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Kanban Review: Is Kanban a Viable Alternative to Scrum Boards?

There’s a great deal of discussion in technology circles about the different ways to manage tech-related projects. These aren’t necessarily development projects, but projects in general. Ones with any level of complexity or multiple people handling different tasks start to overwhelm simpler approaches like a To-Do list pretty quickly.

For people working in tech or development environments, they wonder whether Kanban boards are useful in their own right or can be used alongside Scrum. This article is offered to provide some thoughts on these questions.

What is Kanban?

Kanban is a system of boards and the management of tasks on those boards. Each board represents a phase of the work. Therefore, there’s a Ready/To-Do phase, an In-Progress/Doing phase, and a Done phase.

Each task has its own card and sits on the appropriate board. While a Kanban board might represent all tasks, it could equally relate to a single isolated project. There’s also the possibility it’s a Portfolio Kanban with main objectives listed and departmental responsibilities. Individual teams then use their own Team Kanban boards to list actionable tasks and their stage of progress. As such, Kanban is usable to manage departments, small teams and the organization as a whole on an ongoing basis. Scrum boards are usually not.

When thinking about using kanban vs scrum board, a key difference is there is usually a Work in Progress (WiP) limit set with Scrum boards to keep the number of active tasks down to an acceptable number. This is because increasingly in development circles, software updates are delivered in days or weeks now, not months or years as they were before, and timelines must be strictly controlled.

What is Scrum?

Scrum is an organizational concept to help better manage development projects. Rather than working on an ongoing basis, these boards typically have a completion timeline. The short worktime is known as a sprint where a clear set of objectives and tasks are added to a blank board for everyone involved in the project to complete within the agreed timeframe.

Rapid software release cycles are well supported by using Scrum (or other similar approaches to software development work) because it defines a beginning, middle and an end to the sprint. While tasks may be continually added to a Kanban board, usually, no new tasks are added in the middle of a sprint.

When thinking about a Scrum board and Kanban board, they’re really two different concepts to project management. In the Kanban vs Scrum board debate, it’s easy to get caught up with people staking positions and using their emotions to argue why one approach is better than the other. However, that’s completely the wrong way to look at things; it only matters which is most appropriate for a project.

Closed Boards vs Open Boards

It’s useful to think of a scrum board vs kanban board in terms of Scrum using closed boards and Kanban using open boards. By this we mean, Scrum adopts a sprint mentality with a fixed number of tasks worked on until they are either completed successfully, abandoned or pushed forward to the next sprint because they’ll take too long to complete. Sprints must be of short duration with an agreed end date which cannot be continually extended by new tasks being added. This is why Scrum boards are closed.

Using software like the one from Kanbanize, their Kanban boards are versatile enough to not only work with specific tasks for a new software release. Mostly, they’re used to tackle the ongoing operations of the business itself. As such, new tasks are added continually. Tasks are managed in more intelligent ways using this software which offers useful features like event triggers that activate based on the completion of a previous task.

While some people still adopt the WiP concept like in Scrum to limit how many items are being worked on at any given time, this isn’t an absolute requirement. Kanban boards are open-ended with no end date. With that said, individual projects represented by their tasks can have a series of assigned dates to different tasks to work towards a realistic completion date.

Which is Best?

The question is often asked, which is best? Kanban or Scrum? We think this is the wrong question to pose. Instead, to use the analogy of choosing a coat to put on during winter, the right coat is the most appropriate one. Similarly, whichever project management system is adopted depends on what needs to be managed.

The Scrum system is designed around boards, cards and sprints. Projects are laid out on a board as a closed, finite project. With Kanban, it’s likely that a sprint methodology would be more difficult to manage, if that’s the goal. However, there’s no reason businesses cannot use the kanban boards and then use a Scrum board for sprint projects.

Ultimately, you have to choose for yourself which system you prefer. Kanban is certainly a useful alternative to Scrum and has a broader application too.

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