Kanban Boards: What They Are and When to Use Them

A kanban board visually depicts what you’re working on and whether there are any bottlenecks to address. Here, we discuss the different elements of a kanban board, plus some kanban board uses.

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The kanban methodology is a popular and widely used agile project management approach. It provides teams and individuals with the tools and techniques to:

  • Visualize work
  • Increase flow (work progressing in a steady, continuous stream)
  • Achieve high levels of productivity throughout the project’s life cycle
  • Shorten lead time, which is the length of time between a project’s start and end times
  • Deliver quality products and solutions
  • Continually improve processes

Kanban is a Japanese word that means “billboard,” “signboard,” or “visual card.” The kanban method of project management was first introduced by Toyota in the 1940s as a way to reduce inefficiencies in its manufacturing process and align inventory levels with actual factory floor consumption. The results were revolutionary.

Now, agile boards and kanban charts are a staple among high-productivity kanban and scrum teams across many industries, including construction, engineering, software development, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, marketing, and many more.


Overview: What is a kanban board?

To get started with kanban project management, you need a kanban board, which is a visual tool that shows work at various completion stages.

There are two types of kanban boards:

  • Physical boards: Blackboards, whiteboards, and even glass walls — any surface can become a kanban board. Teams will divide the area into an appropriate number of columns to represent the discrete work steps from the start of a project to its finish. Sticky notes can function as cards; they are moved from one column of the workflow to the next until the work item each card represents reaches the final phase of completion. You may use alternatives such as magnets, pushpins, or corkboard tacks for holding story cards or flagging problematic work items.
  • Online boards: These are the digital kanban board versions (see examples in the “popular kanban board tools” section below) that teams can access anytime, anywhere, and on any connected device — which means they’re ideal for teams that are largely remote or geographically dispersed. Plus, online kanban boards can readily integrate with other productivity and collaboration tools, including project management software, cloud storage solutions, and email marketing software.
A Jira board with three columns for a software project.

Here’s a Jira kanban board, which is an example of a digital kanban board. Source: atlassian.com.


What are the components of a kanban board?

Whether physical or digital, any kanban board should have these elements.

1. Visual signals

These are the cards that represent project tasks or activities. Each card contains one work item. When placed in their respective kanban board columns, all together, cards provide an overview of the work that teams (or individuals) must focus on, where bottlenecks or blockers are, and the overall status of the project.

2. Columns

Columns signify the different stages of the work process. Taken together, they constitute the process workflow. As you perform each work item, you will need to move the relevant kanban card from left to right until the work is complete.

At a minimum, a visual kanban board has three columns: “to do,” “in progress,” and “done” (or, alternatively, “waiting,” “in progress,” and “completed”). You may name your columns as you see fit and use as many columns as you need.

A kanban board with three columns: to do, doing, and done

Kanban project boards usually look like this. Source: gettyimages.com.

3. Work-in-progress (WIP) limits

WIP limits are the maximum number of work items or cards per column at any one time. So if, for instance, you already have three items in a column with a three-card limit, you’ll first have to move an item forward before adding a new one.

WIP limits are vital for spotting bottlenecks that can disrupt flow and prevent your team from completing projects according to the schedule set out in your project management plan.

4. Commitment point

This is the point when work on a project or backlog (a prioritized list of features, changes, and fixes you want to create) officially starts.

5. Delivery point

The delivery point marks the end of a workflow. Usually, this is when the product or solution is delivered to the customer.


6 ways you can utilize a kanban board

Kanban boards can be used for a number of purposes. You might find them helpful for the following situations.

1. Manage tasks

Kanban boards are a clear, visual way to represent tasks, so you know what needs to be done, what’s currently being done, and what has already been completed.

With team members accessing a shared, constantly updated board, everyone knows the big picture. This way, you can pivot as necessary to keep work and projects on track.

2. Enhance team collaboration

With kanban, you can design your own custom workflow. This, in turn, encourages teams to collaborate as they build their kanban boards and update them to reflect actual task statuses.

3. Visualize and resolve bottlenecks

When work starts building up in a particular column of the kanban board, such as 10 cards in the “ready to start” phase vs. just one in “work in progress,” it could mean there aren’t enough people in your team to perform specific tasks. Maybe you have staff members on vacation or out sick.

Or perhaps you took on more work than usual. Once you see where the bottlenecks are, you can start determining the best course of action to remedy the situation.

