Kanban Board: Basics, Features and How to Use it

Updated Aug 3, 2022.
kanban-board

Every organization needs a framework for efficient organization of their projects. To reach higher levels of productivity and produce quality deliverables that meet the expectation of the project sponsor,  you need to use an effective project visualization tool. 

There are tons of project visualization tools you can use to collaborate on a project or manage multiple projects successfully. One of such tools gaining increased popularity across different industries is the Kanban board. 

In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about getting started with the Kanban board.

Let’s get started.

What is a Kanban Board?

A Kanban board is simply the visualization tool for the Kanban methodology. This is a centralized and detailed workspace presenting you with an overview of your work or project. 

The Kanban board ensures that you easily track progress and make continuous improvements to the productivity and efficiency of your workflows.

Developed from Toyota’s visual scheduling system and improved upon by David Anderson in 2007, the Kanban board and methodology as a whole have formed a crucial part of a lot of companies’ project and work management frameworks. 

Acting as tools to visualize your project elements, organize tasks, and make continuous improvements, Kanban boards are important for agile project management. 

With the entire Kanban framework built around flexibility and freedom, Kanban boards make use of cards and columns to represent, organize, and manage tasks. They help you manage elements within agile project management frameworks. 

The main focus of Kanban boards is on improving efficiency by limiting work in progress to match your team’s available capacity to work.

The main focus of Kanban boards is on improving efficiency of the team
Source: KanbanFlow

Elements of a Kanban Board

The Kanban board contains specific elements and components that work together to facilitate your agile project management.

1. Swimlanes

Swimlanes are the top rows within your Kanban board that help define columns and split your work process. Typically containing the tags “To-Do”, “Work-In-Progress (WIP)”, and “Done.” 

They help you identify the different stages within your project management workflow and define tasks within respective columns. You move tasks between swimlanes as you make progress on the project.

In addition to this, it is important to note that these swimlanes are only general phases within your project management. Depending on how complex your project is, it could contain several sub-lanes or sub-categories. 

Sub-lanes give more specific definitions to tasks within columns and provide a deeper understanding of where tasks are really at. For your “To-Do” columns, tasks may be subcategorized into “prioritized” and “unprioritized” columns. 

The WIP column may contain subcategories for your project planning, development, testing, and launching stages, while your “Done” phase is subcategorized into approval and final completion stages.

2. Kanban Cards

Kanban cards are a visual and detailed representation of tasks. For easy and in-deep task tracking, you represent tasks (or work items)through the use of Kanban cards. These cards contain information describing everything related to these tasks.

On the immediate surface and Kanban view, Kanban cards typically present the title of the task (title), who the task is assigned to (card assignment), the type of task it is (represented by card color), and established deadlines for the task (due dates). 

However, when expanded, you access additional information like the defined goals within the task, file attachments such as documents, links, and media items, communications within the task (comments), and the card version history.    

3. Columns

Columns are the areas of your Kanban boards containing cards. They are the areas defined by swimlanes and sub-lanes through which your tasks or work items are moved as progress is made on them. Cards flow through columns until they are fully completed (make it to the last column).

4. Work-In-Progress Limits

The work-in-progress (WIP) limits are not visible elements of your Kanban board but rather the major rules guiding how cards and columns are managed within it. 

A WIP limit dictates the number of cards allowed in your WIP column. Where a WIP limit of 5 is set, for instance, you can not have more than 5 cards within the WIP column or sub-lane. New tasks only get into the column when pending tasks make it to the “Done “ column. 

The Kanban methodology aims at the efficiency of workflow. With the guidance of your WIP limit, you limit executed tasks based on your work capacity. You ensure your team members are not overwhelmed by the number of cards within your WIP columns.

5. Commitment Point

The commitment point is when your team members pick out tasks to be included within the Kanban board. Generally, ideas about tasks and workflows for their execution are stored in backlogs during the initial project planning phase.

 When work on the project begins, your commitment point represents the moment the actual ideas to be implemented are identified and included within your Kanban methodology and project management framework. It is when your project and its elements make it into the Kanban board.   

6. Delivery Point

On the other end of your workflow is your delivery point, the moment work is fully delivered or completed. Depending on your team or company, the delivery point could either be when projects make it to the final column on the Kanban board or when they make it into the hands of your customers. Either way, they represent the end of your project and the readiness of your product or service.

