Sticky notes on a wall.
That was my first look at a kanban board.
The developers at the company I worked for used it.
Each time a task was finished someone would climb a huge ladder and move the little sticky note over one column.
From “In Progress” to “QA” or whatever. And then ring a gong. Yes, a gong.
But there were a few workflow problems.
Number one, the board was huge. We had to use a ladder. Even the 6’8 former college basketball player had to use the ladder. That’s not a good Kanban tool.
Number two, sticky notes on the huge board. No one could really see the details on the task. It was all kept in another project management system, like JIRA. This isn’t good.
Number three, no one wanted to ring the gong. What was the point of having the gong if no one rang it?
All that aside, kanban boards are all those things but much more (sans ladders). In this post, you’ll see what a kanban board is and how it could work for you.
What is a kanban board?
Simply put, the Kanban method is a way to manage your workflow processes with simple statuses. But instead of a to-do list, it’s a visualization (hence the sticky notes). At its very basic level, you’d have three columns with different statuses for your project.
Column 1: To Do
Column 2: In Progress
Column 3: Done
Then you would move your tasks (usually called “Kanban cards”) across the columns. Then each person working on those tasks would know its status.
Once done, you’d move the card over to the right status. And ring the gong (in theory).
This method grew in popularity especially in agile development because it was easy to understand and break down. The typical system would involve sticky notes on a whiteboard (but don’t make it too high!).
This all started with Lean manufacturing in Japan during the 1940s. This was their system for getting work done quickly and efficiently, revolutionizing the assembly line in the process.
Kanban is only one part of Lean, but it’s an essential part: it tells everyone the status of a current project or job.
Lean principles were then developed for the agile software development world. The ultimate goal of Lean is to relentlessly pursue value over everything else–value for your company and value for your customer. It’s a tension that ideally keeps both ends of the spectrum honest. Toyota themselves were a shining example of this.
Read this for more on Lean principles.
What are the benefits of a kanban board?
1. Visualization of Work in Progress
A kanban board is one of the simplest and quite possibly the smartest way to visualize workflows, tasks, and projects. Kanban boards lay out the easiest steps to finish the task, with the steps (or statuses) needed for it to be done.
On the left side, you’ll see the tasks that need to be done and then move those along to the right status. Be aware of the “In Progress” lane, so you can always keep tabs on how work is moving forward. Adding more to this column could overburden your team.
At a glance, you can measure and make an estimated guess on how much work is being done, and what still needs to happen.
These lanes and columns give your team an opportunity to map your workflow. You can set up your own lanes, not only three basic ones.
In addition, you can also color code your cards to let developers/programmers know what type of work needs to be done. For instance, red may be a bug, but blue may be a new feature item.
The combination of card colors, plus the appropriate lanes, helps you know what work is being done and the status of that work.
2. Optimize Workflow
Once you have your work visualized, it’s time to optimize it.
The goal of Kanban is to limit the amount of work in progress (WIP). You don’t want to overfill the bucket. You want the right amount of tasks for what your team can handle and accomplish in the sprint. Each task should be able to move fully through your workflows without your resources being overwhelmed.
You don’t want bottlenecks. You want smooth sailing.
To help with this, you can set a limit on the number of tasks “In Progress.” This WIP limit will let your team members know not to start any new tasks until those in progress are finished. They can jump in and help or start on another project if the kanban board for that one is full.
3. Continuous Improvement
Kanban boards provide that high-level overview of tasks and projects, pointing your team in the right direction to be successful.
With each sprint, your team can measure how fast tasks went through the stages, the lead time needed to get a task started and how much had to be sent back for bugs after QA.
These metrics may seem small, but incremental and continuous improvement in each area will help your agile projects be even more successful. This Kaizen system for identifying waste (also part of the Lean methodology) will help your team members identify savings–both in resources and time. Kanban boards will also give you insight into resource management, such as hiring or looking for a smoother process.
Practically and quickly, you’ll notice how a kanban board cuts down on the number of times you have to discuss an issue. A Kanban board puts everything front and center. Less time spent in meetings is one immediate benefit of a Kanban board.
Why an Online Kanban Board Is The Best Choice
Some agile teams may like to have a physical board with cards and sticky notes (and don’t forget the ladder). This is the low-tech approach that may be great if you’re getting your feet wet with this whole Kanban process.
