A Kanban board is a work and workflow visualization tool that enables you to optimize the flow of your work. Physical Kanban boards, like the one pictured below, typically use sticky notes on a whiteboard to communicate status, progress, and issues. Online Kanban boards draw upon the whiteboard metaphor in a software setting.

The Kanban technique emerged in the late 1940s as Toyota’s re-imagined approach to manufacturing and engineering. Line-workers displayed colored Kanbans – actual cards – to notify their downstream counterparts that demand existed for parts and assembly work. (Kanban is the Japanese word for “visual signal” or “card.”) The system’s highly visual nature allowed teams to communicate more easily on what work needed to be done and when. It also standardized cues and refined processes, which helped to reduce waste and maximize value.

The application of Kanban to knowledge work, influenced not only by the Toyota Production System but also by Lean systems thinking, began as early as 2005. Kanban’s core principles are the same in industries like software development and human resource management as they are in manufacturing:

  • Visualize your work
  • Limit your work in process
  • Focus on flow
  • Practice continuous improvement

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Visualize Your Work and Workflow

In manufacturing, the process for completing work is visible in the structure of the production line. But in knowledge work, the process is often opaque. Mapping out the process steps on a Kanban board and using Kanban cards to represent work provides visibility into the process and gives insight into many aspects of the work, including how the work flows.

Since every team has its own process for completing work, Kanban boards give you the freedom to map your own workflow. Simple processes are laid out as vertical lanes on the board, whereas more complex processes typically combine vertical and horizontal lanes. Mapping the workflow that’s unique to your team makes your process transparent and helps the entire team easily see the status of its work in process.

The sample physical board and card example below give you an idea of how Kanban works. Each lane is labeled with a step in the team’s process (to do, plan, etc.). Kanban cards are then placed on the board in lanes that indicate the status of the work. When customized to reflect your team’s process, the board – including the cards themselves – can communicate multiple details at a glance.

In this example, card color demonstrates the type of work (e.g., purple for user story and lime for defect), but card color can also mean urgency or priority (e.g., red for expedite, green for normal, etc.). Visual indicators, like icons and user avatars, are placed on the card to show who is assigned to the work, the source of demand, class of service, or other important details that are relevant to your team’s work. You get to decide what your Kanban boards look like and how the cards represent your work.

Visualizing your work and workflow carries many benefits, starting with how our brains process information. The human brain can intuit visual information 60,000 times faster than text. Since Kanban boards create a “picture” of your work, the visual display makes it quicker and easier to understand status and progress.

These visual details are displayed in a single place, minimizing the time spent tracking down progress reports or sitting in status update meetings. The Kanban board and cards represent a shared visual language that team members and stakeholders can use to quickly communicate high-value information in a way that is frictionless and transparent.

Optimize the Flow of Your Work

Visualizing work is only one of the benefits of the Kanban board and Kanban system. Kanban elevates physical and virtual whiteboards from visual to-do lists to powerful workflow optimization and collaboration tools by helping you limit your work in process, see how your work flows, and gather the metrics you need to measure and improve.

The goal of a Kanban system is to limit the amount of work in process so the work flowing through the system matches its capacity. In other words, a system can only handle so much traffic and still have that traffic move smoothly through the steps in the process.

When the system becomes overloaded with work, everything slows down, and the smooth flow of work turns into a logjam. Stuck work is easy to spot on a Kanban board, because work piles up in the affected lane(s) and gives you instant clarity into the work that needs attention.

Visualizing workflow via online Kanban boards drives clarity, alignment, and focus on key objectives.
Visualizing workflow via online Kanban boards drives clarity, alignment, and focus on key objectives.

To prevent the logjam effect, Kanban boards utilize one or more work-in-process (WIP) limits. A WIP limit is a constraint that can be applied to parts of a workflow (e.g., an individual lane) or to an entire process. By using WIP limits, you can improve the flow of work through the process steps you’ve defined on your Kanban board, helping your team become more efficient.

Gather insights across teams to identify areas of opportunity for continuous improvement and adapt workflow processes for improved productivity.
Gather insights across teams to identify areas of opportunity for continuous improvement and adapt workflow processes for improved productivity.

Once your Kanban system is in place, it becomes the cornerstone for a culture of continuous improvement. Teams can measure their effectiveness by tracking flow, quality, throughput, lead times, and more. Experiments and analysis can change the system to improve the team’s effectiveness.

Choosing a Kanban Board for Your Team: Physical or Virtual?

Some teams prefer physical Kanban boards over virtual ones. A physical board uses sticky notes or index cards for the Kanban cards, and the board is drawn on a whiteboard or wall. This works well for teams that are 100% co-located, since every team member can individually interact with the board and not have to rely on onsite colleagues to update their cards by proxy. Some teams also prefer the tactile, low-tech feel of a physical board. Metrics, such as cycle time, can be measured manually.

Overall, physical boards are an inexpensive way to start practicing Kanban for individuals or co-located teams whose work doesn’t intersect with other teams.

For distributed teams, small teams that trade work back and forth, or enterprise organizations looking to scale Kanban across multiple teams, a virtual Kanban board is required.

Virtual Kanban systems provide:

  • Additional collaboration features, like email integration
  • Real-time accessibility for remote workers and stakeholders
  • A detailed audit trail that stores the history of every card
  • More sophisticated reporting and metrics that take far less time to generate than physical board reporting
  • The ability to integrate with other enterprise systems, like project portfolio management or HelpDesk platforms, to eliminate duplicate data entry

A good rule of thumb for enterprise teams is to consider a virtual Kanban tool with scalability and security features for your pilot program. When it’s time to expand, you won’t need to switch tools, which can delay productivity and cost valuable time and resources.

Whether physical or virtual, Kanban boards make your process transparent, give you at-a-glance visibility of the status of your work in progress, and help you optimize your flow of work for improved effectiveness.