What are Kanban Boards and how to use them

A Kanban board is one of the most practical tools that you can use to manage your projects in a simple and clear way. They can help you visualize and maintain your tasks and workflows, signaling potential bottlenecks for each project stage. This is why they are used by several agile teams across the world to manage tasks with flexibility.

By using Kanban, you can evenly distribute your most important tasks and eliminate any wasteful activity or useless information. The method can help you solve your productivity problems using visual cues that are easy to understand by your team.

There are many Kanban boards online that you can use to balance your resource demands. You might already know about other tools such as Trello or Kanban Tool, but you must be aware that Kanban boards are most effective when they are part of a more advanced project management software. Such platforms can help you track time and maintain real-time collaboration with your team.

Take a look at these tips on how you can choose the best project management software for your company.

The structure of a Kanban board

A basic Kanban board, be they physical or virtual, are created using these three main elements:

Kanban Board Structure

 

  1. Board: the workspace where you place your tasks and through which you manage an entire project from start to finish
  2. Lists (or columns): contain a series of similar and related cards that belong to the same progress stage
  3. Cards:  include items that represent a task or an idea related to your project

Kanban board examples for teams

Below are some examples of Kanban boards that you can use regardless of your project or industry. We built these lists to help you get some ideas on how you can structure your tasks according to each progress phase and distribute them evenly. Try these boards or create your own personalized ones for a higher efficiency.

Task boards are used to manage and monitor a project from the project’s kickoff meeting to its closure. In their structure, you can include any tasks that you find relevant for the project development process. Apart from the basic ones such as meetings and reviews, you can also add more specific duties. Pay attention to how you can limit the number of tasks that each team member is responsible for at each project stage.

Kanban for Software Development

A software development team using Kanban to track their project from start to finish

In Kanban-based project management the entire team is accountable for the project’s success. A task can be assigned to one member, or shared between two or more members. It’s not uncommon to see tasks with all members assigned to them to ensure that all requirements and standards are met. In this way, the entire process can help you improve your team’s communication and clarify misunderstandings to prevent future errors. Many Kanban or project management tools allow you to chat with the people in charge of a task through real-time collaboration. As a result, the feedback on each card becomes contextual. This keeps all users informed regards the project updates and its progression.

Kanban Board for UX Project

An example of a UX project and how the team shares their tasks

Kanban workspaces can be used as file sharing systems as well. They allow you to store files (pictures, videos, or other documents) and share them with your team. The people involved in a project will always know what files are being used and, provided that you’re using a cloud-based platform, there is almost little to no chance for you to lose those documents.

Digital Marketing Kanban board

A digital marketing team using a Kanban board to manage their tasks

Ways of using Kanban

Kanban boards were first used in the late 1940s at Toyota’s factories to balance supplies with production. Workers could share the inventory levels of materials through a card named “Kanban” (meaning “signboard” in Japanese). Each card had the requirements for the necessary materials written on it and would then be moved to the warehouse were instructions were carried out. This helped teams communicate easily across the entire manufacturing process.

Now they are used to visualize and speed up your project’s workflow, improve team collaboration, and identify possible obstacles. But their scope is not limited. You can also find other unique ways of using progress boards: to get business ideas and goals, to create an editorial calendar or a sales funnel, manage your support system, keep track of resources and expenses, etc.

By visualizing your tasks on one screen, you can identify bottlenecks, unassigned tasks, and missed deadlines at a single glance. Afterwards, you can solve these issues right from the board’s workspace.

Many tools that use Kanban boards allow you to communicate with your team on each task and manage communications slip-ups. By doing this, you’ll be able to constantly monitor the status of your tasks and team members.

Progress boards can help you improve your team’s productivity by managing the number of tasks and the time needed for each employee to finish their job. They also shorten cycle times and aid you in setting an accurate time and budget for future projects.

Cycle time is the main metric used to monitor the total amount of time needed to finish a specific task from the moment a team member starts to work on it until it’s finished. Any delay is included in this time.

