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The kanban approach, between agility and leanness: a systematic review

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The interest in lean product development in general and the Kanban approach in particular has increased over the years. However, practitioners, in the software development field, have significant challenges in implementing the Kanban approach as it lacks a clear definition of its principles, practices, techniques and tools. This study aims to provide insight into the Kanban approach and its elements (concepts, principles, practices, techniques, and tools) that have been empirically reported by scholars and practitioners. This insight is produced by using the systematic review method to analyze the available literature. A total of 37 primary studies were selected from more than 3,000 unique studies. Our findings show that the primary studies have considered and reported 20 different elements as part of the Kanban approach based upon considerations of being an agile approach or a lean principle; these elements have realized great benefits and improvements to the software development teams. These benefits along with the challenges have been reported in this study. Due to the variety of organization types, contexts, and project sizes reported in the primary studies, it is expected that the results in this study would help in establishing knowledge on what are the different elements of the Kanban approach as well as offering a first step towards developing guidelines for practitioners to help in introducing the Kanban approach to software development organizations.

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Correspondence to James Miller.

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Communicated by: Laurie Williams


Appendix 1: List of Included Studies

[S1] Wang, X., Conboy, K., & Cawley, O. (2012). “Leagile” software development: An experience report analysis of the application of lean approaches in agile software development. Journal of Systems and Software, 85(6), 1287–1299.

[S2] Anderson, D. J. (2010). Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business. Blue Hole Press.

[S3] Norrmalm, T. (2011). Achieving Lean Software Development Implementation of Agile and Lean Practices in a Manufacturing-Oriented Organization. Retrieved from

[S4] Polk, R. (2011). Agile & Kanban in coordination. In Proceedings - 2011 Agile Conference, Agile 2011 (pp. 263–268).

[S5] Anderson, D. J. (2003). Agile management for software engineering: Applying the theory of constraints for business results. Prentice Hall Professional.

[S6] Shinkle, C. M., & Shihkle, C. M. (2009). Applying the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition to the Adoption of Kanban Systems at Software Engineering Professionals (SEP). In Agile Conference, 2009. AGILE ’09. (pp. 186–191). IEEE.

[S7] Betz, C. T. (2011). Chapter 1 - IT in a World of Continuous Improvement. Architecture and Patterns for IT Service Management, Resource Planning, and Governance: Making Shoes for the Cobblers Children, 1–31.

[S8] Terlecka, K. (2012). Combining Kanban and Scrum -- Lessons from a Team of Sysadmins. In Agile Conference (AGILE), 2012 (pp. 99–102).

[S9] Nikitina, N., & Kajko-Mattsson, M. (2011). Developer-driven big-bang process transition from Scrum to Kanban. In Proceedings - International Conference on Software Engineering (pp. 159–168).

[S10] Turner, Richard, Ingold, D., Lane, J. A., Madachy, R., & Anderson, D. (2012). Effectiveness of kanban approaches in systems engineering within rapid response environments. Procedia Computer Science, 8(0), 309–314.

[S11] Fisher, K. G., & Bankston, A. (2009). From Cradle to Sprint: Creating a Full-Lifecycle Request Pipeline at Nationwide Insurance. In Agile Conference 2009, AGILE09 (pp. 223–228).

[S12] Nikitina, N., Kajko-Mattsson, M., & Stråle, M. (2012). From scrum to scrumban: A case study of a process transition. In 2012 International Conference on Software and System Process, ICSSP 2012 - Proceedings (pp. 140–149).

[S13] Turner, Richard, & Lane, J. A. (2013). Goal-question-Kanban: Applying Lean Concepts to Coordinate Multi-level Systems Engineering in Large Enterprises. Procedia Computer Science, 16, 512–521.

[S14] Petersen, Kai. (2010). Implementing Lean and Agile Software Development in Industry. Retrieved from Belkinge Institute of Techology’s Dissertations and Theses Database (UMI No. 2010:04)

[S15] Kniberg, H., & Skarin, M. (2009). Kanban and Scrum-making the most of both. InfoQ. Retrieved from

[S16] Oostvogels, N. (2012). Kanban for skeptics: Clear answers to Kanban in software development. Leanpub. Retrieved from

[S17] Seikola, M., Loisa, H., & Jagos, A. (2011). Kanban Implementation in a Telecom Product Maintenance. In Software Engineering and Advanced Applications (SEAA), 2011 37th EUROMICRO Conference (pp. 321–329).

