As the word about Kanban spreads throughout the IT sector and beyond, the number of managers who are considering putting the method in action within their teams increases by the day. Those who decide to give it a try have two options to choose from for their implementation – a physical Kanban board or a digital Kanban app that takes their boards online.
Physical Kanban Board
The great thing about using a physical Kanban board is that it is extremely simple to work with. The team needs just a brief explanation about the Lean principles and members are ready to start moving cards across the board. Physical boards are great information radiators. Team members can just take a glance once in a while to get an update on their colleagues’ activities. This makes it very easy to spot a lack of capacity and allows for a prompt reaction by relocating work to team members who have fewer tasks. The physical Kanban board is an interesting addition to the office. Teams can adapt any vertical surface for the purpose (e.g. walls, windows, etc.) and start tracking their work process immediately. The only necessary condition is the surface to be large enough to map all the stages of the workflow. Usually, the board is placed in a visible, communal spot in the office, so that all team members can have access to it.
A physical visualization of Kanban has a number of downsides that are obviously in conflict with the continuous technological development of modern businesses and their needs.
Becomes cluttered and indecipherable if larger projects are planned on it.
To begin with, the physical Kanban board requires plenty of attention in order to be maintained up to date. Even the tiniest changes on it are implemented manually, which takes up valuable time and effort from the team that could be channeled towards the project itself. Without the proper care, the board can easily turn into a mess that confuses team members instead of helping them get a clear idea about their overall progress regarding ongoing assignments. For example, a developer finishes a feature and forgets to move the card to “Done”. The QA engineer who is waiting to test the result of the developer’s work won’t know that it is time for her to begin and time will be wasted in that handover until everything is clarified.
Even if the Kanban board is kept neat and current at all times, there is a risk that it will become incomprehensible at some point. This is because each task is written by hand and placed on a relatively small paper sticky note (imagine a board with a hundred hand-written cards, strings between affiliated cards, magnets to show blocking and colors to show type). The upkeep of this process is unnecessarily cluttered and it is near to impossible to map larger projects, like software tools with many features, on it for a prolonged period of time.
Remote team members can’t participate.
Another problem with using a physical Kanban board is that it is not suited for remote teams. Co-located teams tend to be a rare sight these days. It is not unusual even for smaller companies to have distributed teams, operating from different parts of the globe. Hosting a stand-up at a physical board with remote team members is possible with the help of webcams, but it is inconvenient, and the remote team will only have access to it when you ring them in. It is so much easier to use a Kanban app to connect team members from all over the world and give them access to live data at all times.
You can only collect data and manage it manually.
Last but not least, physical Kanban comes without any Analytics options. Having to gather data manually makes it harder to collect information about the cycle time of tasks and to measure the performance of each team member. There is a lot of valuable data about your process that you will probably miss out on because it’s impossible to track in this format of a Kanban board. This will end up limiting the potential of the team’s continuous improvement because you won’t have process metrics upon which to base your benchmarks.
Kanban – The Digital Solution
Using a physical board is a great way for teams to get familiar with the Kanban method, but proves to be less efficient than mapping the same workflow on a digital Kanban board in the long run. Over the past few years, Kanban has been evolving in order to find its place in the digital world. The physical board can now be replaced with a Kanban app that combines all the method’s features. Digital solutions for online Kanban implementation have been in development since the method made its debut in the field of knowledge work and have been consistently improving since then.
Can be accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection.
In the more advanced Kanban platforms, teams can now enjoy unique sets of automation, analytics and work breakdown features. What all Kanban apps have in common is that they are accessible from everywhere in the world with an Internet connection. This allows remote teams to apply the method with ease, but also makes it suitable for professionals who spend a lot of time working from different locations (e.g. real estate agents). This is why teams can easily use Kanban for project management purposes.
Digital Kanban solutions provide greater flexibility and contribute to continuous improvement of efficiency in the long run.
In addition to the improved accessibility, a Kanban app can provide a great number of superior board capabilities. Teams are able to structure a Kanban board with extreme precision, mapping each distinct step of their work process, logging their time for tasks, setting WIP limits for various columns in the In Progress section and more. They can create as many columns and swimlanes as they need and expand or shrink them according to what they want their view to be. Editing the Kanban board is a lot easier as well. Additional swimlanes and columns can be added with just a few clicks, compared to redrawing the whole physical board. Furthermore, a common feature of any digital Kanban app is the ability to notify users who are assigned to a board about updates that concern them using an integration with their email client. In other words, the board itself can relay information through email and other mobile channels such as push notifications.
More details can be added to cards (not just what fits on a post-it).
Cards in any digital Kanban app are far more advanced than sticky notes. Teams have an arsenal of handy additions at their disposal like subtasks, comments, templates, ability to mention team members within the cards, option to create links between cards and much more. The greatest benefit, however, is the most basic one – team members can put as much information in the cards as they want. This allows for a more detailed description of the tasks and a better understanding of the activities associated with the process of completion of the assignment that is stored in the card.
You can generate reports and analytics with just a couple of clicks.
Arguably, the greatest benefit that some Kanban apps can provide is the arsenal of analytics options found in the most advanced digital Kanban solutions. They come in the form of diagrams and charts that collect key metrics from your team’s process over time and make it easy to generate immediate reports for stakeholders and investors whenever needed. For example, a cycle time chart shows how much time a task has spent in a given state (requested, in progress, done). It can provide both the team and management with valuable data about bottlenecks in the process, the performance of each person and plenty more.
Integration with other tools and platforms.
Kanban apps can be integrated with other digital tools (e.g. email clients). Most companies out there usually make use of different software in order to bring more comfort to their work. As Kanban is meant to be used as a foundation for process improvement, the logical thing is to sync it with other tools and techniques that are already in place in order to involve the complete organizational process, instead of just parts of it.
You can automate parts of your workflow.
There are Kanban apps that focus on automation of the workflow, allowing users to leave many of the routine actions on the board to the system itself instead of to the team. For example, if the team holds a KPI meeting every week on Monday, the system can automatically create a card for the purpose and assign it to the person who is responsible for gathering the data.
Some people maintain both physical and digital Kanban boards for their workflow.
One of the basic purposes of a Kanban board is to serve as an information radiator to the team. Although it can be open as a tab in every team member’s web browser, it is not quite as present as a physical board. In order to keep the physical and the tactile aspects of the Kanban board, some teams maintain both physical and digital versions. However, there are ways to get the best of both worlds that are not necessarily expensive or difficult to apply. The team can easily place a touchscreen monitor, connected to a PC, or use a projector to visualize the Kanban board on a spare wall in the office.
The Kanban method can help companies from every industry out there to evolve their work process and make it more efficient. The original method relying on physical boards and sticky notes is a great way to get familiar with Kanban and is perfect for more conservative teams working on smaller projects. It is simple, easy to implement and does not require significant changes to the established way of work.
Digital Kanban apps provide teams with more flexibility and additional functionalities that can maximize the effect of the method in the long run. Although relatively new, they are developing further at an incredible rate. The future of business is digital, so is the future of Kanban.