Table of contents

Table of contents

You probably use dozens of tools in your daily work: Email and other communication tools, project management tools, documentation tools, and more. Flipping from one tool to the next to keep everyone aligned can be exhausting, so why should you use Kanban boards?

Kanban 101: Supercharge your team’s productivity

By encouraging teams to identify, prioritize, and intentionally complete work items one at a time, Kanban can help combat the damaging effects of multitasking in a hyper-stimulated world.

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A Kanban board offers a way to visually manage your work.
A Kanban board offers a way to visually manage your work.

A well-designed Kanban board can consolidate all the information in disparate tools, helping you save time, stay focused, and get more done.

Keep reading to learn why you should use Kanban boards and how to integrate them into your existing tools and processes.

What are Kanban Boards?

Kanban boards are a shared space where teams and organizations can visually manage their work. harnessing our brains’ innate preference for consuming visual information, Kanban boards help teams:

  • See work in progress
  • Streamline their processes
  • Keep work flowing from “To Do” to “Done”

Who Uses Kanban Boards?

First embraced by IT managers and software development teams, Kanban boards have been widely adopted by all types of teams and organizations. Kanban boards are especially popular among teams who practice Lean and Agile, because they enable the kind of visibility and transparency necessary to achieve business agility.

Any team that follows a repeatable process can use Kanban boards to:

  • Clarify their process
  • Improve their workflow
  • Work more efficiently

Reasons for Using Kanban Boards

There are many benefits to using Kanban boards over traditional project management systems, including:

Kanban boards are visual. Kanban boards harness our brains’ innate preference for consuming visual information.
Kanban boards are flexible. Kanban boards are meant to be tailored to your team’s unique process and can evolve with your team as it matures.
Kanban boards enable better collaboration. Kanban boards largely eliminate the need for status meetings by conveying status information through card information and position. By managing and communicating about work in the same place, teams can have deeper, richer conversations.
Kanban boards improve efficiency. Kanban boards give everyone the visibility to ensure that top priority work stays top priority, improving team efficiency.
Kanban boards encourage focus. Kanban boards help everyone stay focused on finishing existing work before starting new work.
Kanban boards can unify distributed teams. Kanban boards provide a shared virtual space where everyone can work independently together.

Let’s break down each of these reasons for why you should use Kanban boards to manage your work.

Kanban Boards Are Visual

Humans are visual creatures. It is easier for us to process information with a visual aid than without. For this reason, a Kanban board is the perfect tool to help teams instantly “see” and understand every part of a project.

With very little context, anyone can look at a team Kanban board and get a sense of:

  • How many work items are in progress
  • Where each of those work items are in their process
  • How many items have been completed
  • Which team members are assigned to which items
  • Where bottlenecks might exist in the process
  • If any items are blocked
  • If any items are past their planned due date

In most organizations, this information is hidden – not intentionally, but because it is not communicated proactively or openly – or visually.

Because Kanban boards are visual, anyone looking for information about a piece of work doesn’t need to muddle through a correspondence thread to find the piece of information they need to get started on a task.

Those seeking updates don’t have to decipher information on a massive spreadsheet to determine whether a task or project has been started or completed. They don’t have to interrupt their team members to understand where to contribute on a project.

When used effectively, Kanban boards become a shared source of truth where team members, leaders, and other stakeholders can go to quickly get answers to countless questions about work.

How to Use Kanban Boards

Unlike many project management tools which are rigid in structure, Kanban boards are flexible by design. They are intended to be customized, modified, and iterated upon to meet the needs of whoever is using the boards. The purpose of this flexibility is to allow teams to not only reflect their process on the board, but to improve upon it.

Not every virtual whiteboard with sticky notes on it is a Kanban board, however. There are a few key elements which make a Kanban board unique:

  • There are vertical lanes that represent steps in a process
  • There are cards (think: sticky notes) that represent work items
  • The cards move through the process from left to right

Beyond that, the possibilities are endless. It’s up to the individuals or teams using a board to decide how to use it.

  • Vertical lanes can be added to represent specific steps in the process
  • Horizontal swimlanes can be added to represent workflows that happen simultaneously
  • Card details, such as card types and custom icons can be used to communicate work type, work status, or other information important to the team
  • Process policies can be used to explicitly define how cards move through the board
  • WIP limits can be implemented to proactively restrict how much work is in process at any given time
Here is an example of a Kanban board with vertical and horizontal sub-lanes; WIP limits are noted by a number icon in the top right corner.
Here is an example of a Kanban board with vertical and horizontal sub-lanes; WIP limits are noted by a number icon in the top right corner.

Kanban Boards Enable Better Collaboration

Typically, team members spend a great deal of time collecting, consolidating, and communicating information about project status.

With Kanban boards, teams communicate these status updates by simply moving cards on the board. Everyone on the team can look at the board and quickly understand where the work “is,” without having to interrupt anyone else.

Team members, either onsite or remote, can look at card details, comments, and other information within the card to understand exactly what has or has not been done.

This means that conversations can move beyond the basics (what is our goal, what needs to be done, etc.) and move into deeper types of collaboration (what’s the best way to tackle this, what other factors should we be considering, etc.).

Kanban boards also can help leaders work with their teams in more meaningful ways. Instead of spending hours per day simply getting a sense of where work “is,” leaders can devote more time and energy to actively problem-solving and collaborating with their teams.

A Kanban board allows team members, whether onsite or remote, to communicate status updates in real time.
A Kanban board allows team members, whether onsite or remote, to communicate status updates in real time.

Kanban Boards Improve Efficiency

As we’ve shared, Kanban boards can be used not only to visualize your team’s process, but to improve upon it. When you visualize your work, you can also start to see patterns in how work flows (or stumbles) through your process.

In Lean methodology, anything that does not add value to the customer is considered waste. Practicing Kanban can help teams identify waste in their process, which can come in the form of:

  • Overproduction
  • Waiting
  • Transportation
  • Non-value-added processing
  • Inventory
  • Under-utilizing people
  • Defects
  • Motion

You can learn more about each of these types of waste and how to eliminate them.

Lessons from Using Kanban Boards

Time and time again, research has shown that people are more efficient at getting tasks done when they focus on only a few tasks at once. The longer your to-do list, the less likely it is that you’ll finish anything.

Kanban boards enable focus by turning those endless (typically, individual) to-do lists into cards on a shared board. When a new work request comes in, team members can look at the board to see what work items they have already committed to and make decisions on how to prioritize tasks against each other. There’s a sense of shared accountability for completing tasks that are on the board, which helps teams deliver work as planned.

New work requests, ideas for new projects, and other work items can be added to the backlog and reviewed methodically by the team.

Visualizing incoming and planned work on a Kanban board allows you to make better trade-off decisions based on work priority and overall strategy.
Visualizing incoming and planned work on a Kanban board allows you to make better trade-off decisions based on work priority and overall strategy.

Kanban Boards for Dispersed Teams

Another reason why you should use Kanban boards is that they unify teams – especially important in a time when so many teams are distributed across the country and globe. When everyone on a team visualizes and communicates their work on a shared Kanban board, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the same room or halfway across the world.

By communicating through card comments and other card details, you don’t have to be working at the same time, or in the same time zone, to keep progress moving forward. You can see what the members of your team are working on and have meaningful conversations about the work they are doing, making the world seem just a little smaller.

Why You Should Use Kanban Boards

Even if you are hesitant to learn “yet another tool,” you can see why it might be worth it to start using Kanban boards to manage your work. Kanban boards give teams the visibility to:

  • Stay aligned and focused
  • Collaborate more effectively
  • Deliver real value

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