A physical Kanban board will work if your team is all in the same office, can visualize the same tasks, work the same hours, and can ring the same gong (kidding!).
Leave a note for the janitor: Do Not Disturb.
Because honestly, that’s one of the biggest risks of a physical Kanban board: people outside of your team disturbing and interfering with your work.
I guess you could take a photo of it every night before leaving, but what if you forget? And how do you share that and quickly re-adjust?
This is why an online, digital Kanban board beats a physical one hands-down each and every time.
Because a physical Kanban board lacks:
1. Updates and notifications. Need to communicate with the product owner on another floor? They’ll have to take a field trip to your office to see your special snowflake sticky notes. A digital Kanban board and project management system will let you notify them right away.
2. Important task details like user stories. Only online Kanban boards give you the ability to write as much as you need to for user stories, link to other tasks and even include attachments. Try doing all of that on an index card.
3. Easy customization. What if you write out all of your tasks, line them up and then forget something important? What do you do now? Start over? All that work could be lost. Then you have to start over, just like if the dog ate your homework. This isn’t elementary school. Your work is too important to waste on those type of frustrations. With digital, it’s simpler to edit, change and adjust. Just like in agile.
4. Set dependencies. This is a huge, but often overlooked advantage of an online project management tool. Dependencies will help you streamline and link those “Done” tasks to those “In Progress.” You can also set blockers, and once those are cleared, those tasks can enter the workflow. It’s a great way to notify your team of when work is ready to start. Add in a Gantt chart and you’ll even be able to estimate your time faster as well.
5. Space for more boards. Product Backlogs may mean a new Kanban. And then a new feature release? Another Kanban board. How many can you handle? A digital Kanban tool puts it all together, allowing you to switch between them.
6. Access for remote workers. Distributed agile teams are all the rage. And no one can work in another time zone if your Kanban board isn’t accessible to them. The best project management tools connect people together, not tear them apart.
Note: Read more about why you should avoid sticky notes!
Which Online Kanban Board Should You Choose? ClickUp!
ClickUp was developed from the frustration of dealing with other project management solutions that didn’t seem to have enough juice in them. And one of those problems was with Kanban boards.
Tasks in ClickUp will appear as cards, and will even include thumbnail images so you can glimpse into what’s happening.
Here’s what you get in the ClickUp Board view.
Drag and drop: Just like with a physical Kanban, you can drag and drop ClickUp tasks to the right status. If you’re moving a task in a project that doesn’t have certain statuses, those statuses will disappear and then pop back in when they are right for that task. It’s small automation like this that make ClickUp truly unique.
Statuses: All of your statuses match up with your board columns. ClickUp automatically detects a task status and adds that status to a column. All of your task statuses are accurate even when switching between views. And you can even collapse a status if no tasks are in that lane.
If you’re using custom statuses, each column is a stage in your flow of work, and each row is a task that can be moved throughout your board with ease.
Sort and Filter: In ClickUp, your Board view columns aren’t just organized from left to right. You can even sort columns individually to highlight important tasks at the top. And with filtering options, it’s easy to cut out the clutter and only see tasks on your board that match a certain criteria (assignee, priority, etc). Once you’ve sorted and filtered your board to your liking, save this view as a Favorite so you can jump back to it at any time.
Add Tags: For even more organization, you can add tags to each task or Kanban card right in the Board view. Simply hover over your task and click the tag symbol to edit or create a tag.
View multiple projects in a single board: Because of ClickUp’s unique hierarchy, you can view all Lists in a Project within one board. You can get a high-level understanding of where all of your tasks stand within a Project. You can’t do that in many other project management systems…only ClickUp gives you the ability to go as big or as small as you want in viewing tasks and projects.
Flexibility. Lastly…One of the best reasons to choose ClickUp as your Kanban board is that it gives you the flexibility to…not use Kanban boards. That’s right. Other members of your team or department may need project management, too. And ClickUp is one of the few tools suited for your whole organization. Users can choose a board, a list, a calendar or a few other views to organize their tasks. ClickUp provides the ultimate level of customization so no one in your organization is left out. Everyone can be together.
A Kanban board is a powerful workflow management interface when done right.
But it should be a tool that works for you and your agile software development team, not against you. That means erasing points of friction like floating sticky notes and scary gong noises.
Because of its visualization, efficiency, and the ability for continuous improvement, having a Kanban board may be the magic bullet of team collaboration that you need.