Kanban and Scrum are used in the Agile practice to help teams visualize and significantly improve software development processes to build better products and services.
But while the two are both used largely with the same goals, it can be difficult to make the distinction between Kanban and Scrum when deciding which approach is best for your teams and projects.
When choosing between Kanban or Scrum, it’s important to know that both frameworks follow the same principles. However, there are some important differences that you’ll want to consider. At ZenHub, we support all Agile practices, from sprints and epics to planning, Scrum poker, and using Kanban boards alongside Scrum.
The very first thing you need to do is write down your priorities and the things you want to improve when it comes to your processes, tools, and workflows. Use this list when choosing how your team will work to see which of two (Scrum or Kanban) can help with all of your needs.
Before having an up-close look at the benefits of each, let’s first go through the core similarities and differences between Kanban and Scrum!
What's the difference between Kanban and Scrum?
Both Kanban and Scrum share some of the same principles, including:
- Both are visual and use pull-based scheduling
- Both require self-organized teams
- Both focus on the concept of continuous improvement and uncovering bottlenecks to launch the deliverables
- Both create future commitments, aiming to be as accurate as possible with work delivery
However, they also have distinct differences between Scrum and Kanban, including:
- Scrum practices the concept of Sprints, which have start/end dates. Meanwhile, Kanban is an ongoing method where timeboxing is optional.
- Kanban inspires work in progress limits but has no formal process whereby work is "committed to" within a set duration of time, like a Sprint. Instead, everything is continuously planned in Kanban, and picked up as work in progress moves to completion.
- Scrum uses estimation via story points to track the complexity of work. Kanban doesn’t measure the complexity of work as strictly, but rather encourages work not starting until other work has finished.
- Scrum teams commit to a predefined workload/iteration when teams using the Kanban method don’t have this type of commitment.
- Teams that practice Scrum will typically have team members with designated roles and responsibilities, such as product owners and Scrum masters. Kanban has no formal roles.
- Within the Scrum framework, iterations are mandatory while using these in the Kanban method is only a recommended best practice.
- Burndown and velocity charts are used along with the Scrum framework while no diagram or chart is needed in addition to the Kanban board.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the specifics of Kanban and Scrum!
The Kanban method
Teams open to adopting a spirit of continuous improvement "Kaizen" adopt a Kanban mindset. Kanban, being the concept of incremental progress and improvements, does not prescribe a certain philosophy or setup. This means anyone can use Kanban.
This also makes it very easy for any team to introduce Kanban concepts, as no sweeping process changes need to be made.
Teams that adopt Kanban principles agree:
- To pursue incremental, positive changes to get better over time. Kanban encourages teams to continuously ask and challenge things that aren’t working, or if they are, are there ways to get even better.
- To respect current processes, responsibilities, and ways of working, but are flexible to change. Kanban encourages value in the existing, but challenges teams to always have an eye for change. Change should only be implemented if the team agrees that it will introduce positive progress to move everyone forward, together.
- Small changes are easier and better. Incremental course corrections are less disruptive to team needs. Altering the complete process is not the aim of a Kanban mindset, as larger changes are disruptive.
- That everyone is empowered to be a leader and encourage change. No one individual should need to hold an executive or team lead title to bring forth change, ideas, or have a focus on team improvement. Kaizen, a concept heavily embedded in Kanban, inspires everyone to be looking out for how the team can optimally perform together.
- Work should be collaborative and visual. With the goal being a positive change, optimizing workflow habits is a key reason to visualize the work a team is working on. Visualizing work in a collective board also ensures no changes are made before the team understands how work flows. This puts the focus on shared understanding before actioning change.
What is a Kanban board?
A Kanban board is a method designed to help visualize work as it passes through different stages. Making work visible helps show others what’s going on, what’s upcoming, and keeps everyone on the same page.
Teams just getting started might use sticky notes and physical boards in co-located spaces. Others use products like ZenHub to organize work. Online boards are helpful for distributed teams, or those teams looking to enhance the physical sticky note process (such as being able to identify dependencies between work).
Here's a few reasons why teams prefer using ZenHub’s Kanban board:
- Speeds up the amount of time to set it up, keep it maintained, and readily available
- Ease of sharing it with others, especially stakeholders invested in the delivery of work
- Provides a home to asynchronously track an infinite number of issues, tasks, projects, and conversations
- No matter where or when teams look at the board, they’ll see the most up-to-date status of work
- Supports distributed teams and updates when a physical location cannot be guaranteed
The core elements of a Kanban board
Each board created has various visual elements, including:
- Workflow stages (columns, or pipelines)
- Issue or task cards: Issues represent a piece of work. For most teams, each issue represents a task to be completed. Once visualized through an issue, it gets placed in pipelines.
