Kanban vs. Scrum

Project team deciding between Kanban vs Scrum

Agile vs. Scrum vs. Kanban.

The terms “Agile,” “Scrum,” and “Kanban” are often confused with one another. Here’s a quick explainer to help you tell them apart.

Agile

Agile is an umbrella term that encompasses both the Scrum and Kanban project management methodologies. Born in the software development world circa 2001, the agile approach was developed as an alternative to more traditional project management methodologies, such as the Waterfall methodology, which rely on up-front planning directed by professional project managers.

Agile is a more team-based approach (there’s even a manifesto) that emphasizes “individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan.” 

Scrum

Scrum is a project management methodology that falls under the Agile umbrella. In the Scrum approach, all work is written in the form of user stories, which are gathered in a backlog—the prioritized list of deliverables or features that comprise the project. The tasks in this backlog are tackled in a series of two-week or month-long time periods called sprints. Scrum teams hold sprint planning sessions and daily stand-up meetings to keep sprints on target. They present their work for feedback or approval in a sprint review, and discuss lessons learned in a retrospective meeting before moving on to the next sprint planning session.

Scrum projects focus on a structure that allows for maximum flexibility and speed, while holding team members accountable for their tasks and deadlines.

Kanban

With a Kanban approach, tasks are displayed visually in a progression that allows all team members to understand where tasks are and where bottlenecks might be occurring. A Kanban board displays a “backlog” or “to-do” column, a “work-in-progress” or “doing” column, and a “complete” or “done” column in a central location—either physically or digitally—which enables all team members to envision and manage the flow of work. The emphasis is on incremental, evolutionary change, continuous improvement of processes, and collaborative effort. Teams that use Kanban are able to improve workflow, reduce cycle time, and increase value to the customer, with high levels of flexibility and predictability.


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Differences between Kanban and Scrum.

While both Kanban and Scrum are Agile approaches, there are a few important distinctions that teams should be aware of. Let’s look at how these methodologies differ in terms of user roles, cadence, adapting to changes, use of work boards, and performance metrics.

Roles

In Scrum, there are three specific roles: Scrum master, Scrum product owner, and Scrum team or team member. 

The Scrum master focuses on the team and its operations, drives the process, and manages team motivation and efficiency for a timely completion of the project. The Scrum product owner focuses on the product, manages the backlog, and determines the priorities and requirements for the project. The team or team members are the development team who do the work assigned within the Scrum sprints.

In Kanban, there are no clearly defined roles. However, many times project managers can become certified in this approach, where they are referred to as Kanban project managers or Kanban experts. The rest of the team working on the project does not have a specific role or name.

Cadence

In Scrum, the cadence of completing tasks is dictated by sprints. Sprints, which are typically periods less than one month, are set up to allow the team to accomplish small goals within a project and adapt as they go. The length and number of sprints will determine the ultimate timeline of a project. Scrums also require daily stand-up meetings to keep the team aligned and moving forward.

In Kanban, there are no sprints or designated periods to complete interim tasks. Instead, Kanban projects are typically centered around product releases or launch dates, as dictated by the client. Project managers set the work cadence in a Kanban approach.

Changes

In Scrum, changes and adaptations can be addressed at the end of each sprint. After the sprint is reviewed, tasks that are not complete will be analyzed and added to the next sprint (or moved back to the backlog). During the sprint retrospective meeting, any changes or improvements that need to be implemented can be noted and introduced to the next sprint. Changes resulting in new work items cannot be made until after a sprint ends.

In Kanban, changes can be made as the project progresses, at any time, including accepting new work items. Changes in this approach are typically made based on workload or capacity to speed up the project and relieve any team members who might be overburdened. A core value of Kanban is to keep the work-in-progress list always at a manageable level with WIP limits.

Work boards

In Scrum, work boards are managed by the Scrum master and Scrum product manager to ensure constant visibility into project progress and status. This work board is typically projected in the daily stand-up meetings, so no one on the team is ever confused about where a project stands. Scrum boards are rebuilt before each sprint.

In Kanban, Kanban boards are essential for managing workloads and maintaining productivity. Using either a physical whiteboard or the Kanban view in a work management platform, project managers can easily see where bottlenecks are appearing and make quick adjustments to team members’ assignments to help. Kanban boards are continuously updated throughout the project.

Having a trusted work management platform that is adept at traditional waterfall methods as well as Kanban and Scrum approaches—and ideally even allows a blend between the three—will reduce the need for manual updates and keep all team members on the same page, even when they’re geographically dispersed. 

Performance metrics

In Scrum, the key metric is velocity. Understanding how much time it takes to complete individual tasks (via story points) makes it easier to plan future sprints and allows Scrum masters and Scrum product managers to improve velocity along the way.

In Kanban, the metrics that best measure your team performance are cycle times (how fast work gets done) and throughput (how much work is delivered). 

When should you use Kanban over Scrum?

While both Kanban and Scrum have their benefits, you might prefer to use Kanban over Scrum if you’re working on a smaller project or managing an ongoing project composed of small incoming pieces of work, like bug fixes or enhancement requests.

Kanban allows you to quickly organize and react to changes in small projects, in real time, in a way that would be difficult to do with larger teams. If you’re using a work management platform, you can also share boards with clients, outsourcers, or other collaborators.

When should you use Scrum over Kanban?

If you’re managing a feature-driven project with big release goals or multiple milestones, it may make more sense to use Scrum instead of Kanban. Scrum allows you to split complex projects into more digestible chunks, setting goals and milestones for your team along the way. It also allows you to adapt your approach after each sprint, so you can remain flexible as feedback comes in and product requirements change.

Combining Kanban and Scrum.

Adapting the best of both processes can work well for some teams. This hybrid method is called “Scrumban” because it incorporates some of the top aspects of each methodology.

There isn’t one way to do Scrumban, but project managers sometimes create more visual views of their sprint boards using Kanban-style cards. You can also manage bottlenecks using this view while working within the sprint mentality.

If you’re interested in Scrumban, you’ll want to find a modern work management tool that allows you to combine both styles easily. Workfront’s Agile Project Management software allows you to balance workloads, shift priorities, and communicate across teams.


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The choice is yours.

The Agile approach to project management encourages adaptability while holding team members accountable for their deadlines and deliverables. Both the Scrum and Kanban approaches can work well for many types of projects, from software development to marketing campaigns, and they may even be combined in order to suit the team’s needs better.

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