A Kanban board is a visualization tool that enables you to optimize the flow of your work. Using a Kanban board to manage work across your team or organization can:
- Promote focus
- Boost productivity
- Increase visibility
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Visual details are displayed in a single place on a Kanban board, minimizing the time spent tracking down progress reports or sitting in status update meetings.
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.
A more advanced Kanban board might also include information to help actively manage the way work flows through the board, such as process policies.
Getting started with Kanban doesn’t require an organization-wide overhaul; it can start with a single team seeking to improve visibility and gain control over its workflow and grow from there.
Elements of a Kanban Board
The basic elements of a Kanban board are as follows:
- Lanes, which represent defined steps in the process
- Cards, which represent work items that move through the process
Kanban systems are simple by design, and flexible by nature. By simply defining your process steps into lanes, and documenting your work items with cards, you can begin to experience the benefits of Kanban.
Lanes on a Kanban Board
The lanes on a Kanban board represent the steps in your process. Each vertical lane should reflect a distinct step in your process, and move sequentially from left to right: From “To Do” (on the far left), to “Doing,” to “Done” (on the far right).
Of course, the processes that most knowledge work follows is a bit more complex than simply “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done.” You likely have several subcategories within each of those three broader states.
Within “To Do,” you might have:
- “To Do – Unprioritized”
- “To Do – Prioritized”
Within “Doing,” you might have:
Within “Done,” you might have:
- Done – Pending Final Approval
- Done – Done
You can design your Kanban board to reflect each of these steps:
To Do – Unprioritized > To Do – Prioritized > Plan > Develop > Test > Launch > Done (Pending Approval) > Done – Done
Horizontal lanes, sometimes called swimlanes, can be used to represent processes that happen simultaneously within a team or organization.
For example, if a sales team follows the same process for each of its geographic territories, it could set up vertical lanes with each of the steps in its process, and horizontal swimlanes for each of the territories for which it is responsible. This would allow the team to manage and refine its process on a shared board while distinguishing between the areas in which it is working.
Each card on your Kanban board represents a work item. On the “face” (front) of the card, you’ll include details that make it easy for everyone on the board to understand the key details of that piece of work, such as:
- Title – what is this work item?
- Card assignment – who is working on this work item?
- Card type – what kind of work is it? (usually designated by color)
- Due date – is there a defined due date for this work item?
Within the card (accessed in most Kanban tools by clicking on the card to “open” it), you can see more in-depth information about the work, such as:
- Card description – what exactly is involved in this work item? What is the goal, or desired end result?
- Attachments / files – are there any documents, links, or visuals that are helpful for completing this work item?
- Comment history – what has the team added
- Card history
Learn more about how to use Kanban cards to manage your work.
Managing Flow with a Kanban Board
Process policies are rules or guidelines that the team using a Kanban board develops to help the team use the board consistently. An example of a process policy might be, “Cards must have a completed project brief attached to the card before moving from “To Do” to “Doing.”
Some digital Kanban tools allow you to build process policies into the board, so that they can be viewed by right-clicking or hovering over a lane.
WIP (work in process) limits are defined limits on how many work items can be in a particular lane or set of lanes at a particular time. Based on the Kanban concept that we can move faster when we focus on fewer items at a time, WIP limits help teams avoid overwhelming the system by working on too many things at once.
Types of Kanban Boards
When you’re producing physical goods on an assembly line, you can see the process, and each of its steps, happening before your eyes. If there’s a bottleneck in one part of the system, you can see the work piling up and know where to go to resolve the issue.
But when your work is less tangible – developing software, creating marketing campaigns, or crafting a product roadmap – your process may be less apparent. Bottlenecks are not so obvious, and teams struggle to manage capacity, often resulting in overwhelmed team members.
When you use a Kanban board to manage your work, you define each of the steps in your process and actively track your work as it moves through that process. Kanban boards are flexible and customizable, so that you can adjust your board design as your process evolves. In this sense, there are endless types of Kanban boards, because each Kanban board is unique to the team or organization using it.
Kanban Board Examples
The example below gives 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.
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.
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.
Kanban Boards vs. Scrum Boards
If you’ve ever been part of an Agile team, it’s possible that you’ve utilized a relative of the Kanban board: The Scrum board. Scrum boards look and feel very similar to Kanban boards, and most teams using them follow the same basic principles of Kanban boards when using their Scrum boards:
- Lanes represent steps in a process, in some version of “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done”
- Cards move across the board from left to right
The fundamental distinction between Kanban boards and Scrum boards is that Scrum boards are designed to be used by teams operating in timeboxed iterations, whereas Kanban boards are used by teams working toward continuous flow. In other words, Scrum teams use boards to “burn down” all the tasks they have committed to for a particular period of time, whereas Kanban teams use their boards to continuously move work through their process.
How to Use a Kanban Board
When a Kanban 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.
Setting up and moving work through your Kanban board is the best way to learn how to use it. As your team or organization becomes more familiar with how the board works, you will start to feel more comfortable making improvements to the board setup and design.
The next step is to begin using board metrics to inform continuous improvement efforts. Teams can measure their effectiveness by tracking flow, quality, throughput, lead times, and more all by simply managing their work on a Kanban board.
Getting Started with Kanban Boards
We recommend that any team new to Kanban start by following the exercises in our Kanban Roadmap. These exercises are designed to help teams map existing processes and work items on a Kanban board.
From there, you can begin to experience the benefits of Kanban boards, and start to identify ways to improve your process over time.