ITIL and Kanban: Everything you need to know

ITIL and Kanban are two different management tools with diverse backgrounds and roots.

While Kanban was initially practiced on Japanese shop floors for business-related plans, ITIL was an initiative of the government of the United Kingdom to standardize IT management practices.

ITIL seems to be too process-driven and rigid, but Kanban is simple and easy to implement. Let's understand the key differences and the similarities between ITIL and Kanban in this article.


A sample of ITIL processes

ITIL is a commonly used term in the field of IT Service Management, and it used to be an acronym for Information Technology Infrastructure Library, but since the abbreviation has gotten stronger, we use the term ITIL more often. The ITIL framework describes best practices for delivering IT services.

ITIL Process

ITIL processes (based on ITIL V3 2011) can be viewed in five stages:

ITIL Service Strategy

This step is to help the organization understand a market-driven
approach. This may include areas such as service portfolio management, financial management, demand management, relationship management, and strategy management.

ITIL Service Design

It is about designing the solution, management information systems, technology, processes, and measurements.

ITIL Service Transition

The change in the state of service in the lifecycle requires the process of ITIL service transition. A significant challenge in this step is to get people's acceptance of change.

ITIL Service Operations

It is about day-to-day activities and infrastructure for delivering value
for business. User access to the service through service operations and service experience is a critical point in this step.

Continual service improvement

Continual Service Improvement or CSI is a metrics-driven approach to identify the scope of development and the impact of improvement efforts.

The history and evolution of ITIL

In 1980, the Central Computer and Telecommunication Agency or the CCTA, a United Kingdom government agency, developed a set of recommendations. The idea was to create standard practices for government and private agencies in IT management policies.

ITIL started as a collection of books covering topics on IT service management. Under ITIL version 1, more than thirty volumes of books were published. 

In the 2000/2001 ITIL version, 2 consolidated the publications into nine logical sets. It made ITIL more affordable and also accessible. In 2001 CCTA was merged with the Office of Government Commerce, the United Kingdom, or OGC. In 2006 ITIL version 2 glossary was published. ITIL version 3 was released in 2007. It consists of 26 processes and functions and is grouped into 5 volumes.

It is based on the concept of the service lifecycle structure. ITIL version 3 is also known as ITIL 2007 edition. In 2009 authorities withdrew ITIL version 2, and consultations began on a further course of action. In 2011 an updated version of ITIL 2007 was released. OGC ceased to be an owner of ITIL by then. ITIL 2011 provides additional guidelines and the definition of formal processes.

Twenty-six methods are listed under ITIL 2011. Since 2013 ITIL has been owned by AXELOS, a joint venture between Capita and the United Kingdom cabinet office. 


Kanban board

Taiichi Ohno, an engineer working with Toyota, developed Kanban, which helped in improving manufacturing efficiency. In this process, an instruction card is sent along the production line, thereby regulating the supply of components.

Primarily it is a method of managing inventory and work in process. However, the concept of Kanban is not restricted to manufacturing on the shop floor alone. Just like a physical product, a project or ideas for improvement move from one stage to the other stage.

  • In software development, many teams use visual indicators to watch feature enhancements starting from requirements to development and production.
  • In information technology, Kanban tools focus on limiting work in process and visualizing the workflow.

Implementation of Kanban

Implementation of Kanban can be described in the following manner:

  • The workflow consists of logical steps.
  • There are two steps to a workflow viz. queue and work in progress/process.
  • The team in charge decides on the maximum amount of work each step of the workflow can hold.
  • Work is pushed into the queue step and pulled in the in a process step.
  • If need be, work is halted in two successive stages to clear bottleneck.

Kanban stipulates the upper limit of work in the process based on the capabilities of teams at any point in the process, thereby avoiding overloading. Understanding bottlenecks and the flow of work are essential requirements in implementing Kanban. There are cultural issues involved as well, such as committing a target.

ITIL and Kanban: The Differences

Apparently, ITIL and Kanban present two different worldviews.

What is central in Kanban is only remotely found in ITIL.

ITIL is about processes, while Kanban is about teams and work in processes.

The concept of the process seems to be missing in Kanban, while ITIL does not talk about work in progress/process (WIP).

ITIL does not seem to address issues regarding implementation and organizational structure. So it is away from people and actual execution. The assumption here is that processes have infinite capacity. In a dynamic, variable, and information-centric environment, the lack of an execution model and over-dependence on methods is unlikely to produce optimal results.

But we must note that ITIL is going through a process of evolution, and perhaps it should evolve further to meet the challenges of a dynamic environment.