You can limit the number of tasks that are allowed for each stage to avoid overloading your employees or leaving them with no tasks. Likewise, Work in Progress (WIP) limits can be set for a more effective workload distribution among your team members. This guarantees that each task will be completed before the team moves on to the next one and that the focus on the “In progress” tasks is never lost. You can also turn the completion of a task into a priority to get a better idea about your overall workflow.

Note: Kanban boards can be used by all departments. Marketing, HR, sales, design, audit, and software development teams can also use this method to oversee their project’s development.

Remember:

Kanban boards are not just for professional teams. You can use them for your personal daily tasks as well. Here’s how you can create your own physical progress board for personal purposes:

You can use personal progress boards either individually or even together with your entire family. Take a look at this example of a virtual board that you can use to keep track of your personal tasks:

Personal Kanban

A personal Kanban board used by a single person

Setting up workflows

Once you have identified the stages of your project you can visualize your workflow with the help of a Kanban board.

Workflows are used to map out the phases that each task has to go through before it’s finished. Typical workflows include the following three columns: To Do, In Progress, Done (or Complete). However, with the right tool, you can also edit and create your own Kanban workflows to match your project requirements. By setting predefined workflows you can use the same progress stages repeatedly for similar projects.

Default Kanban workflow

Default Kanban workflow

Workflows are suitable for segmenting your work into essential stages. Thus, you can add anything that fits the needs of your project, industry, and team. Depending on the tool you’re using, you might work with a Backlog as well. You can create separate lists for tasks according to their urgency and priority (high, average, low).

Priority workflow

Priority workflow

Another way of prioritizing tasks is through color coding. You can associate colors with lists and tasks for visual prioritization. For example, red might represent tasks of higher priority than green ones that could represent a lower priority or a done status. Prioritization is optional but very effective if you have a series of tasks that depend on each other. Remember to follow your team’s guidelines when applying these changes.

Lists could also be created for different products or services:

Different products workflow

Kanban workflows can be used to collaborate across multiple departments. These boards don’t need advanced technical knowledge to be operated, so they can be used by all team members regardless of their skills. The following workflow was created at a company level and includes all departments into one single board.

Different teams workflow

If your tasks require approval or testing before they are finished you can create Waiting for Approval, Waiting for Review, or Test lists.

Project approval workflow

Tip: Create a Kanban board policy to make sure that all members follow the same guidelines, standards, and structure for the tasks they create. Constantly optimize your boards to help your employees work faster and prevent long-term problems before they cause any damage to your projects.

Shifting to virtual Kanban boards

Traditional Kanban boards are physical and made using sticky notes placed on whiteboards. If you’d like to cut the clutter of sticky notes all over your desk, you must know that you can choose to work with virtual progress boards.

Yet, project visualization is more than just placing sticky notes on a board. Compared to physical Kanban boards, virtual ones allow you to keep all of your data safely in the cloud. You can also use time-tracking software to measure the time each team member needs to complete a task, compare it to previous activities, and estimate similar times for future tasks.

Virtual Kanban boards also allow you to filter the lists’ data according to your preferred criteria: task name, date range, team member responsible for a task, and more. In this way, you can concentrate only on the tasks and swimlanes that are essential for the current stage of your project.

Likewise, they can help you organize your work without all the clutter that physical boards would create. Through a Kanban or project management software you can create as many boards as you’d like, move activities from one board to another, or archive the board and come back to it at any time. Plus, they’re less prone to errors since there aren’t any sticky notes to fall off the board.

Classic project management tools can have a rigid layout that doesn’t allow customization. With digital workspaces you can tailor Kanban boards when it comes to column and task order, colors, images, and names.

Keep in mind:

The whole idea behind progress boards is that they should be simple, visible, and accessible.

