A Kanban board is a tool used by many teams that use the Kanban method for continuous improvement in their work and processes. A typical physical board usually consists of different colored post-it’s arranged in multiple columns on a whiteboard / pin board or in many cases on windows or glass partitions. An electronic or virtual Kanban board Software on the other hand is the translation of this physical board onto your computer screen – very useful for teams located across multiple geographies (with the added advantage of powerful data collection and analytics).
But first, what is Kanban? In short, Kanban tool is a way for teams and organizations to visualize their work, identify and eliminate bottlenecks and achieve dramatic operational improvements in terms of throughput and quality. Kanban is a concept related to lean and just-in-time (JIT) production, where it is used as a scheduling system that tells you what to produce, when to produce it, and how much to produce. (Read more here – What is Kanban?).
Kanban framework is very flexible and at its core has a very minimum set of principles. Visualize work, limit the amount of work in progress, manage flow and improve collaboratively and continuously. Its simplicity (in both implementation and understanding) is what has led to its wide use across industries/ domains from software development and IT, to marketing, operations, manufacturing and even construction.
A basic Kanban board consists of 3 columns – ToDo, Doing, Done populated with cards of different types. Each card represents a task or a work item. Different types of tasks are given different colors – so that you can easily identify (for example) which cards are related to bugs and which ones are for issues and so on.
- Done (Complete!) contains all cards that you have finished working on.
- Doing (or the ‘In Progress’ lane) contains all cards that you are currently working on.
- ToDo (popularly called the ‘Ready’ lane) contains all your cards that are next up.
Cards move from left to right i.e. from the ToDo lane to the Done lane. (How you read the board effectively is still up for discussion. The recommended method is going from right to left i.e ‘Done’ first – so that you have a handle on what tasks were completed first, then you move on to what is currently happening in your team – ‘In Progress’ (and hence what could be part of your next release/ will be completed next.) and then you get a picture of what needs to done next – ‘ToDo’. This method helps you plan accordingly while simultaneously getting a feel of what the flow is, where your team is at, what items might be a bottleneck, what needs to resolved on priority etc.
Depending on your process, each task (card) could have gone through multiple stages (columns) – Planning > Design > Development > Testing > Review > Production! Kanban is very flexible that way – you can easily map any process onto the board. Here’s a screenshot of what our actual SwiftKanban development board looks like –
What is a card – what do I do with cards?
We touched upon the fact that a card in ‘Kanban’ represents a task. It’s generally the smallest unit of work that your project can be divided into. Cards are generally grouped by what kind of activity you (your team) performs. For example, a development team could have three different types of cards – for bugs, issues and change requests. You can choose to further divide them into say those identified internally, and those by your customers – everything works, it just depends on what your current process is and what you would like it to evolve to. Going back to the three cards types, in Kanban, we give them different colors – so that it’s easy to differentiate between them when viewing the board. Here’s an example card –
You’ll notice some numbers on top of each column on our dev board. The first number indicates the number of cards in that column, the second indicates the maximum mandated number of cards that could be in that column at any point in time – i.e. the maximum amount of work/ number of tasks you (your team) can handle efficiently. Limiting work has a number of advantages – ensures context switching is at a minimum, gives the team an overall picture of where they’re at and reduces chances of resource burn-out.
Pull, don’t push!
In Kanban, work isn’t explicitly assigned. For example, if you have a simple Code, Test, Review process, when a tester has completed the task at hand he will look for cards that are in the ‘Done’ column under Code because he knows that Testing is the next step in the life of that work item. So, he ‘pulls’ the card into his In-Progress column of the Test queue and begins working on it. Combined with WIP Limits and ensuring that the task at hand is finished first before another is pulled in, Kanban ensures that there is a smooth flow of work without excessive workloads, context switching or unnecessary managerial instruction.
Additional questions you may have –
Check out some of the great resources on the right side of this page. You can also sign up for an upcoming webinar on Kanban – or look at some great previous webinars conducted by people such as David Anderson and Dr. Masa K Maeda!