Learn about kanban boards and how to use them

Kanban board complete guide

At any given moment, project managers are tasked with balancing all sorts of team- and project-related responsibilities. They must ensure that important projects stay on pace to meet critical deadlines and stay within budget. They’re also expected to maximize organizational productivity by bringing out the best in their teams and delivering high-quality projects.

To achieve these objectives, project managers need better strategies and tools. Kanban boards are a simple but incredibly powerful project management tool that can help team leaders accomplish more. Once you learn to use a kanban board, you can use them to streamline any work process or project.

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What is a kanban board?

A kanban board is an agile project management tool that empowers project managers to maximize workflow efficiency, limit the amount of work in progress, and visualize individual tasks. These boards are divided into columns, each of which represents a stage in the workflow. Within those columns are cards that represent individual tasks. These cards are moved from column to column as each task is completed, which demonstrates a natural progression through project development processes. Kanban boards can be physical or digital.

The kanban board is the cornerstone of the kanban methodology, a project management framework that divides repeatable processes into distinct stages or steps. When a project manager or team member examines a kanban board, they can better understand the status of each task or assignment within a workflow.

Elements of a kanban board

Kanban boards can be tailored to meet the unique needs of a team or project. However, all kanban boards include a few of the same basic components.

  1. Cards. Each kanban card represents a specific work item or task that needs to be completed.
  2. Columns. Most kanban boards have three columns — To do, Doing, and Done.
  3. Work-in-progress (WIP) limits. Work in progress reveals how many tasks the team is actively working on. The WIP limit is the maximum number of tasks that should be in progress at any given time.
  4. Commitment points. The commitment point is when a team begins working on a project.
  5. Delivery points. The delivery point represents the end of a workflow. Generally, teams reach this point when the service or product is delivered to the customer.
  6. Swimlanes. Swimlanes are horizontal lines on a kanban board. These lines separate different categories of work, such as sales and marketing.

Once you’ve incorporated these elements into your kanban board, you can begin to customize it based on the demands of your project. For instance, you can set WIP limits based on the size of your team and how many resources you have available.

Types of kanban boards

Over the years, kanban boards have evolved significantly. Today, there are two different types of kanban boards.

1. Physical kanban boards

Physical boards can be whiteboards, chalkboards, bulletin boards, or any other large surface that team members can interact with. The “cards” may be note cards, sticky notes, or something else. Columns and swimlanes are usually defined using string or by drawing lines on the board itself.

Many teams prefer physical kanban boards because they’re interactive and immersive. Having a large tangible board on display can be more impactful than a digital alternative viewed on a smartphone or computer.

what is kanban?

2. Digital kanban boards

Like so many other business tools and processes, kanban boards have gone digital. Digital kanban boards are created and managed on work management platforms and tools. Within the interface, authorized users can create cards, move tasks, and more.

The primary benefit of digital kanban boards is that they accommodate the needs of remote or hybrid teams. There’s also no mess involved with digital boards. When project managers are ready to set up a new board, they can simply archive the current one and build another.

Digital kanban board example

Kanban board examples

The simplicity of kanban boards makes them easily adaptable for lots of teams. Let’s look at a couple of examples of kanban boards.

Software kanban board

Many software development teams love kanban boards. A mobile app software development team’s kanban board might include columns like:

  1. Features to develop
  2. Ready for build
  3. Ready for testing
  4. Done

Some cards on this board could include tasks like writing code for the main menu, testing the latest features on iOS, and assessing app impact on battery performance for Android devices. The team could also add in swimlanes to divide testing, coding, and marketing-related tasks.

Kanban boards help dev teams stay agile because they can visualize precisely which tasks are in progress and carefully track each piece of work through the development process. Kanban boards are also useful for dev teams because they assist with the continuous delivery of work, which improves product quality and development efficiency.

Product research and development kanban board

Product research and development (R&D) teams can also benefit from kanban boards. Such a team would probably rely on the standard three kanban columns — To-do, Doing, and Done. Alternatively, they could customize their columns to make them more specific to their project. For instance, their board might include columns like:

  1. Design
  2. Marketing
  3. Prototype engineering
  4. Testing
  5. Done

The delivery point for an R&D team would be getting a product to market. Once the team achieved that, it could shift its focus to the next project.

Incorporating kanban boards into product research and development efforts can empower teams to manage multiple projects simultaneously without stretching resources too thin. These boards can facilitate efficient project management, expedite development, and yield a better overall product.

History of kanban boards

While kanban boards have long been embraced by software teams, this powerful tool and its underlying project management methodology were first conceived in the 1940s.