Kanban disadvantages

Using Kanban boards can help you drop multitasking from your team. However, they can appear too simple for more advanced users. Since tasks are so easy to create, there might be a tendency for a project manager to assign too many tasks to a single team member. To fix this, make sure that you set limits regarding the number of tasks that each member can be in charge of at a time. Keeping the board simple, with as few complications as possible, is the key to a more productive and clear project management process.

Pay also attention to storing your project’s status only one place, as it can be risky. Losing access to the tool which provides your Kanban board means that you’ve lost the details related to your task distribution. This is why it is advisable to back your data up and save your progress on an external source or in the cloud. Try using a Kanban or project management software that provides secure cloud storage for your files.

Another disadvantage is that, unless you set deadlines, work on a certain task can stagnate at a project phase and delay the entire timeline of your project. By default, Kanban phases are typically not associated with a timeframe. This can mean that your tasks will lack timing and postpone the end of the project.

Finally, complex projects that involve many tasks, stages, people, and departments, require a tool with advanced functionalities. Try using Kanban boards or software that allows you to create advanced workspace structures and associate them with other project tracking methods.

Look at this example of a more advanced board structure and see if you can use it for your own project:

Complex Kanban board example

Tip: Ask your colleagues for feedback to see how you can improve the results of Kanban boards and better adapt this technique to your workflow. See what worked well and what didn’t, collect development suggestions, and test new ideas to find the most productive and efficient ones. Keeping outdated boards might lead to issues in the process, so updating them frequently could save you hours of fixing issues.

Alternatives to the Kanban methodology

There is no way for you to know which method will work best unless you test them all. Here are three examples of the best Kanban alternatives that might fit your project’s requirements:

  1. The Scrum framework

An alternative to the Kanban board is the Scrum board which is used mostly by software development teams. While both Kanban and Scrum boards are Agile methodologies, there are some essential differences between the two methods. Scrum’s emphasis is on schedules, with the activities being completed according to fixed time boxes. These are called sprints, which usually span across 2 weeks, time in which a new project development will be issued. Kanban, on the other hand, is driven by the completion of events on a continuous basis until the project ends, rather than by time frames.

Employees that use a Kanban board can deliver a task at will, while Scrum teams have to wait for approval before moving on to the next task. Also, the Kanban team is neutral and does not require assigned project managers, Scrum masters, or product owners.

Here are the basics of the Scrum task board:

  1. The Gantt Chart

Gantt Chart example

Gantt Charts are used for planning, scheduling, and monitoring projects against set time budgets. These charts offer a visual overview of your project according to a schedule, allowing you to see activities that overlap and the connections between them.

With these visual charts you can easily see who is in charge of a task and how much time each job will require from start to finish. The Gantt Charts’ intuitive design allows you to present a project in the clearest manner possible for the team to understand it. One of its trickier parts resides in the need for constant monitoring, attention, and schedule adjustment according to delays.

This type of bar chart is useful for projects that are faced with frequent changes as you can quickly make these adjustments on the spot.

  1. Basic task list

For very simple or personal projects you can always stick to classic task lists. These have been used for enhancing daily productivity way before any other methods appeared. The To-Do list method simplifies your work for an easier to follow task path.

The secret to an efficient task list is keeping it short. Too many tasks on a single list will seem too overwhelming. Less than 20 list items will improve your focus and help you prioritize tasks easily. If you want to avoid endless lists, write only your tasks that need to be completed immediately and emphasize present activities rather than future ones. To-Do lists are more useful if you complete each task daily and you cross it out to make more space for other activities.

Try this 1-3-5 method rule to help you complete all of the tasks on your To-Do list.

What’s the bottom line?

Visual project management is still one of the most effective ways of controlling your project development and workflow. If you’re looking for a way to monitor your projects at a glance with fewer risks and less stress, Kanban boards might be the right tool for you.

If you’re unsure whether Kanban boards are right for your team, test this method and others to see which one suits your workflow best. Try out some of our Kanban board examples and see how your projects develop clearly with fewer bottlenecks and with an increased team communication.