The power of a kanban board

Japan brought us sushi, anime, Nintendo, karaoke and a way of being more efficient in our work. The philosophy of Lean and the Kanban method with which it can be implemented is one of the most notable Japanese contributions to the manufacturing and, as of this decade, knowledge work. The physical Kanban whiteboard that was developed in the automotive factories of Toyota has been proving its worth as a vehicle for continuous efficiency improvement in enterprise and startup environments since its inception in the 1950s.

To put it into context, in 1950s America, Ford and Chevy dominated the market when Toyota, a virtually unknown importer, opened its first American car dealership in California in 1957. Enter Kanban. Flash forward to 2016. Presently, Toyota is the world’s biggest carmaker, earning top marks from experts and customers alike for quality and innovation.

Whether you are a decade old corporation, an up-and-coming enterprise or a newly-founded startup, structuring your process on a Kanban board like Toyota did might just be one of the best decisions you ever make for your company. All it takes is discipline, a Lean mindset, a spare wall in the office or, preferably, an online Kanban tool for your company-wide implementation and an enthusiasm for perfection.

Main Elements of the Board

While those of you working in production or IT Ops might have seen a Kanban board before, here is its basic structure for those of you who haven’t:

kanban board

Every Kanban board consists of the following essential elements:

The Vertical Columns represent the phases of your process. A task card begins in the leftmost column and ends up in the rightmost column, which is almost always Done followed by Archive. Columns are vertical dividers that indicate the different phases a task must pass through to finally be considered complete.

The Horizontal Swimlanes are the horizontal dividers that separate your board into cells. These are sometimes used to indicate priority (ex. Expedite swimlane would be at the top of the board) or just to separate the types of tasks that are passing through the process for navigating purposes.

Examples of possible swimlanes might look like the following:


Individual Kanban Cards host all the information and details about a given task. They indicate that there has been a request for a task to be carried out. You can use a Kanban card to get specific about the details regarding quantity, deadline, who is responsible, the type of task, any affiliated documents that are an inseparable part of it and, last but not least, the description of the requirements of the task represented. On physical boards, these are post-its. On online boards, they are digital elements you can open, update, and move across the board by click and drag.Untitled presentation (1)Work in Progress Limits are set per column to make sure the team is not working on too many tasks at once. The team decides what limits they will abide by during the project before they begin working on it. During the project, these are enforced to keep the team members from multi-tasking and getting overloaded.


A Way of Blocking Cards is required to show which tasks represent a problem or a challenge for the team working on the board. A marker for blockages should be something that is noticeable enough to capture the attention of the group. The blocker also means that they need to work together to remove the obstacle in the way of the task moving forward towards completion. On physical boards, these are often magnets that are moved over post-its to indicate blocks. On online boards, they can be bright coloured symbols that cover a card like the example below.

Untitled presentationStarting with a physical Kanban board on the wall literally gets the practice “through the door” and among your team members.

Whether you are a project manager or developer, no one will stop you from introducing a colour-coded Kanban board on a communal wall in your office. In fact, you’ll probably be commended for it by your peers simply because the Kanban method will begin generating positive results almost immediately.

It also won’t require you to turn all of your current practices on their head in order to accommodate it.

Just buy some posits, use masking tape or a whiteboard to structure the columns and swimlanes, label all of them based on the phases of your current process, agree on WIP limits and start small by writing your goals for the week on post-its in the left-hand column of your new board. There you go. You already have your first Kanban whiteboard.

Use a catchy magnet to indicate blockages in the process to get everyone engaged. You’ll need to encourage your team to make use of the board and be disciplined in the way they visualize their task cards on the board.

Each morning, you should all get into the habit of having a brief (no more than 10 minutes) meeting around the visual management board during which all team members stand and each member takes 2 minutes to say what they accomplished yesterday and what they want to accomplish today. It will help you all organize your daily goals and seek help from your team members if there is a blockage in the process.

Let’s Go from a Kanban Whiteboard to a Virtual One

Why might you need a digital Kanban board if you’ve got your awesome physical board? There are a couple of reasons you might want to consider adding a digital Kanban board to the mix.

You work with remote team members who can’t benefit from the Kanban method if they’re not working from the office.

You want to generate automatic reports from your Kanban Board instead of having to manually collect information from different channels.

You want to get some real data about your process on the board and measure things like cycle time of your cards, efficiency of parts of your process, cumulative flow etc. The image below is of a Cumulative Flow diagram, showing trends in the number of tasks in each stage of the process over time. Handy for the team and the project leaders as well.


You want to automate recurring tasks. Instead of writing the same post-it every Monday for a recurring task that will likely figure in your process for weeks, months, or years to come, digital Kanban allows you to create business rules that tell your board to make a task with specific details and a particular assignee every Monday at 10 AM automatically. This can eliminate human error, save you time and prevent forgetting. The business rules also have wider applications that can create automatic triggers for all sorts of actions in the system.


What can you expect to happen 1 month after regularly mapping your process on the Kanban board?

Team members will begin to take on tasks one-by-one in order to stay below the WIP limits you have all agreed upon in the beginning.

The team will have a more visual way of sharing what they are working on with each other.

Team members will be more aware of bottlenecks in the process by being able to see them on the board.

Daily stand up meetings, as encouraged by the Lean principles, will give the team a way of sharing with each other and organizing their goals for the day briefly and frequently. Lengthy meetings will be minimized.

Collaboration between team members will become more visual and easier to manage.

What can you expect to happen 6 months after regularly mapping your process on the Kanbanize board?

The board will become a radiator of information about the state of all minor and major projects within the team and within the company. No more “he said, she said” just data right on the board, accessible from anywhere. This will minimize the need for constant reporting and missing information.

The team will begin to focus on improving the metrics of their own process. Metrics such as card cycle time and overall efficiency of processes will become important to the team.

Your organization will begin to work more efficiently on a day-to-day basis, which will translate into the optimization of resources such as time, money and people.

Your organization will develop a more predictable and stable flow of value to your customer. This will get you some very loyal, trusting customers who know they can rely on you.

Your team will become more mindful of customer requests, keeping in mind the pull principle of the Lean methodology. They will begin to base more of their suggestions on what would bring value to your customer rather than any other impetus.

Try it out in your organization and let us know how it worked for you. We’ve been running on Kanban since we found out about it and the idea of Kanbanize was born. In the past four years, our company has been growing exponentially and we are certain that this is, at least in part, due to our passionate encouragement of all the principles of Lean.

Want to see how our software developers used the power of Kanban boards? Check our free Lean Software Development e-book by the CEO of Kanbanize.

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