What is a Kanban Roadmap?

A Kanban roadmap can help product managers leverage the Kanban methodology in their strategic planning. The Kanban technique involves grouping initiatives into clearly marked buckets such as ‘planned’, ‘in process’, ‘completed’, and ‘blocked.’ Applying this technique to product roadmapping can help product teams see the sequencing of their product strategy in a big-picture, long-term context.

In this article, we’ll discuss how Kanban roadmapping works, its benefits, and when this type of roadmap fits into your process. Before we dig in to those details, though, let’s step back and discuss what we mean by Kanban.

What is Kanban?

Kanban is a Japanese word meaning “card you can see,” although it also translates to “visual signal,” or simply “card.”

You might recognize Kanban as the visual interface used by many project management apps, such as Trello and Jira. It allows teams to develop visual boards, which they can break into vertical columns (marked “Planned,” “Doing,” and “Done,” for example) to group items, and then create individual cards that they can move among those columns according to their current status.An example of kanban in Jira

A Brief History of Kanban

Toyota introduced Kanban in the mid-20th-century. Today they call it a “philosophy for complete elimination of waste.” The automobile manufacturer designed the methodology as a form of just-in-time manufacturing. The idea was to match the inventory levels Toyota kept on-hand with the company’s own demands—not according to vendors’ available supplies or timetables—to achieve better production efficiencies and higher-quality products.

So the company developed a process in which each part in its manufacturing plant had a physical card associated with it (the kanban) stamped with the part’s inventory number. When a part was pulled from the shelf to be installed, the card was also pulled at the same time and sent up the supply chain as a request for another part to replenish the supply.

The use of these cards, which were sometimes color-coded, was designed to give teams visual cues to more quickly and easily get a sense of inventory status, as well as progress levels at other stages of the manufacturing process. In other words, the Kanban system works by facilitating better communication across teams through visual management.

Kanban was originally designed as a project management system, which is why it was later adopted as one of the more popular frameworks for agile software development. This is an important distinction to understand, because it means Kanban is not, strictly speaking, a framework designed for product management or for maintaining product roadmaps (high-level, strategic plans) and not designed to track task-level details.

So what do we mean by Kanban roadmap, and why do we believe it can be a useful product management tool?

What Do We Mean by a Kanban Roadmap?

At first glance, it might seem that the Kanban methodology and product roadmapping are fundamentally in conflict. Roadmaps capture and communicate high-level strategy, while Kanban is a task-oriented technique.

Although this is true, product teams can use Kanban to develop what amounts to a hybrid roadmap approach. With a Kanban roadmap, you can capture both the initiatives you plan to tackle in the future and those you’ve committed to in the near-term. And, you can clearly and visually distinguish between these two categories.

One of the biggest advantages to a Kanban roadmap is that it allows product teams to communicate their near-term plans without committing to dates.

Example of a kanban roadmapIn the example above, product features are broken into four categories:

  • Backlog
  • To-Do
  • In Progress
  • Done

They are also color-coded to show what thematic goals each feature will contribute to, such as Increase Revenue or Customer Delight. A simple, date-free view gives stakeholders an easy way to quickly understand your short-term product strategy. This can be especially helpful when communicating with certain departments, such as the engineering team or your executive team.

How Product Managers Can Benefit from a Kanban Roadmap

There are many ways product managers can leverage the Kanban methodology in general to more closely track and oversee the task-level details of their products’ development. But in terms of roadmaps in particular, product managers can also use Kanban to develop what is in effect a supplemental roadmap. Here are a few benefits of such a roadmap.

  • A Kanban roadmap lets you capture and communicate initiatives you are working on currently as well as those that are a bit more aspirational or longer-term. In other words, it gives you a place to merge both your strategic roadmap and your backlog items—and to use clear visual buckets to differentiate the two.
  • A Kanban roadmap can also help you clearly communicate a snapshot of your product’s high-level project management view to key audiences—such as your development and support teams. This view will be far more relevant to these teams, in terms of helping them track their own progress, than if you showed them only your big-picture, strategic-level product roadmap view.
  • Because it presents a current view of your project’s status, a Kanban roadmap can also give you a great way to show relevant audiences where you are in the development process without having to dig into dates and deadlines.

When to Use a Kanban Roadmap

Kanban roadmaps can be helpful particularly for small and midsized companies—or any organization that has adopted the agile methodology and whose product teams move quickly.

This type of roadmap approach can help such organizations avoid the pitfall of committing themselves to an inflexible, yearlong roadmap. According to recent research on how product management organizations plan their product development, product teams today are reacting to the continuous flow of new data by frequently re-prioritizing their development plans. In fact, approximately 40% of teams say they re-prioritize their product backlog every week.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that leveraging a Kanban roadmap to make it easier for your team shuffle and re-prioritize initiatives should be used in conjunction with a broader strategy of continuous market research, data analysis, and customer discovery.

For many product teams, using both a longer-term, strategic roadmap in conjunction with a Kanban roadmap is the best strategy. With ProductPlan, you can easily visualize your roadmap in both timeline view and list view, saving you time and helping you communicate the right message to the right audience.