What Is a Kanban Board?
A Kanban board is a tool for workflow visualization and one of the key components of the Kanban method.
However, the Kanban board went through a long journey to become what it is today. Actually, kanban (English: signboard) started as a visual scheduling system, part of the Toyota production system.
A few decades later (2007) the idea was further developed by David Anderson, who formulated the Kanban method and introduced the Kanban board. Indeed, Darren Davis (Anderson’s colleague) was the one who suggested that the workflow should be visualized on a whiteboard.
And this is how the Kanban board was born as we know it today to become one of the most useful agile project management tools for knowledge work.
Main Components of the Kanban board
Kanban Cards – This is the visual representation of tasks. Each card contains information about the task and its status such as deadline, assignee, description, etc.
Kanban Columns – Each column on the board represents a different stage of your workflow. The cards go through the workflow until their full completion.
Work-in-Progress Limits – They restrict the maximum amount of tasks in the different stages of the workflow. Limiting WIP allows you to finish work items faster, by helping your team to focus only on current tasks.
Kanban Swimlanes – These are horizontal lanes you can use to separate different types of activities, teams, classes of service, and so on.
If you are new to the method, you may start with a simple board structure and split it into three basic sections that show different stages of the workflow.
For more detailed mapping of your process, you are at liberty to create as many subsections as you need in order to visualize your workflow with maximum precision. For example, a development team may have a Kanban task board that consists of multiple columns and swimlanes.
How to Use a Kanban Board
Visualize Your Team’s Workflow on the Kanban Board & Spot Weaknesses
The Kanban board is a perfect tool for visualizing potential problems in your process. The logic is simple: if you see a column, in which tasks arrive faster than they leave, work will start to pile up and the problem will become visible to the whole team.
This may be caused by a temporary issue or a bottleneck in your process. For this reason, we advise you to map your workflow as precisely as possible so that you have an absolutely clear picture of where the problem lies.
For example, if you’ve got a simple Kanban board with just one “In progress” section, and there are many cards awaiting activity, it will be very difficult to determine why work is getting stuck and what can be done to alleviate the situation.
Conversely, if you’ve taken the time to map your workflow in great detail and your board is divided by numerous columns for all the working stages, you’ll understand at a glance where improvements can be made.
Once you’ve noticed a problematic column/bottleneck, act swiftly to resolve it and prevent it from occurring again. The simplest thing to do is to limit the work in progress earlier in the flow so that you can provide more time to the people that “own” this stage thus allowing them to alleviate the bottleneck. Another option could be re-distributing the team’s efforts to meet the new requirements. Kanban is designed to offer maximum flexibility, so you are kept in the driving seat for all important decisions.
Use the Kanban Board to Limit Work in Progress and Focus
The Kanban board is a great way to discourage your team from multitasking by applying WIP limits in accordance to your capacity. You can either apply a limit on the total number of tasks that can be in progress simultaneously on your board or put individual limits on each stage of your workflow.
If you wish to increase the rate you deliver value to your customers, you will want to keep every person focused on as few tasks as possible
This way they will stop starting new work and concentrate on finishing assignments that are already in progress. Knowing that everyone can see what each person is doing is a great motivator to pursue better performance all the time as well.
Use the Kanban Dashboard to Save Time Wasted on Unnecessary Meetings
A significant benefit that comes with the implementation of Kanban boards is that they save you a lot of time spent on meetings, progress reports, and many other unnecessary interruptions.
The board will serve as a dedicated information repository. It will spread knowledge about who is doing what at any time. The Kanban board will keep you and everyone in the team in the loop about how their colleagues assignments are progressing: this way you won’t need to schedule meetings so often to receive progress updates.
Following this line of thought, the Kanban board will allow you to forget about those long progress report books that take ages to be prepared and are already out of date by the time they are presented to the stakeholders.
Visualize Work Blockers on Your Kanban Board
The Kanban board allows you to visualize problems that prevent your team from completing any given task. On a typical physical board, blockers are usually indicated with red magnets (or pins if you are using a cork board).
Digital Kanban software has more advanced ways to visualize blockers (e.g. stop signs on blocked cards). This way when something is stopping your team from continuing work on a task, they can label it as blocked and start working on another assignment without breaking any WIP limits.
Collect Key Workflow Metrics and Improve
Contemporary digital Kanban boards can automatically gather information about the cycle time of your tasks, lead time and other key performance indicators. This will help you make data-driven decisions about any changes to your process and save you plenty of time otherwise wasted on collecting metrics by hand.
Additionally, knowing how to use a Kanban board will help you prioritize tasks in a much better way. By visualizing everything in one place the whole team will be on the same track at any time.
For an overview, the following video will show you how to use a basic Kanban board.