Project Management

11 minute read

Kanban vs Scrum: What's the Difference?

Devan Ciccarelli

Devan Ciccarelli

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Should you follow the kanban or scrum approach for your agile project needs?

Is there really a difference between kanban vs scrum?

As you’ll learn in this guide, there are just as many similarities between these two frameworks as there are differences.

Since each option serves a specific purpose, and they both have pros and cons to consider, this resource will teach you:

  • What kanban and scrum frameworks are
  • How member roles differ with each
  • The processes you’ll follow for both kanban and scrum
  • How the pull systems work 
  • What you’ll do with new tasks in kanban vs. scrum
  • How to decide when to use either (or both!) approaches 

Before you figure out which one may be best suited for your project management or business needs, you’ll need to get the basics of both styles under your belt first.

Kanban-vs-scrum

What exactly are we talking about with kanban vs. scrum?

Kanban and scrum are agile frameworks that are often used when it comes to developing software.

What is an agile framework?

The agile aspect simply means these particular processes are incremental and iterative.

An incremental approach takes larger, complex projects and breaks them down into smaller, more manageable pieces (or increments). 

This ensures your tasks are not only completed efficiently but also in the shortest amount of time possible.

An iterative characteristic means the project goes through different iterations to reach the best and final version.

So feedback from customers and stakeholders, along with other sources of comments and notes from team members, is continually circled back in a loop so your team of developers can make improvements to the final product. 

Since both kanban and scrum are agile frameworks, they both share incremental and iterative traits

Yet there are slight but key differences in how they each work.

Let’s start examining these by taking a look at what member roles are like in each framework first.

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Kanban vs scrum team member roles

There are two similarities between kanban and scrum team member roles:

  1. Only product owners initiate the need for improvements or a new product entirely.
  2. Each project has a main leader, known as a scrum master for scrum projects or an agile coach for kanban ones. The product owner will hand over all the tasks to this one person.

Here’s where similarities start to diverge between the two.

Team roles are more defined in scrum. You’ll have a distinct product owner, a scrum master, and supporting team members who each have specific roles to fill.

To keep efficiency high and your project on track, these designated roles are not mixed or changed throughout the process. Everyone sticks to their assigned tasks.

This is the complete opposite of the kanban style.

Everyone pitches in with kanban. While the agile coach orchestrates the entire machine, there are no set roles given to team members after that.

Instead, everyone on the team is expected to wear as many hats as needed to get tasks completed, and ultimately, get the job done.

These flexible roles change as the needs of the project evolve and the entire system adjusts accordingly.

The same rigid nature of scrum roles also carries over to its process too.

Kanban-vs-scrum

Kanban vs scrum process differences

Both scrum and kanban use visual storyboards to show team members the workflow trajectory and where they are currently.

However, the stories in scrum and kanban have different focuses.

In scrum: fixed periods of time known as sprints are mapped out and a predetermined schedule of deliverables is formulated.

Once the product owner hands the task over to the Scrum Master, this person will organize the project into smaller tasks, which are usually broken up into two-week-long work sprints, until the estimated completion date.

Kanban takes just the opposite approach.

In kanban: the process is like one long, continuous project that’s always in a state of development and delivery.

You’ll add a small number of tasks to your visual workflow board, known as a kanban board, and cap a maximum number of tasks to work on simultaneously per column.

So for example, in the development column, you may see anywhere from 2-4 items/tasks, depending on the size of your team.

Another task won’t be added until one or more of the tasks currently on the board is completed and moved to the next phase of the project, which might be testing, for example.

Rather than relying on a pre-set schedule to determine when tasks are completed, like what you’d follow in scrum, each task is only moved once it’s finished, whenever that may be.

Keep in mind, these tasks won’t linger on either board forever.

Thanks to each approach’s unique pull system, projects move along efficiently and no task falls between the cracks. 


Bonus: Check out Ray Sheen's lesson on the scrum sprint process from his Agile Scrum Practitioners course


Both kanban & scrum use a pull system to keep projects on task

A pull system is used to maintain momentum in a project. The pull system in both kanban and scrum frameworks has two main goals in mind:

  1. To cut down the backlog of tasks in order to get new iterations out to customers as soon as possible.
  2. To uncover bottlenecks and other issues in production slowing down the process.

But that’s about all kanban and scrum share here.