4. Spot work blockers

Certain factors, called “blockers,” will prevent teams from performing tasks (or moving cards forward), thereby delaying delivery. Examples include task dependencies, unclear requirements, missing information, and pending approvals.

Discovering the blockers on your kanban board is the first step to eliminating work impediments.

5. Limit team meetings

Meetings are a project management basic and are instrumental to project success, but as they say, too much of anything is a bad thing. With kanban boards showing task statuses, communicating due dates, and highlighting bottlenecks, you can keep physical or virtual meetings to a minimum.

6. Heighten work focus by limiting work in progress

Multitasking isn’t necessarily a good thing. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, it raises risk, cuts efficiency, and takes a toll on productivity.

Applying WIP limits ensures your team focuses on just the right number of activities at any given time. It also forces you to think about your team's priorities more carefully.


Popular kanban board tools you can use

If you’re new to kanban and your team is colocated, starting with a physical kanban board has its benefits, such as face-to-face meetings and enhanced accountability. But when you’re ready to move to online boards, your choices include:

  • monday.com: Building kanban-style boards with monday.com takes just a few clicks. Simply select “kanban” from your list of board views, choose the columns to add to your workflow from the left panel, and update each task’s status by dragging and dropping them into the appropriate columns.
  • Asana: With Asana’s kanban boards, you can add teammates, attach files, leave comments, and link to related work, among other things. Cards can be assigned to a teammate and given a due date.
  • Trello: Trello’s kanban cards represent individual tasks and contain a variety of information for each specific task, including a title, label, due date, and the person assigned to it. You can attach files, add comments, duplicate cards, add custom fields, and move them from one column to another. You can even “watch” a card, so you’re automatically notified of any changes.
  • Scoro: Scoro’s task boards allow users to customize their board views and display only relevant task information, such as progress, duration, the person responsible, and any other custom field. Task summaries and a calendar with activity statistics can also be displayed in a sidebar next to the task list.
  • Basecamp: Basecamp integrates with MangoBoard, an app that organizes your work and projects kanban-style for easy tracking and reporting. MangoBoard lets you customize how you view your projects and activities, such as by assignees or basecamps.
  • Mavenlink: Mavenlink’s kanban view is a reporting tool that enables visualization of the status of all tasks and projects. Filter options are available for sorting tasks according to employee, project, or tag. For more information on a task, such as start and due dates, the project it falls under, and the person responsible, just click on the task’s name.
  • Wrike: Wrike offers a ready-made kanban project template that you can use out of the box to visualize and manage tasks, limit work in progress, and spot roadblocks. The template includes five columns to represent the different stages a task goes through: to-do, doing, done, backlog, and cancelled. Custom workflows tailor-made for how you work can also be created using Wrike’s Custom Statuses feature.
  • Airtable: Kanban is one of the ways Airtable information can be viewed. With the kanban view, all records (items in a list or rows in a spreadsheet) are shown as stacks of cards on a board. For each card, you have the option to choose the fields you want shown.
  • Jira: There are three types of agile Jira boards: agility (for teams new to agile), scrum (for managing tasks in “sprints,” or repeatable time-boxed periods), and kanban (for managing tasks in a continuous workflow). Jira provides an out-of-the-box workflow project with the following stages: backlog, selected for development, in progress, and done. You can add or remove columns as necessary.
  • Smartsheet: Smartsheet provides a prebuilt kanban template, so you don’t have to start from scratch. You may even import data from other tools, such as Trello and Microsoft Project, into your Smartsheet kanban board.

The beauty of the above tools is that they don’t offer just kanban boards.

They come with other essential project management tools, such as Gantt charts for schedule management and tracking project milestones; dashboards for data visualization and analysis; communication and collaboration apps (chat, newsfeed, announcements, @mentions, commenting, etc.); and many more.


Increase team productivity and project visibility with kanban boards

Organizations use kanban boards for different types of projects and activities. From creating social media calendars to tracking time, and from building software to gathering project ideas, kanban boards leverage the power of visual project management to help your team stay on top of tasks and to-dos.

The kanban workflow advocates working in small batches to maximize flow, reduce bottlenecks, and deliver high-quality products. If these ideas match your business goals, kanban boards are exactly what you need to move forward.

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Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Atlassian, Microsoft, and Smartsheet. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.