What is a Kanban Board?

Kanban Board

A Kanban Board is a visual signboard that shows the work to be done, the work that is in operation, and the work that is completed. The Kanban board is a visual representation of a personal, team or departments’ value stream, that has been mapped out usually on a whiteboard, a wall or in dedicated software. This board is usually divided into rows and columns, and it helps a team to organize and deliver their work. Work items are often represented by colourful cards, carrying particular information about single tasks as they move from start to finish through the relevant process.

Board visibility

A Kanban board should be highly visible - the more visible the better. Although not prescribed, the best results have typically been found when the teams are sat close enough to the board that it’s always visible to them. A Kanban board easily communicates to everyone around what’s the WIP limit, how the team is doing and what are the focal points for daily standups.

The live view of the process also provides management with an understanding of what the team is doing. It gives them a sense of comfort, that the team has everything under control and whether they have taken risks into consideration or not. And if there are problems, the board reflects this to leadership as well, so there is always maximum transparency.

The word Kanban can be translated in Japanese as a “card you can see” so if your board is not visual, then you are really breaking one of the fundamentals of Kanban. Do not fall into the trap of many first-time practitioners, who are so nervous about whether they created their board correctly, that they place it in an area of low visibility. The Kanban board is not for the manager, but for the stakeholders and team members—the more visible the better!

A Kanban board is a tool that will prevent stakeholders from forever asking you questions such as: “Can you give me an update of how the work is progressing?” While it is still good practice to keep people up to date, if need be, you can simply point them to the board. It’s common for teams to post their board at the entrance to their work area, so that stakeholders don’t even have to bother the team, but can get their update directly from the board.

Kanban as a team’s advocate and guardian

Some managers or leaders have a tough time saying no or yes to client’s requests, and the board can help with that. The visual aspect of the board communicates how much work the team has in operation at any given stage and helps cue stakeholders as to when the team will be available for their designated piece of work, or a new order.

The Kanban board, be that electronic or physical, would have work in progress limits built-in. A WIP limit can be implemented as simply as through the size of the board or column on the board! These limits will help your team members manage how much work they should take on at any given time.

Physical vs digital Kanban boards

Some teams use a physical wall, a whiteboard or a screen, while other teams utilize software. Both cases have their advantages and drawbacks.

Physical boards provide the team with what has been expressed as a more tangible, visceral experience, while digital boards can be accessed by anyone and from anywhere, providing teams with flexibility and allowing them to be dispersed or work from home.

Whatever your preference, we recommend trying to use both and enjoying the best of both worlds, team members update a physical board and the project manager can then update the digital board to utilize the superior reports provided by digital boards.

Order and sequence of the cards on the board

The specific steps of your board are unique to your given process, but there are certain tips that you may want to adhere to:

  • Make sure your steps are sequential.
  • Try to only record the steps that take a significant percentage of time. For example, in a graphic design company process, there should not be a step on the board saying open design software, as that would all be grouped under the design column.
  • Cards should be prioritized from top to bottom in a row - e.g. cards that you want to work on first should be at the top.
  • It’s useful to break down the backlog of work into different types, such as features and bugs for a team of developers, or presentations, newsletters, web management for a team of marketers.
  • Writing the WIP limit for each stage of work helps the team decide how many items they can take on at any given time. We recommend you experiment with this, it can and should be adjusted after you have run the process for several weeks.
  • The order of backlog items should represent the order you want the work to be done in. Hence, the top card is the item that should be started first.
  • The middle steps—specifying, implementing, and validating work—are often divided into sub-columns.
    The right column of each step holds cards that have completed that step, showing that they are ready for the next person in the team to take it on. It’s an easy way to signal that “I have completed the work and you can take it from here.”

Below is an example of a simple Kanban board for a graphic designer. The designer is currently capable of delivering 3 presentations, 2 newsletters and 1 website each week. The columns show this very WIP limit, so once there are 3 presentation items in the backlog, there can be no more added until a presentation is complete and so on and so forth.

Kanban Board - Single User

This simple Kanban board works well for a one-man team. However, if work of another team member, a writer, was to be added here, we’d recommend dividing each column into two states: in progress and a done. If we estimate the workflow to be that the writer creates the presentation, newsletters or website content first, and then the designer does the accompanying designs, the board could look like the one presented below.

Kanban Board - Two Users

However you create and organize your board, please remember to make it visible, make it your own, and utilize it daily to keep yourself and the team up to date and reduce chaos in your workplace. The purpose of the board is to make the team members able to self-organize without continuous supervision. While achieving that may take some time, the intermediate goal in the day-to-day running of the team is for them to pull the right work, at the right time, in the right sequence. The board belongs to the team: it is foremost not a project management tool, but a tool for the team and their stakeholders.