The period between your commitment and delivery points is called your lead time. Kanban teams continuously work towards decreasing lead time while producing the best quality results.

How to Use a Kanban Board

The best way to use a Kanban board is to start with a simple structure and then gradually enhance it as your project needs grow. 

1. Limit Work-In-Progress

The main use of the Kanban board is to limit your team’s work in progress, a crucial strategy of the Kanban methodology aimed at ensuring efficiency in project management workflows. 

A limit on the number of tasks your team can work on is set. Your team does not take up more tasks until a free spot opens up in the WIP column of the Kanban board. The WIP limit is based on the complexity of your tasks and the number of available team members you have working on tasks.

Having your team work within WIP limits means keeping them focused on only the important work assigned to them. They concentrate on completing work rather than starting which ensures fast and more accurate workflows. 

You reduce your project lead time while maintaining good results all through your agile project management process by setting a Work-In-Progress limit.

2. Identify Existing Bottlenecks

This is the point where your sub-lanes and subcategories prove very useful within your Kanban board. By visualizing your projects using the Kanban board, you recognize the phase of your workflows where work items pile up the most. 

You understand that there may be a problem at this exact phase and look for how to take care of it and keep your workflow moving.

Now, without sub-lanes, you only have an idea of the general phase where bottlenecks exist. With sub-lanes, however, your workflows are broken down into smaller phases. 

For instance, rather than having work items pile up under the general WIP section, with sub-lanes, you have them pile up under the planning stage. You know that you have to speed up decision-making processes to make your project move forward.   

The bottom line remains that your Kanban board makes identifying bottlenecks a breeze, especially where you break down your swimlanes into multiple sub-lanes or subcategories. Your team has an immediate view of where problems or roadblocks within the project management framework exist.  

3. Identify Blocked Tasks

The Kanban board allows you to easily visualize tasks or work items that may not be continued due to specific problems with them. This is particularly important where WIP limits are set. 

Where a problem within a task develops and work on it can not be continued, you simply mark it to indicate it is blocked and bring in more tasks without breaking the WIP limit.

Blocked cards or work items stay blocked until problems within them are fixed. You have a constant view of these blocked tasks, keeping them in your mind as you take on more work.    

4. Boycott Unnecessary Meetings 

The Kanban board presents a complete overview of every work item and work process within your project management framework. This includes information about the work assignments, progress, and workload capacity of each team member. 

With the information that the Kanban board overview provides, you do not need to hold daily meetings, like in the Scrum or Scrumban methodologies

You have access to your project and task progress and even communication mediums to share ideas for continuous improvements. The flexibility of the Kanban methodology is paramount and this keeps the whole project management process as fluid as it needs to be.    

5. Reports And Analytics

This is where the use of project management software with Kanban boards comes in handy. With these tools, you easily collect data on project KPIs that help you measure how well you are applying the Kanban methodology. These include data on your lead time, cycle time, or any other metric relevant to the Kanban system.

Your reporting workflows with Kanban boards, however, go an extra step. Through the use of charts and diagrams, your data is visualized and your team members easily understand the reports. 

Metrics are not just automatically collected but everyone has easy visibility of these important project metrics. They better understand the status of project workflows and make appropriate continuous improvements where needed. 

6. Automate Work Processes

The Kanban board, when you use project management software, allows you to automate a lot of your recurring tasks and workflows. In addition to automated project reporting, you set rules guiding your card movements, reminders, notifications, and even task reassignment.  

Your work processes keep moving thanks to triggers set up by you, allowing your team members to focus on time and resource-demanding workflows.  

Some of the best Kanban software you can use to create digital Kanban boards include Monday.com, ClickUp, Wrike, nTask Board, Celoxis, Jira, and Kanbanize.

Types and Examples of Kanban Boards 

Kanban boards come in two forms: physical boards and digital boards

1. Physical Boards  

These are simple boards divided into columns and placed at physical locations like offices or any area teams can easily access them. Either on whiteboards or blackboards, you represent cards with the use of sticky notes and move them through columns as work on tasks and work items progresses. 

This type of Kanban board is only actionable where all team members work in the same area and maintain proximity with each other. 

