Kanban is a Japanese word meaning literally ‘sign or billboard’. It was used in a system developed by Toyota in the late 1940s in which cards were passed from one section of a factory to another when more materials were required as part of a JIT (just-in-time) production system. A group on the factory floor would send a kanban to the immediate supplier who would send what was required and then send their own kanban to the remote supplier for a top-up. The kanban exchange moved along the line resulting in immediate supply of what was needed and backup order for new material.
The system became the model for the production of development software rather than cars. The kanban board tracking movements is digital. Its value is in allowing the whole process of development to be visualised and made explicit to every member in a team. This means that any delay or dependency in the progress of the work can be instantly identified.
Two related words are scrum and sprint. The sprint is a small unit of work that can be tackled, so to speak, by a dedicated team and completed in a short space of time. The scrum is the short meeting that the team has each morning to report on progress and discuss any difficulties with the scrum leader. They are part of the kanban system.
This terminology began in the IT industry but is now spreading to other sectors, though still part of business jargon. But who knows, your school canteen may well be passing virtual kanbans to the meat pie supplier, and having a scrum meeting in the school hall to report on the take-up of fresh fruit and veggies.