Every Agile team needs to visualize their workflow, regardless of the methodology they use. Creating a Kanban board can reveal significant opportunities for improvement, not to mention the ongoing benefit you’ll get from seeing your bottlenecks revealed over time.
What is a Kanban board?
A Kanban board is a visualization tool used in Agile methodologies to document workflows and processes within an Agile team or department. Primarily a function of the Kanban methodology, other variations of Agile boards are used in other project management methodologies like Scrum and Scrumban, though with slightly different elements.
Common elements of a Kanban board include cards, columns, and work in progress (WIP) limits which are used to optimize the flow of work.
Kanban cards at a basic level are a single item of work that needs to be completed. As work progresses on the task, the card moves across the Kanban board until complete. Kanban cards are key to visualizing the work in progress, work in the backlog, and work that has been completed.
The columns of a Kanban board represent the different stages of the workflow process. On a simple Kanban board, columns can say “To Do,” “In Progress,” and “Complete.”
Work in progress limits are a key function of the Kanban methodology and are represented on a Kanban board. WIP limits represent the maximum amount of cards allowed in a column. If a WIP limit is hit, no more cards can be added to the column until another card is moved out of the column. This is key in visualizing bottlenecks in a workflow.
Why visualize your workflow?
Workflow visualization isn’t just an item on the Agile checklist that teams to complete so they can say that they’re Agile. It has enormous benefits, both inside and outside of the Agile team actually creating the Kanban board.
Transparency for the team
First of all, teams gain instant transparency when you visualize your work out onto a Kanban board. People outside of the team can immediately see exactly what its members are doing. That means when they come to the team with an emergency item, they understand what work they would be disrupting by demanding that the team pick it up right away.
Departments should also have far fewer “what are they even working on?” conversations once the team’s workflow is out in the open.
One word of caution about this extreme transparency: the harsh light it shines on output can make some team members uncomfortable. If someone feels they aren’t pulling their weight, they’re likely to be resistant to having their contributions revealed to the world.
Shared understanding within the team
Once everybody’s work is documented and visualized on a Kanban board, it’s very easy to see exactly where the team is devoting its resources. Project managers get insight into how much work is really being done (it’s usually more than you think), and whether it’s actually the right work at the right time.
Maybe everyone is focusing their time on repetitive tasks and never getting to the larger strategic initiatives that will ultimately deliver big results. Sometimes only an accurate Kanban board can reveal this kind of discrepancy.
Identifying and removing bottlenecks
Kanban boards also highlight where work is slowing down through a bottleneck. For example, a team might discover that work is getting stuck with copywriters and slowing down the flow. Armed with this empirical data, you can make a strong case for more writing resources on the team. An accurate workflow visualization takes the conversation from, “we really need more writers” to “we have 65 percent of our projects stalled because we’re short on writing help.” Using a cumulative flow diagram can help identify bottlenecks and improve cycle time and throughput.
At the end of the day you can’t go faster than your bottlenecks will allow, so removing them one by one is key to increasing the team’s effectiveness.
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How to create a Kanban board
There are two ways you can create a Kanban board workflow visualization: a physical Kanban board or an online tool with a digital Kanban board feature. Both boards have their pros and cons, so let’s take a look at them one by one.
Option 1: Physical Kanban board
Agile teams have long relied on whiteboards, markers, and sticky notes to track their work, and these tools of the trade are highly valuable.
Pros: Assuming you have the requisite wall space, physical Kanban boards are easy to create. A few strokes of the marker, a couple dozen sticky notes, and you’re ready to go.
It’s also highly satisfying to physically move Kanban cards from one state of work to another, and seeing them stack up in the "done" column is a great feeling.
Cons: A physical Kanban board won’t provide you with metrics to track the team’s performance unless you’re willing to do some manual math. It can also pose a problem for remote team members who can’t update it.
Finally, if external teams need to suggest work for your backlog, a physical Kanban board can make that a cumbersome process.
