Kanban vs. Scrum: What's the Difference?

Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 21, 2021

Kanban is a project management method that helps visualize tasks, while Scrum is a method that provides structure to the team and schedule.

Project manager works with her Scrum team as they sort out tasks in the office.

Kanban and Scrum are project management methodologies that complete project tasks in small increments and emphasize continuous improvement. But the processes they use to achieve those ends are different. While Kanban is centered around visualizing tasks and continuous flow, Scrum is more about implementing timelines for each delivery cycle and assigning set roles.

Both Kanban and Scrum borrow from Agile and Lean approaches, though Scrum is often more heavily associated with Agile. That means Kanban and Scrum are both adaptive, transparent, and reduce inefficiencies in the project process. 

Choosing between Kanban and Scrum isn’t always necessary. Use both together to maximize the benefits you get from each. Here’s a breakdown of what each is, how they compare, and which to use when.

Read more: Agile vs. Scrum: Which Should You Use, and Why?

Kanban vs. Scrum: What’s the difference?

So what are Kanban and Scrum, exactly? Here’s a detailed look at what sets them apart.

What is Kanban?

Kanban is a visual method of project management used to track tasks and reduce inefficiencies in a project. The heart of the Kanban method is the Kanban board—physical or digital—in which phases of the project are divided into columns. Tasks are written on cards that progress from one column to the next, until the task is completed.

Kanban has been linked to several benefits. Kanban increases transparency in a project by visually clarifying what tasks need to be completed and where tasks are piling up. This visual aid makes it easier to delegate resources where they need to go, reducing inefficiencies. A 2021 survey reported that top Kanban benefits included increased visibility of flow, improved delivery speed, and alignment between business objectives, key results, and delivery work [1].

Kanban uses principles from both Agile and Lean. Kanban can be used easily with other methodologies and is often used in tandem with Scrum in a hybrid process called Scrumban. Scrumban was more popular with Agile adopters, with 9 percent of survey respondents using Scrumban, compared to 6 percent using Kanban according to a 2021 survey [2].

Did you know?

Kanban means “signboard” in Japanese. The Kanban method was developed in a Toyota factory, when cards were developed to track production progress. It is now used to improve products and processes beyond the automotive industry, including in software development, financial services, consulting, and other manufacturing sectors.

Placeholder

Other key concepts in Kanban include:

  • Definition of Workflow (DoW): The DoW defines key parts of the Kanban workflow, such as what units are moving through the board, what “started” or “finished” means, and how long it should take for an item to progress through the columns.

  • Work in progress (WIP) limits: Teams can set WIP limits in a column, groups of columns, or the entire board. This means a column with a WIP limit of five can’t have more than five cards in it at a time. If there are five, the team must tackle the tasks in that column before new ones can be moved in. WIP limits can help surface bottlenecks in the production process.

  • Kaizen: Meaning “improvement” in Japanese, kaizen encourages a mindset to continually better the process. This encourages all team members to share their insights and work to improve the team, not just managers.

What is Scrum?

Scrum is an Agile methodology designed for complex projects where it is frequently necessary to adapt to change. Scrum is based on short development cycles called sprints, which generally last from one to four weeks. A Scrum team is self-organized, small (typically no more than nine people), and includes one Scrum master and one product owner. The rest of the team is called the development team.

As typical of Agile frameworks, Scrum uses an iterative approach to completing projects. Instead of delivering a project all at once, teams complete and deliver tasks in stages. This makes it easier to adapt to changes and evolving priorities.

Scrum is built on three pillars:

  • Adaptation: Scrum is adaptive, meaning it embraces change. Scrum can easily accommodate a project changing tactical directions.

  • Transparency: Transparency ensures everybody on the team knows what is going on and why. 

  • Inspection: Team members and stakeholders inspect projects consistently. This encourages a culture of improvement.

Scrum also has five core values: courage, focus, commitment, respect, and openness. These values emphasize the importance of clear and honest communication, as well as a sense of ownership by each member of the team.

