Project Management with Kanban (Part 1)

Posted on July 31, 2014 by David Anderson

This fall, we are introducing a new curriculum to our class offerings - Project Management with Kanban. Note the subtle choice of title - "Project Management with Kanban!" It isn't "Kanban for Project Managers." Kanban for Project Managers makes as much sense to me as "Kanban for Refuse Collectors" Why would such a class be different from say, "Kanban for Grandmas"? It's all just Kanban! Perhaps the case studies and examples might be different but the curriculum would be the same. On the other hand, Project Management with Kanban" offers us the chance to provide a new curriculum, specifically targeted at managing project where kanban systems are in use and the Kanban Method is part of the organization's management approach.

I'm a project manager, what does Kanban mean for me?

This new class is specifically designed to address the question, "I am a project manager. My organization is adopting Kanban. What does this mean for me and how I do my job?" With Kanban your role doesn't change. If you are a project manager today, you will still be a project manager after Kanban is adopted in your organization. However, some aspects of your job ought to change in order to take full advantage of the predictability and risk management opportunities when kanban systems are deployed. The philosophy and practices of the Kanban Method can be embraced to raise your practice as a project manager to a new level.

How do I make plans and prioritize work with Kanban?

So what is included in the new class?

Typically, project managers ask "how do I do planning and prioritization with Kanban?" Of course, there ought to be more to project management than just these things but these two are certainly important.

The important thing to grasp is that the key practice in the Kanban Method that affects project management is the "make policies explicit" practice. With Kanban project management becomes a game of facilitating and implementing better risk management. Project managers take charge of the rules of the game within the scope of delivering the project. The role of project manager becomes more about project governance. Typically project managers perform a range of tasks such as collecting and reporting status, facilitating and scheduling meetings, planning, issue management and change management. Some may even micromanage by assigning tasks to workers and taking a more hands-on command and control approach to getting work done. They are effectively people managers and they worry about matching tasks to suitably skilled workers. I believe that these functions make mean project managers are often in the role of "project secretary" or "project match-maker." This isn't high value activity. Some of it is easily automated, the rest is better delegated to workers who can self-organize within a set of constraints (or policies). In military organizations such constraints are referred to as "rules of engagement." The military understands empowerment much better than corporate America in my experience.

It's all about policies

So we tend not to call planning "planning", nor do we call prioritization "prioritization." Partly the departure from established terms is to underscore that we want project managers thinking differently, partly it is emphasize some subtle differences and make concepts very explicit.

With Kanban we talk about scheduling, sequencing, selection ("the three S's") and options, commitment, capacity allocation, risk management and hedging. We don't estimate, instead we forecast. Expectations are set based on probabilistic forecasts, and schedules are set based on a tolerance for risk versus economic costs based on probabilities of specific outcomes. What we teach project managers is how to create policies to govern each of these activities, and how to align those policies with business objectives and business risks for the project they are managing. The "planning" and the "prioritization" of individual pieces of work fall out directly from the application of the policies to the scope of the project. The "plan" is a derivative of the policies.


Using the Kanban Method with project management improves outcomes. It improves predictability and the chances that the project will be delivered within acceptable economic parameters. Transparency is improved. Governance is improved through the focus on policies. Risk management is improved by making it the main responsibility of the project manager. With Kanban project managers add greater value for their organization and their project team.

Project Management with Kanban - Advanced Practitioner Training

I'll explore each of these topics in the remainder of this series of blog posts. Our new "Project Management with Kanban" class is being offered in Munich in October and we are likely to add other dates including London and Washington DC. The curriculum is considered "Advanced Practitioner" within the Lean Kanban University certification scheme. Class attendees are expected to be familiar with Kanban and be actively using it in their organizations, and ideally to have completed a "Foundation" level training class. If you'd like to see us offer this new 2-day class in your region, please contact our sales department via the link at the bottom of this page. For a full set of class listings see our training page.

Full Series

Part 2 Scheduling using Sequencing Policies

Part 3 Project Forecasting

Part 4 Risk Review and Blocker Clustering