge and training needed to excel in a Kanban, Scrum, Agile, or other project management role. Quality programs matter.
At the University of Phoenix, Key helped define and implement a project management capstone course by selecting instructional materials that provide a more integrative experience, which students need from an educational program. Key worked with the university’s instructional design department and conducted the research to ensure the course included the level of materials needed to properly train students.
After reviewing various options for the course, Key recommended a textbook and study guide that not only provide students with the information they need to learn more about project management concepts, but also helps students understand how to apply that knowledge. The course is associated with PMI for a project management certification, and the materials Key selected also prepare students for the associated PMI certification exam.
Key encourages everyone to do their own research and find out which organizations are reputable. “There are numerous places online that now allow consumers to rate organizations,” he says.
Scrum Alliance also provides some guidelines and a comparison table to help people perform their own analysis. The following list includes the questions Scrum Alliance suggests you research before trusting an organization that claims to have the type of certifications you need.
- When was the organization established?
- How many individuals has the organization certified?
- Are the certifications recognized by employers?
- Are the courses and trainers near you?
- Is there a progressive path of education, both certification-related and otherwise?
- Does the organization value practitioners over profits?
- Are there opportunities to connect with others interested in Kanban?
- What resources are there after you’re certified?
- Does the organization give back to the Scrum community by sponsoring events and user groups?
Kanban Job Posts and Certification Preferences
The “start where you are” message of Kanban works for many businesses because it helps simplify processes and divide them into smaller, more manageable steps that are easier to implement. Unlike other types of corporate workforce shifts, Kanban doesn’t require businesses to create new teams, titles, or roles within the organization. Instead, Kanban makes it possible to implement a series of improvements that lead to an evolutionary transformation. Employees can often incorporate these Kanban-related improvements into their daily activities and current roles.
Evidence of Kanban’s popularity became obvious when we reviewed job descriptions posted on various job boards. Besides automotive manufacturing and software development, our research indicated several other industries use Kanban, including consumer goods (apparel, bedding, food and beverages, etc.), building materials, electrical/electronic manufacturing, financial services, information technology and services, medical devices, publishing, and retail.
In light of this, we wondered why more information about Kanban-specific certifications wasn’t available online and why it was difficult to find independent consumer reviews about these certifications. To find the information we needed and provide an accurate representation of how employers – especially human resources professionals, recruiters, and hiring managers – view Kanban certifications, we decided to conduct more research using another approach. We scrutinized numerous Kanban-related job openings posted online to find out which certifications employers listed as either requirements or preferences.
While conducting our research, we noticed several job posts included a preference for certifications that weren’t Kanban-specific. To investigate further, we strategically searched through a pool of more than 2,270 posts for jobs located throughout the United States that included the word “Kanban” in the description. We then narrowed our analysis to 50 job posts that listed Kanban as an important part of the job. We used the following factors to ensure we selected the most relevant job posts.
- Ignore posts that included“Agile,” “Scrum,” or “Project Manager” as part of the job title to focus our analysis on Kanban-only certifications.
- Posts must list “Kanban training, experience, knowledge or familiarity” under the job requirements, responsibilities, or key qualifications and wasn't merely a preference.
- Only one job post per company.
The job posts in our analysis featured employers who either required or preferred for applicants to have knowledge, training and/or experience with Kanban, Agile, Scrum and/or project management. Several employers also indicated a preference for applicants who are familiar with the Toyota production system (TPS), just-in-time (JIT) methodology and lean manufacturing processes.
The jobs we reviewed for professionals with Kanban knowledge and training ranged from entry-level, college graduate positions to senior management roles. Some examples of these job titles include: access management developer, business analyst, data platform engineer, delivery manager, director of operations, information services program manager, inventory manager, IT cloud architect, IT portfolio analyst, Kanban coach, manufacturing engineer, materials specialist, plant manager, process improvement specialist, production planner, production system manager, purchasing manager, quality improvement manager, senior software developer, senior buyer and planner, software engineer, strategic sourcing specialist, supply chain analyst, and technical program manager.
Our research revealed some extremely surprising results. Despite setting up strict criteria for our analysis of 50 Kanban-related job posts, we didn’t find a single employer who required or preferred for an applicant to have a Kanban certification. Many of the job posts listed a preference for more than one type of certification, but none of them included a Kanban certification. Even the description for a job titled “Kanban Coach” didn’t mention that the applicant needed a Kanban certification; instead, the employer mentioned having a preference for other certifications, including Scrum Alliance’s Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) certification and the Project Management Institute-Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) certification.
