What is a Kanban Board and how do you use it?

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Kanban is a simple but yet a very powerful tool for management workload of a team. Using Kanban board provides visibility and structure to the way a team manages its workload. Kanban has recently grown in popularity and is perhaps one of the most popular applications of an Agile mindset, being widely used as a methodology for managing project work in the industry of software development, but not limited to it.

Kanban Template PowerPoint Free Download
Kanban Template PowerPoint Free Download

What is Kanban?

While everyone seems to be talking about or adopting Kanban nowadays, in fact, Kanban is not new and dates to the late 40s. Nearly 60 years ago, Toyota, the giant car manufacturer, had a play at it in an attempt to optimize its operations in an equivalent way to how supermarkets replenish their stock – no sooner, no later, but just in time (JIT)! The JIT methodology approach was born and, with it, a set of principles, behaviors and practices that made it successful. 

Among them, Kanban. Kanban is a Japanese word that can be translated as ‘visual signal’. The saying goes that ‘pictures are worth a thousand words’ and that is exactly the essence of Kanban, where work items are represented visually on a board, allowing team members to track progress of work and quickly identify bottlenecks and dependencies between them.

As a methodology, Kanban is underpinned by three fundamental principles:

Visualize the workflow: on the wall, on the screen or on paper, visuals are a key concept for Kanban. For Kanban to be properly applied, work and its flow need to be visually represented in some form, helping to identify how work progresses and which work items are in the queue.

Limit work in progress: don’t try to bite off more than can chew; by limiting the amount of work in progress (WIP), Kanban ensures that teams commit to work according to their capacity, avoiding a scenario where everyone is working but nothing gets done.

Focus on flow: the journey matters more than the individual stops on the way and focus should be put on how the teams allow work to progress in the backlog until their completion.

How does a Kanban board work?

The main tool of a Kanban team is the Kanban board which is used to visualize and optimize the flow of work in the team. In its simplest form, a Kanban board is usually split between ‘To Do’, In Progress’, and ‘Done’. As work progresses, teams start moving a card (a single task) from left (your To Do list) to right on the board (your Done list), in this way signalling tasks in the workflow until they reach completion. 

Kanban boards can be physical (colorful sticky notes are always an excellent choice!) or digital (I’m certain you’ve heard of Trello before) but, regardless of their format, they should allow the workflow to be standardized and easily visualized.

With all work clearly displayed on a board, the Kanban team can then quickly move items around and check what needs to be done next, how many items are in progress and how do they impact the team’s capacity, what the overall progress looks like, how big is the queue of items still to be completed and, as importantly, identify priority conflicts and bottlenecks and collaboratively discuss how to get the work flowing again.

What are the benefits of Kanban 

Easy to apply and understand: while Gantt Charts can scare even the most competent and experienced senior manager, Kanban boards are simple and very visual, making it easy, even for someone new on the role, to get what it is about.

Transparency: it’s difficult to hide problems when they are just before your eyes. On a wall. with colors. Provide visibility to the current team workload including the backlog. Each of the team member know what others in the team is working on and the status of task. As the backlog is clearly visible manager can take actions to handle the work load. 

Focus and speed: by having clear status for each work item, the team can focus on items that are in progress, in this way, quickly moving forward in the workflow. You can use the express lane to prioritize items which are urgently required. Increased productivity as team is more focused on tasks.

Collaboration: a single centralized board offers an opportunity for the team to discuss, update progress, and solve problems in a collaborative fashion. Provides a structure and enforces the process using which the team handles tasks.



Kanban Columns
Kanban Columns

Columns on a Kanban Board

Backlog - will contain list of all the task pending. All the items on the backlog should be approved by key stakeholders. Before any item is added to the backlog it must have the requirements defined. All the tasks should come with an end date or time. All the tasks should come with priority.

To Do - will contain tasks which are already prioritized. Add items only after assigning them a owner and is prioritized for work. Ensure the right status of the task is reflected in other tracking systems like MS Project, Team Backlog.

WIP - Work In Progress. Tasks which are currently in progress. This also a max number which indicates the max number of tasks which can be in in-progress. Move tasks only when they can be worked on. Ensure the card has name of the person working on that task. Adhere to the max columns strictly so that team is not over loaded. Ensure the team updates the task status on a daily basis.

Done - Section which should have all the tasks which are complete. Move tasks only when all the aspects of it are complete. Example no defects outstanding, code review complete, task closed in JIRA etc. Mark all the tasks as complete - which is green.