[S18] Zhang, Y. (2010). Kanban Re-engineers Production Process In Åkers Sweden AB. Retrieved from Mälardalen University’s Dissertations and Theses Database. (UMI No. 10064)

[S19] Anderson, D. J., & Garber, R. (2007). A Kanban System for Sustaining Engineering on Software Systems. Retrieved April, 01, 2013 from

[S20] Medinilla, Á. (2012). Lean and Agile in a Nutshell. In Agile Management SE - 2 (pp. 19–52). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

[S21] Kniberg, H. (2011). Lean from the Trenches: Managing Large-Scale Projects with Kanban. The Pragmatic Bookshelf. Pragmatic Bookshelf.

[S22] Poppendieck, M., & Cusumano, M. A. (2012). Lean Software Development: A Tutorial. Software, IEEE, 29(5), 26–32.

[S23] Poppendieck, M., & Poppendieck, T. (2003). Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit. Addison-Wesley.

[S24] Petersen, K, & Wohlin, C. (2011). Measuring the flow in lean software development. Software-Practice & Experience, 41(9, SI), 975–996.

[S25] Heidenberg, J., & Porres, I. (2010). Metrics Functions for Kanban Guards. In Engineering of Computer Based Systems (ECBS), 2010 17th IEEE International Conference and Workshops on (pp. 306–310).

[S26] Ikonen, M., Pirinen, E., Fagerholm, F., Kettunen, P., & Abrahamsson, P. (2011). On the impact of Kanban on software project work: An empirical case study investigation. In Proceedings - 2011 16th IEEE International Conference on Engineering of Complex Computer Systems, ICECCS 2011 (pp. 305–314).

[S27] Han, B., & Xie, J. (2012). Practical Experience: Adopt Agile Methodology Combined With Kanban For Virtual Reality Development.

[S28] Kinoshita, F. (2008). Practices of an agile team. In Agile, 2008. AGILE08. Conference (pp. 373-377). IEEE.

[S29] Boeg, J. (2012). Priming Kanban: A 10 step guid to optimizing flow in your software delivery system (Second Edi.). Chronografisk A/S.

[S30] Sjøberg, D. I. K., Johnsen, A., & Solberg, J. (2012). Quantifying the Effect of Using Kanban versus Scrum. Software, IEEE, 29(5), 47–53.

[S31] Ladas, C. (2009). Scrumban-essays on kanban systems for lean software development. Modus Cooperandi Press.

[S32] Cocco, L., Mannaro, K., Concas, G., & Marchesi, M. (2011). Simulating Kanban and Scrum vs. Waterfall with System Dynamics. In Agile Processes In Software Engineering And Extreme Programming (Vol. 77, pp. 117–131).

[S33] Greaves, K. (2011). Taming the Customer Support Queue: A Kanban Experience Report. In Agile Conference (AGILE), 2011 (pp. 154–160).

[S34] Ericsson, R., & Granlöf, A. (2011). The effects of Kanban in software development teams : a study of the implementation at Sandvik. Retreived from Dalarna University’s Dessertation and Theses Database (

[S35] Reinertsen, D. G. (2009). The principles of product development flow: second generation lean product development. Celeritas Publishing.

[S36] Hiranabe, K. (2007). Visualizing Agile Projects using Kanban Boards. InfoQ. Retrieved April 01, 2013, from

[S37] Turner, R, Madachy, R., Ingold, D., & Lane, J. A. (2012). Modeling kanban processes in systems engineering. In 2012 International Conference on Software and System Process, ICSSP 2012 - Proceedings (pp. 78–82).

Appendix 2: Quality Instrument

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Appendix 3: List of Excluded Studies

Akbar, R., Hassan, M. F., & Abdullah, A. (2011). A Review of Prominent Work on Agile Processes Software Process Improvement and Process Tailoring Practices. In Software Engineering And Computer Systems, PT 3 (Vol. 181, pp. 571–585).

Antanovich, A., Sheyko, A., & Katumba, B. (2010). Bottlenecks in the Development Life Cycle of a Feature - A Case Study Conducted at Ericsson AB.

Cockburn, A. (2006). Agile software development: the cooperative game.

Corona, E., & Pani, F. (2012). An investigation of approaches to set up a Kanban board, and of tools to manage it. In SITE12 Proceedings of the 11th international conference on Telecommunications and Informatics, Proceedings of the 11th international conference on Signal Processing, pp. 53-58.

Hibbs, C., Jewett, S., & Sullivan, M. (2009). The art of lean software development: a practical and incremental approach.

Hiranabe, K. (2008). Kanban Applied to Software Development: from Agile to Lean. InfoQ. Retrieved April 01, 2013, from

Leffingwell, D. (2007). Scaling software agility: best practices for large enterprises.

Pettersen, J.-A., & Segerstedt, A. (2009). Restricted work-in-process: A study of differences between Kanban and CONWIP. International Journal of Production Economics, 118(1), 199–207.