Does this mean that certifications associated with Kanban training are a waste of time? Not necessarily. It may just be that employers are not as familiar with the Kanban certifications as they are with other certifications. When an applicant presents these employers with a Kanban certification, however, the employers’ representatives may very well accept the certification as proof that the applicant has the required amount of Kanban knowledge and training.
The results of our research may also mean that employers know some of these other certifications include Kanban-related training. For example, the employer of the Kanban Coach position discussed in a previous paragraph may have listed the PMI-ACP certification within its list of preferred certifications because the hiring manager and/or HR representative know it covers several Agile methods, including Kanban.
Of the 50 job posts within our analysis, the most required or preferred certification is an APICS (previously known as American Production and Inventory Control Society) certification, which was mentioned by 23 employers. Most of these employers referred to a APICS certification in general, but five of them specifically requested the Certified in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM) certification from APICS.
According to the APICS website, “More than 100,000 professionals since 1973 have earned the APICS CPIM designation.” The APICS site also claims the CPIM program provides recipients with “the ability to understand and evaluate production and inventory activities within a company's global operations.”
Project management certifications were another popular request: 19 of the 50 job posts were from employers who either preferred or required a specific certification from the PMI or a project management certification in general. Of the specific PMI certifications requested, eight mentioned the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification and six mentioned the PMI-ACP certification.
Many of the job posts within our analysis stated that candidates should have a good understanding of Kanban and Scrum concepts. Nine out of the 50 job posts were from employers who either preferred or required the CSM certification from Scrum Alliance and/or the Professional Scrum Master I (PSM I) certification from Scrum.org. One out of these nine employers also stated that a Certified Scrum Developer (CSD) certification from Scrum Alliance or Professional Scrum Developer I (PSD I) from Scrum.org was acceptable. For more information on Scrum certifications, check out another Smartsheet resource, “Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Certified Scrum Master.”
Nine out of the 50 job posts in our review requested a Six Sigma certification, such as the Black Belt and Green Belt certifications. Five of these job posts also mentioned a preference for a Lean certification, such as those covered by Six Sigma training. Six Sigma refers to a collection of process improvement and quality management techniques and tools introduced in the 1980s by Bill Smith when he was an engineer at Motorola. There are many Six Sigma certification organizations, including the American Society for Quality (ASQ), Chartered Quality Institute (CHI), Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers (IISE), as well as several university certification programs and training organizations.
Other certifications mentioned by employers include Agile certifications, with a few of them specifically requesting a Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) certification. Four other employers requested a certification from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM), such as the Certified Professional in Supply Management (CPSM) certification.
Reasons You Might Want to Consider Kanban Certifications
Despite our results, we do know that many of these employers viewed Kanban training as important. In deciding to obtain some type of Kanban certification in addition to completing training courses, you can consider the following information.
“Future Work Skills 2020,” a report published by the University of Phoenix Research Institute, presented several key points for people in all industries to consider when evaluating their careers and how others might gauge their credentials. According to the report, “To be successful in the next decade, individuals will need to demonstrate foresight in navigating a rapidly shifting landscape of organizational forms and skill requirements. They will increasingly be called upon to continually reassess the skills they need, and quickly put together the right resources to develop and update these. Workers in the future will need to be adaptable lifelong learners.”
Likewise, the report also directs businesses to consider similar factors. “Businesses must also be alert to the changing environment and adapt their workforce planning and development strategies to ensure alignment with future skill requirements.”
Although the “Future Work Skills 2020” report was published in 2011, it emphasizes some points that are still a part of U.S. corporate culture. For example, it has become more common for businesses to post job descriptions that include specific certifications within their lists of requirements and preferences. Even if a job description doesn’t include a particular certification as a requirement, the description might indicate that the applicant needs to prove Kanban knowledge and/or training, so having a Kanban certification could be a good strategy.
One of the most common reasons for seeking any type of certification is to prove knowledge to HR representatives and hiring managers. The job market is still fiercely competitive, so it’s important for you to provide employers with evidence of your skills.
Kanban certifications can also demonstrate your commitment to continuous learning, and research shows that companies value this quality in applicants. If you attend extra training classes on your own, hiring managers and HR representatives often view this as evidence you are motivated and serious about staying up to date on the latest advancements in your field.
Key puts this advice into practice - he sets a personal goal to complete at least two certifications each year. Key has several certifications from Scrum Alliance and PMI, including well-known certifications such as Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO), CSM and PMI-ACP. He recently completed training for Amazon Web Services (AWS) certifications and plans to obtain two types of security certifications by the end of 2016.
“Technology doesn’t stop. If you want to stay competitive in the marketplace, the training for certifications are a way of expanding your knowledge and enhancing your skill set.” As Key points out, that’s why hiring managers value evidence of continuous learning on resumes.
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