Origins of a Kanban Card

Kanban is Japanese for “visual signal” or “card.” In the late 1940s, Toyota lineworkers pioneered the use of physical Kanban cards to signal steps in the manufacturing process. The system’s highly visual nature allowed teams to communicate more easily on what work needed to be done and when.

As Kanban emerged as a system in knowledge work, the Kanban card came to represent an individual work item. These “pieces of work” are typically displayed in the form of sticky notes on a whiteboard that uses lanes to show the steps in a team’s process.

Each sticky note contains critical information for that piece of work, and its placement on the whiteboard visually communicates the work item’s status within the team’s process. From this, the modern application of the Kanban card was born.

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Core Attributes of a Kanban Card

The core functionality of a Kanban card is to visually convey a work item’s progress as it flows through a system or process.

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 critical information
  • Record important work attributes and metrics that you can later use to improve your workflow

Now that you know about the key attributes of a Kanban card, let’s dive a bit further into the details.

Face of a Kanban Card

As previously mentioned, the core purpose of a Kanban card is to provide a quick visual status of work items. The face, or front, of a Kanban card presents details that are relevant to the team, such as:

  • A unique identifier or title
  • A brief description of the work
  • A rough estimate of the size of the work
  • Who’s been assigned to it

These items fit on the face of the sticky note and can provide insight into the team’s work. Additional visual cues can include class of service, priority, or blocked work.

Back of a Kanban Card

As a Kanban card moves through the workflow, team members can use the back of the card to record applicable metrics, like:

  • Start date
  • Blocked days
  • Blocked location
  • Finish date
  • Lead time

This rich “card history” provides valuable information about the overall flow of work, a key health indicator of any Kanban system. Understanding the workflow not only identifies key 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.

Virtual Kanban Cards

Despite their benefits in giving teams a tactile foundation of Kanban, physical Kanban cards and boards have many limitations. They can be difficult for remote team members to update effectively and require a meticulous, hands-on process to tally data, and the information they convey is restricted to what fits on the face of the card.

Good Kanban software, on the other hand, adds the following benefits to Kanban cards:

  • 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

Kanban Card Templates

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

For IT Operations teams, examples of recurring work might include monthly patch management, backup verifications, and creating new users. As the tasks required to do the work are the same each time, creating a Kanban card template eliminates the need to create a new card for every work item. Simply capture all the details in a taskboard one time and the team can copy the template card and edit the card information as needed.

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 your work and help you effectively communicate with team members about work items.