Why We Need a New Meaning / Name for Kanban

Originally written July 2013.

What Is Kanban?

When Kanban first came out for software development, it was not the Kanban Method. It was A Kanban System for Software Engineering. It was a system for managing flow in software development and maintenance teams. It was developed over a few years by several different people at Microsoft and Corbis. It was essentially what I have sometimes referred to as “Team Kanban” and is actually what most folks mean by Kanban. David Anderson’s book, Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business, introduced the Kanban method, a way of effecting evolutionary improvement. In many ways the Kanban Method is little more than Lean Kaizen with a particular starting approach and with some additional, sometimes useful, practices (e.g., service level agreements). I tried sorting this out a couple of years ago with my article Demystifying Kanban and several webinars on that theme that Kanban is an overloaded term meaning all of the following:

  • A signal card and usually referred to as “small k Kanban”
  • A team management method using Kanban to manage flow and usually referred to as capital K Kanban. This is essentially the original Kanban system for software engineering which I will refer to from this point on as Kanban Software Development
  • A thought process
  • A transition, or education, method (the Kanban Method)

While I have been troubled about this for years, even suggesting years back that we needed to come up with different terms for different things, I thought it mostly was an annoyance, but not dangerous. Recent insights and events has had me shift my thinking here.

It is quite clear that a number of Kanban consultants, particularly those in Lean Kanban University, are attempting to usurp the term to mean that Kanban is the Kanban Method and that any use of Kanban other than the Kanban Method is a “shallow implementation of Kanban.” I am not trying to draw any aspersions to their motivations for this. I am certain they feel they are doing what is in everyone’s best interest, as the Scrum folks did when they blurred the terms Scrum and Agile. But I do not agree that equating Kanban (in the sense of the original Kanban) with the Kanban Method is beneficial for most in the industry.

Kanban and Lean

I have long felt that Kanban (both software development and method) is a subset of Lean Software Development. Our industry will forever be indebted to David Anderson, Jim Benson, Corey Ladas, Darren Davis, and others who brought Kanban into existence. Kanban software development opened ways of doing Agile software development to companies for which cross-functional teams were either impossible or prohibitive or who couldn’t otherwise make the jump to Scrum.

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