Sanders, A. (2007). Kanban Ground Rules Example for a Specific Team. Retrieved April 01, 2013, from

Sanders, A. (2007). Naked Planning Explained – Kanban in the Small. Retrieved April 01, 2013, from

Scotland, K. (2009). Kanban, Flow and Cadence. EMC Corporation. Retrieved from

Scotland, K. (2011). Crystallising Kanban with Properties, Strategies and Techniques. Retrieved from

Staats, BR., & Upton, D. (2009). Lean Principles , Learning , and Software Production : Evidence from Indian Software Services. Harvard Business School

Staats, BR., Brunner, D., & Upton, D. (2011). Lean principles, learning, and knowledge work: Evidence from a software services provider. Journal of Operations Management.

Takahashi, K. (2003). Comparing reactive Kanban systems. International Journal Of Production Research, 41(18), 4317–4337.

Vilkki, K. (2010). When Agile Is Not Enough. In Lean Enterprise Software And Systems (Vol. 65, pp. 44–47).

Weber, B., & Wild, W. (2004). Application of lean and agile principles to workflow management. In Extreme Programming And Agile Processes In Software Engineering, Proceedings (Vol. 3092, pp. 258–261).

Appendix 4: Coding scheme



Coding Rule

Kanban method

It refers to the method of incremental and evolutionary process change for organizations and institutions.

Any description of the steps that has been undertaken to implement the Kanban approach into an organization.

Kanban Board

This refers to visual tools in project management application that have a basis on Kanban for the visualization and optimization of the workflow. It also enables real time teamwork and team collaboration

Any tool or means used to visualize the processes, tasks, or the workflow of the software product development.

Pull System

This refers to trigger the process of working on producing only what the customer needs by the quantity that is needed and only when it is needed

The approach of starting the development process based upon a request from the customer.

Work Item

It refers to a task that needs to be visualized and added to the Kanban board.

Any feature, user stories, MMF or any other item that needs to be visualized and has to go through different phases through the development process.

Priority Queue

It refers to the list of ordered requirements or work items

Any term indicates the use of queuing, ordering, or prioritizing tool. i.e. backlog or to-do items.

Inclusion Criteria

It refers to the rules that are used to make the decision of adding the work item to the visualization tool. Ideally, it should consider the value from a customer perspective.

Any norm, rule, or standard that is used to determine what work-item should be added to the board, i.e. through the use of MMF or Story point.

Work In Progress (WIP)

It refers to the concurrent number of work items that is allowed in each development phase.

Any rule, technique, to determine the number of concurrent work items.

Done Items

These are the items that have been completed on a particular phase and are ready to be released to the next stage.

The work items that have been through a specific development process and ready to be pulled by the next development process.

Reverse Items

It refers to items that are being moved backwards on the Kanban board instead of moving forward.

Any work item that needs to go back to the previous development process, i.e. bug fixing.

Validated Learning

This variable refers to the process of learning what works and what does not work for a specific organization. Its intent is to measure the a work item’s value from a business perspective

Validate learning is whereby an organization over time obtains a formula for obtaining, qualifying, and selling to customers in a particular target area. This can refer to the P-D-C-A cycle.

Cycle Time

Cycle time is the actual time required to complete one cycle of an operation for one work item from start to finish while the work item flows seamlessly through the development process.

Cycle time is a calculated based upon the time spent on producing a work item from the beginning until delivery without delays.

Lead Time

This is the time of completing one work item including delays between the initiation of a process and its execution, i.e. the time between making an order and the order being delivered.

Lead-time is calculated from the moment of requesting the work item until the moment that item is delivered to the customer.

Measurement tool

This usually a diagraming tool illustrates the cycle taken by a work item as it goes through the system.

Any measurement diagram is used to represent the performance of the Kanban.


Bottlenecks are the constraints that are faced during the product development process.

Any work item that is slacking and slowing the process down.

Slack / Buffer

This refers to designed quantity of time applied to task schedule to protect the success implementation of the required deliverable on time.

Any spare time put aside to help in delivering the work item on time.

Kanban Principles

These principles offer a framework that is chosen in the software development process by using the Kanban approach.

These are the guiding concepts of the Kanban approach.

Kanban techniques

This refers to production control system that is used to overcome the problems once occurred.

Any technique used to allow no surplus production and gives the workers the right to stop if they cannot keep up.


A visual representation of the work item details.

Any visual representation of the details related to a work item, this includes sticky notes, symbols or any other means.

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Al-Baik, O., Miller, J. The kanban approach, between agility and leanness: a systematic review. Empir Software Eng 20, 1861–1897 (2015).

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