At that time, Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, was struggling to optimize the company’s inventory management processes. To deal with his inventory and supply chain management woes, Ohno created a “kanban,” a Japanese phrase that roughly translates to “visual board.”

The original kanban board featured the three columns mentioned above. Ohno’s framework involved task cards and basic rules regarding when cards could be moved to the next column.

Although he didn’t know it then, Ohno’s work set the stage for the development of just-in-time manufacturing principles. These concepts have helped manufacturers reduce waste, boost productivity, and increase profitability ever since.

The benefits of kanban boards

Every team can discover unique advantages by using kanban boards. However, there are also some overall benefits that all teams will experience when they begin using kanban boards.

  1. Better team engagement. Team members will experience better overall engagement when they can interact with a kanban board and move tasks off their to-do lists as they complete them.
  2. Improved project visibility. Kanban boards allow project managers and team members to maintain real-time visibility into which tasks have been completed, which are in progress, and which still need to be done to reach the delivery point.
  3. Reduced risk of missed tasks. When everyone is scrambling to complete their assigned work, important tasks can easily get lost in the shuffle. Kanban boards help prevent this by providing a visual to-do list that project managers can reference to ensure that all essential tasks get completed.
  4. Less overlap. Some tasks may not fit into a specific work category. However, you can use swimlanes to keep your team focused and make sure tasks are being assigned to the right people.
  5. Enhanced collaboration. Kanban boards, and specifically WIP limits, prevent team members from taking on too many tasks at once. This, in turn, promotes collaboration and ensures that a team has adequate resources to complete important work efficiently.

These are just some of the many perks associated with using kanban boards. There are many other advantages you’ll discover once your teams start using this simple yet effective project management tool.

The kanban board is the cornerstone of the kanban methodology, a project management framework that divides steps of repeatable processes into distinct stages.

How to use a kanban board

There’s a reason so many teams rely on kanban boards. For one thing, they work. More importantly, they’re incredibly easy to set up and use. Let’s find out how.

1. Visualize the workflow

During this initial phase, you’ll lay the foundation for your kanban board. If you’re using a physical board, this means deciding how many columns, rows, and swimlanes you need. If you’re creating a digital board, set your WIP limits and define your work categories. The software will do the rest.

2. Create cards for individual units of work

Next, you’ll create cards for each unit of work or task necessary to complete your project. Remember, the goal of these cards is to break large tasks into simpler, easier-to-complete units.

Regardless of whether you are using a digital or physical Kanban board, the process of creating cards is relatively similar. The key is to keep the scope of work on each card narrow and specific. For instance, if you are creating cards for your software development team, your cards may include tasks like “create customer sign-up portal” and “build monthly subscription option.” These cards clearly convey what the task includes, have a limited scope, and are relevant to your project.

3. Identify blockers

Blockers are any problem that prevents your team from working on or completing a task card. They’re typically denoted using a red magnet or push pin when using physical boards. Digital boards allow you to identify blockers with a red border around the card, stop sign icon, or similar indicators. When teams encounter a blocker, they should shift their focus to the next task — provided they’re within WIP limits.

4. Track metrics

Digital kanban boards automatically gather and track metrics like lead and task cycle time. Task cycle time reveals how long it takes to move from one task to another and is an important indicator of team efficiency. If you’re using a physical board, note the date a card gets moved. You can use this info to track how long it remains in each column.

Kanban boards vs. Scrum boards

Scrum and kanban are both project management methodologies that promote agility and boost team engagement. Each approach uses a board to visualize workflows and promote transparency. However, the frameworks differ in a few key ways.

  1. Scrum sprints have firm beginning and end dates that are listed on the board, whereas Kanban workflows don’t have hard dates included on the board.
  2. A Kanban board is used to manage an entire project, whereas a new Scrum board is created for each sprint.
  3. Scrum boards reflect a specific number of tasks and list a deadline for each piece of work. Kanban boards are more open and flexible because they don’t have a set number of tasks, nor do they include stringent deadlines for each piece of work.

Despite these differences, both types of boards and their associated methodologies are useful for promoting collaboration and facilitating seamless project management.

Getting started with kanban boards

If you want to make your project management headaches a thing of the past and promote optimal visibility, consider adopting kanban boards.

Incorporating kanban boards into your workflow is now easier than ever, thanks to Adobe Workfront.

This intuitive project management software is precisely what you need to get more work done, meet your deadlines, and deliver real value for your organization. It connects work to strategy and drives better collaboration to deliver measurable business outcomes. Workfront integrates people, data, processes, and technology across an organization so that you can manage the entire lifecycle of projects from start to finish.

To learn more about Adobe Workfront, take a product tour or watch the overview video.