Kanban Desk - Stories - To Do - In Progress - Testing - Done
Source: Shmula

The full benefits of the Kanban methodology, however, are not reached through the use of physical boards.

2. Digital Boards

Digital boards are software programs that provide you with Kanban boards. With these boards, you do not just get to manage remote team collaborations within your Kanban system but also have access to advanced automation, easy workflow sharing and tracking, and easy customization of your workspace. 

Reports and analytic workflows are way easier to execute with the use of advanced digital boards. You get all the benefits of the Kanban methodology with more advanced tools and capabilities for your overall project management. Cards are easily moved between major swimlanes (Requested, In-Progress, and Done columns).

Digital Kanban Board - Input - Work in Progress - Output
Source: Teamhood

Both physical and digital Kanban boards may be a lot more complex than these examples, depending on the size and complexity of projects being managed or the number of tasks. 

Nonetheless, they contain general swimlanes, movable cards, and embody the implementation of the continuous improvement policy of the Kanban methodology. 

Kanban Board Examples

1. Development Team Kanban Board

Development Team Kanban Board
Source: Hygger

2. Online Marketing Kanban Board

Online Marketing Kanban Board
Source: KanbanToo

3. Email Marketing Kanban Board

Email Marketing Kanban Board
Source: AgileSherpas

4. Design Team Kanban Board

Design Team Kanban Board
Source: ProofHub

5. Product Management Kanban Board 

Product Management Kanban Board
Source: Milanote

6. HR Team Kanban Board

HR Team Kanban Board
Source: Paymo

7. Accounting Kanban Board

Accounting Kanban Board
Source: Teamhood

Kanban Board vs Scrum Board

Although a lot of Scrum teams make use of boards similar to Kanban boards, differences between Kanban boards and Scrum boards lie in the structure of the Scrum framework.

1. Sprints vs Continuous Workflows

Project phases within the Scrum framework are divided into agile sprints, with each sprint having a start and stop date. Within Scrum boards, your visualized workflows represent processes within your sprints rather than entire projects. 

Unlike in Kanban boards where entire project tasks are flexibly moved based on their priority in completing the project and team capacity, Scrum boards only contain cards relating to certain phases within the project.

This means that while the Kanban board is used throughout the project till its completion, the Scrum board is only used for each sprint and cleared once each sprint is completed. 

The Kanban board represents a complete and continuous process within the project while the Scrum board only gives you details about a specific phase or workflow.  

2. Task Volume

Unlike Kanban boards, Scrum boards have the number of tasks within sprints, as well as resources set aside for them, strictly determined and never changing. 

Due to the continuous improvement policy of the Kanban methodology, tasks are flexible and open to changes. Tasks keep coming into the Kanban board until the whole project is satisfactorily completed.

3. Assigning of Task

In Scrum boards, tasks are strictly assigned to specific team members and stay that way till the end of the sprint. 

Kanban boards allow team members to flexibly choose and switch between tasks as the project processes demand. This means assignments within cards may change at any point within the entire project. A change in task assignment is represented within cards and this helps with scalable work processes in case of problems. 

Assigning of Task - Team a Scrum Board
Source: Venngage

Getting Started with Kanban Boards

The Kanban board assumes you understand current processes and agree to continuous improvement through evolutionary changes.

Kanban is a team process that encourages your team to work together to achieve the project goal. The first step in creating a Kanban board is to break down your project or work into smaller activities that compose the columns in the board. 

The next step is to determine how and when you can add new work or tasks (cards) to the Kanban board. You also have to decide on the size of one card by using a time or complexity estimate. 

This card size and scope will serve as a uniform standard for all cards on the Kanban board. If a card is too challenging, break it down into smaller cards. Decide on the commitment point and delivery point for the Kanban board and you are all set to start the project. Kanban values continuous improvement and people’s opinions to improve the process. Be open to your team critiquing the process.

Anastasia Belyh

Editor at FounderJar

Anastasia has been a professional blogger and researcher since 2014. She loves to perform in-depth software reviews to help software buyers make informed decisions when choosing project management software, CRM tools, website builders, and everything around growing a startup business.

Anastasia worked in management consulting and tech startups, so she has lots of experience in helping professionals choosing the right business software.