Option 2: Digital Kanban board
Using a digital work management tool like Workfront is another solid option for visualizing the workflow, and it instantly takes care of the remote worker and metrics problems cited above. But a digital Kanban board may not be your silver bullet either.
Pros: If you get the right tool, digital Kanban boards automatically deliver metrics around your team’s work, giving you hard data about what’s going on.
You’re also freed from the constraints of a wall, meaning you can add lots of information to a digital card that wouldn’t fit on a physical one, like attached documents, extensive checklists, and links to related cards.
Finally, a digital board can simplify the request process so people outside the team can easily add work to the backlog.
Cons: It can be overwhelming to start with a digital visualization tool.
You may not want to take the time to onboard the team into a new system while they’re transitioning to Agile. You may also find that people outside the team don’t log in to check it, whereas it’s hard for them to miss a big whiteboard right outside the team’s workspace.
Ideal Option: Physical and digital Kanban boards
If you can, create a basic physical Kanban board near the team and update it every day during the daily stand-up meeting. People teleworking can have a card buddy in the office to move their cards on their behalf.
By adding numbers to each physical card that refer back to their corresponding digital card, you get the power of the physical board with the tracking benefits of a digital tool. Your physical cards can be simple and to the point, while the cards in the digital system can hold more detail.
You can avoid the overhead of updating work in two tools by consolidating responsibility for the digital tool. For example, the team leaders can update the physical Kanban board during stand-up so that it’s accurate, while individual contributors record their work in the digital tool.
Kanban board examples
Now that we’ve looked at some abstract ways to track work, here are three Kanban board examples. Whether you start with one of these examples or do something totally different, make sure your Kanban board accurately reflects how work gets done on your team, not how you wish it got done or how your manager thinks it happens.
Kanban board 1: Nice and simple
This simple Kanban board example is a great place to start. There’s nothing fancy here, just different states that work is likely to enter on it’s way through the team.
Kanban board 2: Dealing with external review
What can happen with many teams, however, is that cards get hung up in that "review" column. Work may be stalled out in legal, with executives, or with some other stakeholders, but wherever it may be trapped, it’s outside of the team’s control.
They need a way to keep working without losing sight of work that may be coming back to them. In that case, you can try using a "pen:"
In this Kanban board example, work goes into the "pen" whenever it’s outside the team. It stays there until it gets feedback, and then it jumps into the "ready" column. Whenever someone on the team prepares to grab a new card, they check the "ready" column and pull work from there before starting on something new from the backlog. If they grab something from "ready" they take it into "editing" to show that it has come back to the team from external review.
Kanban board 3: Using swim lanes
Finally, if your team has several sub-teams that do different kinds of work, you can try incorporating horizontal swim lanes into your board.
This allows you to get a quick look at how each team is doing and creates a simplified look at complex teamwork. You could also create swim lanes for each team member if you have a small team.
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Kanban board vs Scrum board
Scrum and Kanban are both Agile frameworks, but do have several key differences. The biggest difference between Kanban boards and Scrum boards are due to the biggest differences between Kanban and Scrum: Sprints. Kanban is a more flexible framework when it comes to tasks and due dates, where Scrum is organized in defined sprints.
Because of this, Kanban boards are used throughout the project life cycle and tasks can be reorganized and reprioritized, while Scrum boards are cleared after every Sprint.
Learn more about Kanban vs. Scrum
The evolving Kanban board
If you’re new to visualizing your work, you should start with something like the simple Kanban board example above. But don’t feel locked in to any particular design. As you learn more about what information helps your team, you can evolve your board to include those details.
But don’t go overboard with your board design. It should be as simple as you can make it while still conveying enough information to allow people to understand what’s happening with the team.
Kanban boards are a feature of the Kanban methodology. However, workflow visualization is a helpful tool that can be applied into other Agile methodologies, like Scrum and Scrumban.