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A Kanban card is a visual representation of a work item on a Kanban board. Think of a Kanban board as a whiteboard, with vertical lanes representing the steps in a process.

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A Kanban card represents an individual work item, which allows teams to view important work information.
A Kanban card represents an individual work item, which allows teams to view important work information.

A Kanban card is a sticky note on that board. Each Kanban card, or sticky note, represents one work item.

But a Kanban card can contain far more information than a simple sticky note – it can include descriptions, attachments, links, comments, card history, and more. Read on to learn the key elements of Kanban cards and how to use them to manage work.

Origins of a Kanban Card

Kanban translates from its original Japanese to “visual signal” or “card.” Toyota pioneered the use of physical Kanban cards in the late 1940s to signal steps in the manufacturing process. Kanban cards were used to help align production with demand, with the goal of creating a “just in time” system of inventory management.

This early Kanban system operated a bit differently than the Kanban systems we know today: a Kanban card was attached to a finished product. When those products were sold, the Kanban cards were moved to the beginning of the line, signaling that the line could build another product.

Kanban cards were also attached to individual materials, so that materials were not ordered until they were needed. Using Kanban cards in this way helped the automotive manufacturer:

  • Streamline inventory management
  • Improve process efficiency
  • Reduce operating costs

Since its origins at Toyota, the concepts of Kanban have been adapted in a variety of industries. In the early days of computer engineering, software developers began using Kanban boards to limit their own work in process and streamline operations, using physical whiteboards and sticky notes to map out how work moved through their processes.

Since then, Kanban has continued to evolve and has been adopted by teams in virtually every industry.

Physical whiteboards and sticky notes have been replaced by virtual Kanban tools, but the core goals and benefits of Kanban are the same: To harness the power of visual management to improve efficiency.

The Purpose of Kanban Cards

The purpose of a Kanban card is to represent a work item and communicate its status as it moves through the workflow.

Often, teams track work in one place, and communicate status in another – Kanban boards allow teams to communicate status while tracking their work. By simply moving a Kanban card from one step (vertical lane) to the next, a team member communicates to their team where that work item is in the process, without any additional work.

While not intended to replace the need for conversation, using cards on a Kanban board as the team’s central information hub can reduce time spent in status meetings, introduce more high-value collaboration opportunities, and improve overall efficiency.

Kanban cards can help teams:

  • Gain a quick understanding of work item details
  • Facilitate handoffs between team members as the work progresses through different stages in the team’s process
  • Document and communicate critical information about each work item
  • Record important work attributes and metrics that teams can later use to improve their workflow

Core Attributes of a Kanban Card

There a few core attributes of a Kanban card that differentiate it from a humble sticky note:

Kanban cards represent actionable work itemsCard titles will typically include a verb
Kanban cards move on a Kanban board from left to rightCards should follow the process outlined by the board design
Kanban cards include important information about the workCards can include information such as card assignments, due dates, attachments / links, work type, and work priority
By looking at the position of a Kanban card on the board, teams can tell where the card is in the processAnyone should be able to look at a card on a Kanban board and determine where it is on the spectrum of “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done”

While a physical sticky note on a whiteboard might only include a brief description of a work item, a Kanban card in a virtual Kanban tool can include a great deal more.

Face of a Kanban Card

In most virtual Kanban tools, each Kanban card has a “front” and a “back.” The front, or “face,” of the card is the side that is visible when looking at the entire Kanban board. It is used to quickly, briefly communicate the most important details of a work item that are relevant to the team, such as:

  • A unique identifier or title
  • Who is assigned to the work
  • Due dates
  • Work type (often communicated by the color of the card)
  • Estimated effort (communicated through numeric “T-shirt” sizing, or other methods)
The face of a Kanban card provides basic information of the work item it represents.
The face of a Kanban card provides basic information of the work item it represents.

Many teams will use custom icons on the face of the card to communicate other information about a card’s status – such as a red circle with a white ‘X’ through it to show that a card is blocked, or a red flag to indicate that this item is top priority.

It’s a good practice to limit the amount of text visible on the face of the Kanban card. Long descriptions and other text relevant to the work should be reserved for the back of the card. The face of the card should be limited to information that is relevant to the entire team: What is this work item, and what does the team need to know about it?

The back of the Kanban card is where more detailed information, relevant to those doing or managing the work, should be.

Back of a Kanban Card

The back of a Kanban card can be used to store more detailed information about a piece of work. Whereas the front, or face, of the card is meant to communicate details relevant to the team, the back of the card is meant to store information relevant to those doing or managing the work.

Information stored on the back of a Kanban card can include:

  • Card description – What exactly is involved in this work? What is the goal?
  • Project scope – What is the definition of “done?” What is or is not included in this work?
  • Attachments and links – Project briefs, templates, useful resources, drafts, and key deliverables
  • Comments / comment history – What have team members said about the project so far?
  • Subtasks – What are the individual tasks involved in completing this card?
Clicking on a digital Kanban card provides additional details that help team members better understand what the work will involve.
Clicking on a digital Kanban card provides additional details that help team members better understand what the work will involve.

Most Kanban tools also track card activity on the back of the card, such as when:

  • A card moves from one lane to another
  • When a card is assigned or unassigned to a specific team member
  • When the due date or other information about a card is edited

This information can be helpful when someone needs deeper context about a work item.

Other Benefits of Kanban Cards

As a Kanban card moves through the process, many Kanban tools will track performance metrics, such as:

  • Start date
  • Blocked days
  • Finish date
  • Lead time
  • Cycle time
  • Throughput

These metrics provide valuable insights about the overall flow of work, a key health indicator of any Kanban system. Understanding how work flows, or doesn’t flow, through a process not only helps teams to identify bottlenecks before they significantly impact the system, but also provides opportunities for continuous improvement.

Accurately recording card metrics helps teams realize the full value of their Kanban system.

Kanban Card Templates

Another advantage of using virtual Kanban boards is the ability to create Kanban card templates. This is helpful for work that involves recurring tasks as it ensures standard processes for completing work of the same type and scope.

For a marketing team, examples of recurring work might include:

  • Promoting upcoming webinars
  • Launching a new product
  • Hosting a contest on social media

Creating a Kanban card template can ensure that the team remembers perform each of the tasks involved in that work without creating a new card from scratch each time. Once a card template is created, teams can simply duplicate it, edit details as needed, and begin work.

A Kanban card template allows you to easily create cards that represent recurring work.
A Kanban card template allows you to easily create cards that represent recurring work.

Creating a Kanban card template reduces oversights and rework as all team members have a clear, consistent understanding of what needs to be done. If the scope of the work changes or the team finds ways to optimize processes, updating the Kanban card template is an easy way to capture and communicate those learnings.

For repeatable work, standardizing tasks using Kanban card templates improves process efficiency and throughput, saving a considerable amount of time.

For example, if a team works on three to four projects a week and each project has around sixteen tasks, using a card template can save the team from creating 64 new cards per week. Whether physical or digital, Kanban cards give enhanced visibility into the status of work and help team members effectively communicate about work items.

Virtual Kanban Cards

Virtual Kanban cards are far more than just placeholders representing work items; they are sources of rich information, context, and insight – living records of tasks that evolve as work items move through the process.

Managing work on virtual Kanban cards arms teams with:

  • Easy and equal access for both onsite and remote team members
  • Automatic data collection that feeds into charts and graphs for quicker data implementation
  • Stored history for the entire life of the card
  • A greater range of at-a-glance information
  • Visual indicators and attributes that are easy to customize and evolve according to the needs of the team

To learn more about managing work with a Kanban system, we recommend this article.