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What Is a Kanban Board?

Get to know what a Kanban board is by discovering the basics and the details of the workflow visualization tool and learn how to use Kanban boards to improve team performance.

A Kanban board is a tool for workflow visualization and one of the key components of the Kanban method.

Visualizing your workflow and tasks on a  Kanban board helps you better understand your processes and gain an overview of your workload. With this new level of transparency, you will quickly identify problematic work stages, and by improving those, your team will soon work more efficiently. 

In this guide, we will explain what a Kanban board is, discuss the basics, and clarify important details you need to understand, especially if you are a beginner.

The Kanban Board Explained

The Kanban board went through a long journey to become what it is today. Kanban (English: signboard) started as a visual scheduling system, part of the Toyota production system.

A few decades later (2007) the idea was further developed by David Anderson, who formulated the Kanban method and introduced the Kanban board. Indeed, Darren Davis (Anderson’s colleague) was the one who suggested that the workflow should be visualized on a whiteboard. This is how the Kanban board was born as we know it today to become one of the most useful agile project management tools for knowledge work. Nowadays its usage by Agile teams is so widespread that you can often hear people refer to Kanban boards as agile task boards. 

Main Components of the Kanban board

Kanban boards use Card, Column, Swimlanes, and WIP Limits to enable teams to visualize and manage their workflows effectively. Let us introduce you to the main components more closely:Kanban board elementsKanban Cards – This is the visual representation of tasks. Each card contains information about the task and its status, such as deadline, assignee, description, etc.

Kanban Columns – Each column on the board represents a different stage of your workflow. The cards go through the workflow until their full completion.

Work-in-Progress Limits – They restrict the maximum amount of tasks in the different stages of the workflow. Limiting WIP allows you to finish work items faster by helping your team focus only on current tasks.

Kanban Swimlanes – These are horizontal lanes you can use to separate different activities, teams, classes of service, and more.

If you are new to the method, you may start with a basic Kanban board structure and split it into three primary sections that show different workflow stages.

simple Kanban boardBasic Kanban Board

For more detailed mapping of your process, you are at liberty to create as many subsections as you need to visualize your workflow with maximum precision. For example, a development team may have a Kanban task board that consists of multiple columns and swimlanes.

developemnt Kanban boardKanban Board with Swimlanes

How to Use a Kanban Board

When building your Kanban board, begin with a simple structure, gradually enhance your board and transform it into a workflow management system following these five steps:

1. Spot Workflow Bottlenecks on the Kanban Board

The Kanban board is a perfect tool for visualizing potential problems in your process. The logic is simple: if you see a column in which tasks arrive faster than they leave, work will start to pile up, and the problem will become visible to the whole team. This may be caused by a temporary issue or a bottleneck in your process. 

We advise you to map your workflow as precisely as possible so that you have a clear picture of where the problem lies.

For example, on a simple Kanban board with just one "In progress" section and many cards awaiting activity, it will be challenging to determine why work is getting stuck and how you can alleviate the situation.

Conversely, mapping your workflow in great detail with dedicated columns for all the working stages will allow you to understand at a glance where improvements can be made.

process with a bottleneckProcess Bottleneck on a Kanban Board


Once you've noticed a problematic column/bottleneck, act swiftly to resolve it and prevent it from occurring again. The simplest thing to do is limit the work in progress earlier in the flow. This way, you will provide more time to the people who "own" this stage, allowing them to alleviate the bottleneck. Another option could be re-distributing the team's efforts to meet the new requirements. Kanban is designed to offer maximum flexibility, so you are kept in the driving seat for all crucial decisions.

Organize Work, Keep Track of Projects

And Optimize Your Workflow.

 

2. Use the Kanban Board to Limit Work in Progress and Focus

The Kanban board is a great way to discourage your team from multitasking by applying WIP limits according to your capacity. You can either use a limit on the total number of tasks that can be in progress simultaneously on your board or put individual limits on each stage of your workflow.

If you wish to increase the rate you deliver value to your customers, you will want to keep every person focused on as few tasks as possible

This way, they will stop starting new work and concentrate on finishing assignments that are already in progress. Knowing that everyone can see what each person is doing is a great motivator to pursue better performance all the time as well.

3. Use the Kanban Dashboard to Save Time Wasted on Unnecessary Meetings

A significant benefit that comes with the implementation of Kanban boards is that they save you much time spent on meetings, progress reports, and many other unnecessary interruptions.

The board will serve as a dedicated information repository. It will spread knowledge about who is doing what at any time. The Kanban board will keep you and everyone in the team in the loop about how assignments are progressing. This way, you won't need to schedule meetings so often to receive progress updates.

Furthermore, the Kanban board will allow you to forget about those long progress report books that take ages to be prepared and are already out of date by the time they are presented to the stakeholders.

4. Visualize Work Blockers on Your Kanban Board

The Kanban board allows you to visualize problems that prevent your team from completing any given task. On a typical physical board, blockers are usually indicated with red magnets (or pins if you are using a corkboard).

blocked cardBlocked card on a Kanban board

Digital Kanban software has more advanced ways to visualize blockers (e.g., stop signs on blocked cards). When something stops your team from continuing work on a task, they can label it as blocked and start working on another assignment without breaking any WIP limits.

5. Collect Key Workflow Metrics and Improve

Contemporary digital Kanban boards can automatically gather information about the cycle time of your tasks, lead time, and other key performance indicators. This will help you make data-driven decisions about any changes to your process and save you plenty of time otherwise wasted on collecting metrics by hand.

Additionally, knowing how to use a Kanban board will help you prioritize tasks in a much better way. By visualizing everything in one place, the whole team will always be on the same track.

For an overview, the following video will show you how to use a basic Kanban board.

Organize Work, Keep Track of Projects

And Optimize Your Workflow.

 

In Summary

The Kanban board is a tool for mapping and visualizing your workflow and one of the key components of the Kanban method. Kanban Boards help you to:

  • Visualize bottlenecks and workflow weaknesses
  • Focus on the work currently at hand
  • Eliminate the need for basic status update meetings

Start your free trial now and get access to all Kanbanize features.

During the 30-day trial period you can invite your team and test the application in a production-like enviroment.