A Kanban board is a popular project management tool. It helps to visualize the workflow, fragment a large process into smaller parts that are easier to handle, compile roadmaps and track their progress. The board is widely used in IT, tech, healthcare, publishing, manufacturing and many other spheres of activity. In this article, we will try to answer the question "What is a Kanban board?", analyze its pros and cons, compare different types of this tool and talk about how to use it.
The first-ever physical Kanban task board was invented by Taichi Ohno, a Toyota engineer, in the 1940s. He noticed that supermarkets started to replenish their stocks not when they completely ran out of goods but when they were getting close to running out. This inspired Taichi to create "Kanban" — this term translates from Japanese as "visual card".
Cards were introduced to Toyota assembling lines where they represented specific parts of the vehicle. When a worker saw that their colleague drew one of the last remaining cards of a specific type, they hurried to replenish the stocks of the part that this card denoted. The scheme was genuinely intuitive and highly visual. It helped to accelerate development cycles and decrease the amount of waste.
In the 20th century, the term "Kanban board" usually referred to a physical board with multicolored sticky notes attached to it. Each color corresponded to a particular type of task.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Agile expert and technology consultant David J. Anderson introduced this approach to IT, software development and project management. He published a book called Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business, which later served as a reference point for all the proponents of this concept.
A typical Kanban task board consists of five components:
Columns. The board has multiple columns, each of which refers to a particular phase of the workflow. Usually, the columns contain "To Do" and "Completed" phases. Team members can add cards to each column.
Visual signals. In most cases, these signals are fragments of text. The more concise they are, the better. Team members should be able to grasp the essence of each card immediately, from the first look at it.
Work-in-progress limits. You can limit the maximum number of cards that can be added to each column. This will prevent cluttering and help you set the right priorities. However, sometimes it might be tricky to define the reasonable limit for each project.
Commitment point. If the task is not ready but is still in progress, you mark it with a corresponding card.
Delivery point. Once the task is fulfilled, you mark it as finished.
The structure of a Kanban board is intuitive. Once you introduce it into your workflow, it will take your team just a couple of hours to figure out how it functions. The developers who build these tools make them visually appealing and remarkably user-friendly, which is why the boards are becoming more widespread even in industries that are not directly connected with the technology.
When you open the board for the first time, it is clean. Your first task will consist in adding columns to it. These might be, for instance:
This tool is available in two formats: online and desktop. Plus, you might use a physical Kanban board — but we are not talking about this one in this article. Startups, tech companies and small organizations tend to use the web-based version. Large enterprises and conservative businesses normally stick to the desktop variant.
The primary advantages of a desktop Kanban board are:
Offline work. You will not depend on your Internet connection.
Customization. As a rule, users can more easily adjust desktop programs to their needs rather than web-based ones.
Security. When you are disconnected from the world wide web, the piece of software that you use has fewer entry points. This means hackers will be less likely to intervene with it.
The web-based counterpart can offer its users the following privileges:
Subscription model. When purchasing a desktop program, you need to pay for its license in full. If you opt for a subscription, you will be able to choose between different tariffs, which should be more cost-efficient.
No installation. A web-based app will not occupy any space in your computer's memory. You will avoid the lengthy installation and configuration process. Also, web-based solutions normally do not require user training.
Real-time updates. When several team members are working with the Kanban board simultaneously from different locations, they do not need to synchronize. All the data that you add there become accessible to all your colleagues straightaway.
The choice between these two types of boards depends on one's individual habits and preferences. Yet the popularity of web solutions has been steadily increasing in recent years. So, even if you prefer the desktop version, one day your partners, contractors or clients might request a web-based version.
The Kanban approach is based on a philosophy that boils down to the following rules and practices:
Do not force changes. They should take place organically. Use the board to reflect the changes that are happening but do no stimulate changes yourself.
Avoid upheavals. Transformations should be smooth and not radical. Teams become more productive when working in a stress-free environment. Alarm and resistance are harmful to progress.
Encourage collaboration. Each team member should clearly realize their role in the team and their sphere of responsibility. When someone has a question or faces a challenge, they should know who to ask for advice.
Welcome leadership. A Kanban board is perfectly compatible with the concept of decentralization. Every team member has a right to express their opinion and come up with their ideas. There is no strong centralized power of a single leader.
Formulate your policies as unambiguously as possible and share them.
Visualize the workflow as much as possible.
Install limits. Limits do not restrain the employees — instead, they stimulate them to finalize tasks on time.
Regularly observe work and promptly resolve bottlenecks.
Review your progress. Gather feedback and optimize your workflow accordingly.
Be open to experiments and innovations since they open the doors for improvement.
When you read these principles for the first time, they seem a bit out of touch with reality. But as soon as you understand how to implement them, you will realize their outstanding practical value.
The principles of Kanban and Agile complement each other very well:
While the former is focused on continuous improvement, the latter is concentrated on continuous iteration.
The former helps the team to get rid of unnecessary activities and minimize the amount of waste. The latter helps to optimize the workflow if the ultimate goal of the project is not set.
Both are designed to be applied to short work cycles.
Both foster ongoing communication and collaboration.
The main difference consists in the fact that Kanban does not allow iterative development, which is one of the core principles of Agile. Plus, the former suggests running quality assurance tests at each stage of the project, while the latter allows to carry out testing only at the final stage.
Scrum is just a particular implementation of Agile, still it has its unique characteristic features. Scrum is iterative, while Kanban is visual. Besides, the former implies pre-defining roles and responsibilities, while the latter does not. What unites them is their focus on reducing waste and accelerating progress. The best way to implement the Kanban principles to Scrum is to customize the board to the needs of a particular team and product.
Now, let's sum up the biggest advantages of this tool:
Omnipresence. The employees can reach it 24/7, regardless of their current location. This comes in especially handy for remote teams and for those individuals who love to work from home at an unusual time (night or weekdays). If an excellent idea dawns on you at the least expected moment, you can immediately add it to the Kanban board.
Context. This tool not only allows you to visualize the workflow but also provides all the necessary background and helps to find answers to urgent questions. Who is in charge of each particular phase? What are the desired commercial indicators of the project? Where can one find supporting documents? The Kanban board shows you all the necessary details and links.
Active notifications. The managers do not need to flag stalled projects manually — the board will do it automatically. Also, it sends notifications to team members about the tasks they should pay attention to.
History of past projects. If you need to analyze your productivity and achievements in the past, you can check the previously saved objects. It enables teams to learn from their own experience. Plus, it allows new staff to familiarize themselves with the working habits of the organization.
Privacy. Only authorized users get access to your Kanban board. No third party can ever view it unless you invite them.
The drawbacks of this tool are not too numerous:
Lack of personal interaction. Some professionals believe that remote work carried out through a Kanban board should be supplemented by weekly, biweekly or monthly face-to-face meetings in the office. Offline gatherings are especially important when handling projects that are more demanding.
No compulsory prioritization. When working with an old-school, physical Kanban board, you attach cards to it directly. Since the surface of the board is limited, you tend to stick to those cards that have the highest priority. Using an online board, you can add an unlimited number of cards to it, which might result in a mess. This is why it is important to teach each team member to use work-in-progress limits.
Also, a Kanban board will only help you to deal with tactical, hands-on tasks. This is probably not a drawback but a peculiarity. You cannot use this tool for strategic management.