Read more: The 3 Scrum Roles and Responsibilities, Explained

video-placeholder
Loading...
So what is Scrum, exactly?

Kanban vs. Scrum: Similarities and differences

The similarities and differences between Kanban and Scrum can be summarized as follows:

  • Kanban and Scrum are both methodologies that allow projects to adapt to change, encourage engagement by all team members, have short development cycles, and increase transparency.

  • Kanban is a methodology centered around visualizing tasks, while Scrum is a methodology that structures workflow and team culture to deliver projects in short timelines.

  • Kanban delivers tasks continuously until the project is finished, while Scrum delivers chunks of deliverables in one- to four-week periods.

Here’s a side-by-side look at Kanban and Scrum.

MethodologyKanbanScrum
RolesNo defined rolesScrum master, product owner, and development team
Delivery cycleContinuousSprint cycle lasts one to four weeks
Change policyCan be incorporated any timeGenerally not made during sprint
ArtifactsKanban boardProduct backlog, sprint backlog, product increments
ToolsJira Software, Kanbanize, SwiftKanban, Trello, AsanaJira Software, Axosoft, VivifyScrum, Targetprocess
Key concepts or pillarsEffective, efficient, predictableTransparency, adaptation, inspection

Kanban vs. Agile

Agile is a set of project management principles that encourage an adaptive and iterative way of approaching project management. Agile is an overarching philosophy, and not a set of tools or processes. It emphasizes flexibility over following a plan, and is often used for projects that are met frequently with change.

Kanban, on the other hand, is an Agile methodology. This means it offers the specific tools and processes to implement Agile. It exhibits many principles characteristic of Agile, including the capacity to adapt to changes, and transparency across the team. 

Read more: What Is Agile? A Beginner's Guide

Kanban vs. Waterfall

Waterfall is a traditional approach to project management in which tasks are completed in a set order until the project is finished, just as water might flow down a series of rocks in a waterfall. Waterfall is not designed to absorb changes throughout a project, and is recommended for projects where few changes are expected. This might include projects that have strict budget or time constraints, or where tasks must be completed sequentially.

Waterfall might seem at odds with Kanban’s capacity to absorb change. However, project managers can use an adapted Kanban board in a Waterfall process to visualize tasks.

Kanban vs. Scrum: Which should I choose?

Kanban and Scrum each have their separate strengths. But pitting Kanban against Scrum is a false dilemma; you can easily use both in your work to maximize the benefits.

When to use Kanban:

Kanban has been shown to improve visibility, foster a culture of continuous improvement, and increase productivity [1].

Kanban can fit in with processes that already exist—including Scrum. If you don’t want to overhaul your entire work process but are hoping to gain the benefits that an Agile process can bring, Kanban can be a good way to start.

When to use Scrum:

Scrum has been linked to higher productivity, faster delivery, lower costs, and higher quality. Many project managers also see Scrum as an effective method to tackle complex projects, or projects that might see frequent change.

Scrum can make sense to use if you’re in an industry that sees frequent change, or if your project might need space to adapt to feedback. This might include industries that have frequent technology updates, or projects creating new products.

Scrumban: choosing both

Scrumban is a hybrid method that combines both Kanban and Scrum. Scrumban uses the processes of Scrum and the visualization tools of Kanban. Scrumban can be a good way for teams familiar with either Scrum or Kanban to incorporate the other into their process.

Getting started in project management

Knowing how and when to implement either Kanban or Scrum (or both) will take a combination of knowledge and practice. If you’re an aspiring project manager and don’t know where to start, consider the Google Project Management: Professional Certificate.

Placeholder

Google Project Management:

Google

PROFESSIONAL CERTIFICATE

Article sources

1. Kanban University. "State of Kanban: First Annual Report 2021, https://resources.kanban.university/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/US-Letter-State-of-Kanban-Report-2021.pdf." Accessed September 15, 2021.

2. Digital.ai. "15th State of Agile Report, https://stateofagile.com/#." Accessed September 15, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 21, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

Learn without limits