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Work Management
Last modified date

Dec 5, 2023

What is a Kanban Board and How to Use it

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Alexandra Cote

Blog average read time

9 min

Last modified date

December 5, 2023


A Kanban board uses item cards grouped in columns to help you visualize work at various stages of a predefined workflow. It is one of the most practical tools to manage your projects clearly and with ease. Kanban can help you visualize and maintain your tasks and workflows, signaling potential bottlenecks for each project or workflow stage.

 This is why they are used by several agile in-office and remote teams across the world to manage tasks with flexibility.

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 your team can understand easily.

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 know 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.

Note: If you’re looking for a time management system to help you track hours or log time, check out this business time tracking software. Plus, many users like how timesheets can easily be turned into invoices with the help of automated invoicing software

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 it physical or virtual, is created using these three main elements:

Kanban-method

  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

Create your first Kanban board with a free Paymo trial.

Paymo Kanban board

Accessing Kanban boards in Paymo

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 Kanban example lists to help you get ideas on how to structure your tasks according to each progress phase and distribute them evenly. Try these boards or create personalized ones for higher efficiency.

Task boards manage and monitor a project from its kickoff meeting to its closure. You can include any tasks relevant to the project development process in their structure. You can add more specific duties besides the basic ones, such as meetings and reviews. Pay attention to how you can limit the tasks each team member is responsible for at each project stage.

Kanban for software development

A software development team using a Kanban board in Paymo 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 common to see tasks with all members assigned to them to ensure that all requirements and standards are met. 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, like the ones from the list here, allow you to chat with the people in charge of a task. As a result, the feedback on each card becomes contextual. This keeps all users informed regarding the project updates and its progression.

ux kanban board

An example of a UX project in Paymo 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 of losing those documents.

digital marketing kanban board

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

Kanban Rules

Kanban boards were 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, where instructions were carried out. This helped teams communicate easily across the entire manufacturing process.

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

By visualizing your tasks on one screen, you can simultaneously identify bottlenecks, unassigned tasks, and missed deadlines. Afterward, you can solve these issues right from the board’s workspace.

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

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

With Kanban, you can limit the number of tasks 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 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 of your overall workflow.

Note: all departments can use Kanban boards. 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 daily tasks as well. Here’s how you can create your physical progress board for personal purposes:

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

personal kanban board

A personal Kanban board used by a single person

The Meta Kanban board

Instead of taking your Kanban boards to a whole new level, try the Meta Kanban board. These allow you to get a complete view of your work and see all tasks across your company’s projects on a single Kanban Board. And you’ll no longer have to switch between boards to see your tasks. Hooray!

meta-kanban board

Meta Kanban board example

Setting up workflows

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

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

default workflow

Default Kanban workflow in Paymo

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 also work with a Backlog. You can create separate lists for tasks according to their urgency and priority (high, average, low).

priority workflow for Kanban board

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 for Kanban board

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

workflow for Kanban board

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

Kanban 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 your data safely in the cloud.

The best Kanban software is highly visual and simple to use, boasting benefits like flexibility in creative industries, velocity in software development, and increased productivity in personal task management.

You can also use time-tracking software to measure each team member’s time 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, the 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 create. You can create as many boards as you’d like through Kanban or project management software, move activities from one board to another, or archive the board and return to it anytime. 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 regarding 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 transparent project management process.

Also, pay attention to storing your project’s status only in one place, as it can be risky. Losing access to the tool that provides your Kanban board means losing the details of your task distribution. It is advisable to back your data up and save your progress on an external source or in the cloud. Try using Kanban or project management software that provides secure cloud storage for your files.

Another disadvantage of a Kanban board is that, unless you set deadlines, work on a specific 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 to create advanced workspace structures and associate them with other project-tracking methods.

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

complex Kanban board

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. Then, collect development suggestions and test new ideas to find the most productive ones. Keeping outdated boards might lead to issues, 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:

The Scrum framework

An alternative to the Kanban board is the Scrum board, used mainly by software development teams. There are some essential differences between the two. Scrum emphasizes schedules and completing activities according to fixed time boxes. These are called sprints, which usually span two weeks when a new project development will be issued. On the other hand, Kanban is driven by the completion of events continuously until the project ends rather than by time frames.

Employees that use a Kanban board can deliver a task at will. Meanwhile, Scrum teams must 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.

Note: If you want to know what to study to get started as a project manager, read this reference guide that outlines requirements, good advice, and steps to learn project management without a degree.

Here are the basics of the Scrum task board:

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. This allows 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 most transparent manner possible for the team to understand. One of its trickier parts resides in the need for constant monitoring, attention, and schedule adjustment according to delays.

You can use this type of bar chart for projects facing frequent changes, as you can quickly make these adjustments on the spot.

Basic task list

You can always stick to classic task lists for very simple or personal projects. These have been used to enhance daily productivity 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 tasks that must be completed immediately. Emphasize present activities rather than future ones. To-do lists are more useful if you complete each task daily.

Try this 1-3-5 method rule to help you complete all 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 they are suitable for your team, test this method to see if it suits your workflow. Try some Kanban examples and see how projects develop with increased team communication.

Create your customized Kanban boards with a free Paymo trial.

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Alexandra Cote

Author

Alexandra Cote is a SaaS content writer and strategist with a passion for workplace productivity, social media marketing wonders, conversion rate optimization, artificial intelligence, and keyword research. Reach out to her via LinkedIn.

Laurențiu Bancu

Editor

Laurențiu started his marketing journey over 18 years ago and now leads a marketing team. He has extensive experience in work and project management, and content strategy. When not working, he’s probably playing board games or binge-watching mini-series.

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