- Work in progress limits: how much work your team has in progress between committed to and delivered. WIP limits are also known as the maximum number of issues that the team ideally would like to have in each column at any given time to avoid context switching.
- The commitment stage: The pipeline that signals work is being committed to its delivery and agreed upon by the team.
- The delivery stage: The pipeline/stage that signals work is finished. Ideally, teams should aim to have the time between an issue being committed to, and delivered, as small as possible. The elapsed time between the two is called lead time. Teams should always be aiming to decrease their lead time as much as possible.
Issues on a Kanban board move through the workflow until completed, moving left-to-right. Board columns can be as simple as New, To Do, In Progress, and Complete or quite complex including stages from product, to design, and further to development. ZenHub is flexible and easy to change, so as your workflow changes, your pipelines can too.
Pros of using Kanban boards
Once you start practicing the Kanban method you’re committing to the following benefits:
- Mapping your current workflow, visually.
- Focusing on the flow of work through an overview of your team’s workflow
- Introducing processes to unblock team members and focus on the commitment of quality work.
- Allowing for continuous improvement to happen along with supporting continuous delivery.
- Staying flexible as tasks can be changed at any time.
- Making it easier to prioritize work without overallocating work to certain team members.
- Providing information accessibility so you can reduce meeting time and miscommunication.
- Increasing team and individual productivity by cutting down on the amount of time needed to meet up and discuss a task’s status.
- Keeping your team focused on a set number of action items.
Disadvantages of Kanban boards
So where does the Kanban method fall short?
- They don’t provide a clear structure.
- They’re difficult to adapt for a multidisciplinary team.
- They require constant updates if you want to represent the current status of a project and avoid further issues down the pipeline.
- They can become clutter and unusable if you manage too many team members and tasks from a single board.
So, what is Scrum?
Scrum is a framework that’s commonly used by product or software development teams who want to design better software. Still, the framework has become increasingly popular with other types of teams like marketing and web design.
It’s preferred in complex projects and situations that require team members to easily adapt to a new change or demand. This said, if you’re managing small or simple projects that face few to no risks you can stick with the Kanban method instead.
The usual flow of Scrum implies breaking your project’s timeline into multiple small sprints (usually 2-week long, but can extend to suit needs). Also specific to the Scrum framework are four core Scrum events:
- The sprint planning meeting held at the start of each sprint
- Weekly or daily stand-ups
- A sprint team reviews for every sprint
- A sprint retrospective during every cycle
The benefits of using Scrum
Let’s go through the pros of using the Scrum framework with your teams and projects:
- You can find multiple resources, courses, and official best practices on using the Scrum framework.
- Team members get feedback on their work easily thanks to short sprints and regular meetings.
- It makes it easy for large projects to be divided into manageable chunks of work with a clear outlook of what’s next.
- Using this framework provides high transparency levels into the actual work process for both employees and stakeholders.
- It helps define clear roles, each with their own duties, so no task is left without supervision.
- It accommodates changing priorities while helping companies save time and money.
The cons of Scrum
Like with all cases, there are certain disadvantages to keep in mind:
- Scrum is often criticized for having too many meetings with daily stand-ups becoming a burden for teams.
- It’s difficult to get inexperienced team members on board with this framework as they’ll need to go through Scrum training if they haven’t used it before.
- It lacks the flexibility of Kanban boards as Scrum sprints have a predefined strategy of handling work.
- Having too many frequent sprints with no breaks in between can burn out your team.
How to choose between Scrum and Kanban
Now that you have an overview of when to use either Scrum or Kanban, you should be able to guide your choice based on the type of projects and flexibility you work with.
On one hand, the Scrum framework is better suited for managing complex projects. These are the ones that include multiple resources, tasks, team members, milestones, and stakeholders. For short, light-weight projects that don’t face constant changes or risks, you can stick with Kanban boards.
But there’s more factors to consider. Need to deliver features and products faster? Turn to Scrum. Is improving your workflow a priority? Kanban is the answer. Entry-level team members will also enjoy using Kanban boards more while for Scrum you’ll need experience with sizing and estimating workloads.
A project management tool with Agile capabilities can help you automate your workflows, track sprints, and maintain full project transparency. ZenHub offers advanced project visibility through its multi-repo Kanban boards and supports Scrum teams by automating their sprint planning process to reduce meeting time and focus on what needs to get done.
So what’s your choice between Kanban and Scrum?