Express Lane - all urgent tickets should be put on this lane so that can move faster. Add tasks here only when they are urgent. Ensure there is a valid reason for the emergency. The person working on the express lane items should not be assigned any other tasks.

Every task on the board is represented by a "Task card". The task card contains name of the task, Initials of the person working on it and current status - red, green and amber. Define max threshold levels for each column. For example Backlog can have a max of 20 tasks, To Do a max of 5 etc.

Steps to implement Kanban for your team

So, you read this article and are now looking forward to getting started with Kanban. Where to start? Fortunately, Kanban is a simple methodology, therefore, its adoption involves a set of simple steps:
  1. Select what you are applying Kanban to: is it a process, a project, or a set of deliverable?
  2. Identify what states are going to be used: use the 3 basic states of To Do, WIP, and Done, to start with
  3. Define what Done looks like: it may sound common sense but, trust me, common sense is not that common
  4. Build a Kanban board: use a digital tool or put a board on the wall of the office
  5. Grab a bunch of sticky notes: distribute these to the Kanban team
  6. Define the Kanban cards: as a team, have a look at the product backlog and break down the scope of work
  7. Assign estimates and people to the Kanban cards: time to make it real
  8. Move cards based on their progress: every time a card is completed or a new one starts, the Board should be updated
  9. Continuously improve: when using the tool in anger, you can start collecting metrics on the workflow and delivery cycle and use learning to continuously improve and refine the approach
  10. Relax and have fun: don’t be afraid to make mistakes, Kanban is a lot about experimentation and enjoying the fun that comes with collaboration!
Kanban Card
Kanban Card

Swimlanes in Kanban

While a basic Kanban board contains just three groups – To Do, In Progress, and Done -, due to the complexity of the project or based on the reporting and governance arrangements of your organization, this simple structure may be of limited use for you. In that case, it’s useful to know that you can always sophisticate your board a bit more. Two of the most common options include:
  • Introduce additional states: if ‘In Progress’ falls short of what you aim to achieve, consider adding more columns to the board in line with your company’s established stages or states, such as ‘In Revision’, ‘Testing’, ‘Dispatched’, etc.
  • Introduce swimlanes: swimlanes represent a horizontal categorization which can allow you to gain a better overview of your tasks by displaying more information. Swimlanes can be quite helpful to split your board into teams, products, business areas or assignee.
Although additional columns and swimlanes can assist in better tracking the work, you should remember the key advantage of using a Kanban board in the first place: keep it simple!

What are Kanban cards?

Each work item is represented as a Kanban card - the colorful sticky note you would add to the Kanban board. The main purpose of a Kanban card is to visually display a work item flowing through the project, saving time in dreadful project meetings or lengthy status reports. However, make no mistake: Kanban cards should enable conversation, not replace it!

Typically, a Kanban card contains the following elements as a minimal:
  • Unique identifier
  • Name of the work item
  • Start date
  • Deadline, if applicable
  • Estimated duration
  • Responsible
In a manufacturing environment – it was where it all started, after all! – Kanban cards can also be called Kanban Replenishment Cards, in this case containing additional information regarding the replenishment. Regardless, they both serve the same purpose: identify and define a piece of work so that it can be tracked in the workflow.

Best Practices for a Kanban Board

  • Update the Kanban everyday with a 15 minutes meeting with the team. This is mandatory and has to be done everyday without fail.
  • Encourage the team to move their tasks during the meeting.

  • Only one person can add tasks to backlog. This will ensure control over backlog.
  • Always discuss the task in Express Lane first and give top priority to it.
  • Always adhere to max number defined for each of the columns.In our example we have a set a limit of 4 tasks for the WIP column.
  • Ensure you have translation rules for each column.Check out below for some sample rules.
  • Do not immediately delete the tasks in the done section. Keeping the tasks there makes the team and others see what was accomplished recently.

Personal Kanban

Life can be complicated sometimes and that is where using a Kanban board for your personal use can be a great ally. Yes, Kanban can be used at the personal level too and we actually tend to do it unconsciously in our heads every time.


Personal Kanban
Personal Kanban
Not just can we organize our day-to-day in a more productive way, it also contributes to our motivation by identifying how much we have accomplished on the day – unless, of course, you are a procrastinator and have a thousand work items in progress all at once!


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