The pull system in scrum is enforced by a schedule and sprint review process. When the scrum master assigns high priority tasks out of the backlog, they’ll also set an expected completion date for the team to hit, which naturally pulls tasks along.

New tasks are only added to the backlog and worked on once the first sprint has been completed -- and reviewed.

Retrospective meetings are held to identify what went well and what needs tweaking to improve efficiency. This helps guarantee the next sprint is even better than the last.

The sprint board is completely cleared out after these meetings so it can become a clean slate for the next sprint.

Kanban works on a continual pull system with daily reviews. Since the kanban approach doesn’t schedule completion dates or sprints, work capacity limits are set instead.

Once a team is at capacity with tasks, no new tasks are added to the list.

When a task is completed, a new one is automatically entered into rotation, thus keeping the pull system alive and active.

This framework means there are only so many tasks going on at once, which may make it easier to manage.

Kanban also trades the retrospective meeting after a 2-week sprint for daily recaps to make sure everyone stays on the same page throughout every step of the project.

And unlike clearing out a scrum storyboard each time, the tasks in kanban are continually added to and moved along to completion.

Kanban and scrum also differ on how they allow for changes and updates to the project.


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Here’s what happens with changes in kanban vs scrum

It should be fairly clear by now that scrum is a much more rigid approach than kanban.

Not only are there strict roles and pre-defined sprints, but changes are also not welcome in scrum frameworks.

Using scrum, teams must wait for a sprint to finish before seeing if and when they can make updates. These changes are not allowed mid-sprint.

With kanban, once again, we see the opposite.

Changes can be made in kanban on an as-needed basis determined by the always evolving needs of the project and your business. 

This means teams can move on from features customers may no longer be interested in and prevent wasting time trying to improve them.

So now that you know more about each framework, you may wondering when it’s best to use one method over the other.

Since each approach has its specific uses, this process should start with your answers to these questions.

When to use kanban vs scrum (3 questions to consider)

It’s impossible for me to recommend a method for you to use without knowing your project’s details.

So you’ll need to determine this route on your own based on your answers to these three key questions:

1.  Do you need to create efficient processes?

If your organization lacks efficiency and processes in general, a more rigid system may be needed to get this foundation in place, especially to start.

Here, scrum would be more appropriate.

You’ll be able to create a workflow, assign specific members of your team to complete their assigned tasks, and set up an efficient process for development and review both now and in the future.

But this does require a sort of starting over from scratch approach.

If you already have a system in place, consider this next question:

2.  Are you looking to improve existing processes that are already efficient?

When you already have solid processes in place but you want to improve upon them as your business grows, a kanban approach may work better for you.

With this, you won’t have to toss out what’s already working so you can instead focus on knocking out tasks faster and using your daily reviews to deliver the highest quality product.

And if you’re still on the fence here, consider this last question:

3.  Are your priorities constantly changing?

Another big point to consider is whether your business’ needs are stable or if they’re constantly changing with the market.

For projects varying in priorities and needs, a flexible kanban approach may be the better option as it allows for daily reviews and updates to be made without effort being wasted. 

If you have steady priorities that rarely change over time, scrum can help you create an efficient system that stays consistent and easy for your team members to follow.

Kanban-vs-scrum

Did you know you can choose both?

You may find that both methods work for different parts of your process, and that’s okay too. 

A kanban style can be used in conjunction with scrum and even other agile methods to help your team improve your project before reaching certain milestones.

If your testing team requires more time and freedom than your development members, for instance, you can set each of them up on different agile tracks to suit their productivity and your goal setting.

Adopt a flexible mindset while you try out each method with your team and collect feedback before making your final decision. This can help narrow down your choices as well.

Kanban vs scrum: Now the choice is up to you

With all the pros and cons of kanban vs scrum on the table, you’re ready to try one (or both) methods during your next project.

By finding the right framework to match your project’s needs, you’ll help create more efficient processes and iterations that can be improved on over time, which any project manager can benefit from.

If you’re still not sure whether your company needs to implement an agile framework, check out this guide on When to Use Agile Project Management for more help next. And if you are ready to sharpen your project management skills, then check out GoSkills selection of project management courses.

Get your free project management ebook

Learn the six major aspects of becoming a successful project manager!

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Devan Ciccarelli

Devan Ciccarelli

Crafting fluff-free content is Devan’s jam. When she’s not writing for GoSkills, you’ll find her outside reading, soaking up the sun, or hiking her next adventure.

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