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Kanban Board – The Best Guide for Beginner to Expert

Kanban is a well-known Lean workflow management system for visualizing the work and maximizing the efficiency of the system. The term “Kanban” was coined by the Japanese manufacturing system (in Toyota) to regulate the supply of components to customers in a free flow. Kanban means “Visual Board” or “Visual sign”.

In manufacturing, one of the primary goals of Kanban is to limit the Work in Progress at any point on the production line so each item in the flow moves much faster and reaches the customer in the shortest lead time.

Seeing the value and learning from the Lean Manufacturing world, Kanban is used in Agile and DevOps software development as well.

What is Kanban Board?

It’s a tool used in Agile Project Management to help visualize work, limit work in progress, and by doing that maximize efficiency. 
It is a visual technology used to help manage workflow. 
Let’s look at it a little bit in detail, with some examples so these concepts are pretty clear.

  1. Visualize the workflow

Kanban board helps visualize the flow of work and the current state of each work item on the board. The Simplest Kanban board is depicted in the below picture. This has 3 basic states – Not Started, In Progress, and Done. This board shows how many work items are in each state at any point in time.

Visualize the workflow

This board can be expanded with many more states like the board given below. Below the board, you will notice the “In Progress” / “Doing” is broken down into multiple states – In Development, In Testing, In Deployment, etc. The advantage of creating more states is – to get much more clarity/transparency on each work item’s exact state in the flow of work.

Each item on the board is a unit of value that need to travel from left to right, to be complete. The below board clearly states that “A” is ready for deployment and “E” can be deployed next, however “D” has just started, and it might take some time to reach the deployment state.

dev kanban board
  1. Limit Work in Process

Look at the below picture, it’s the same board, with a few new entries – a number with a circle. This is called the WIP limit. WIP limit is a great concept to ensure that the work items are delivered faster to the customer. Let’s see how it works.

Limit Work in Process

From the above picture, only 3 work items can be in the “Development” state. Even if there are many items in the “Backlog” state OR the “To Do” state, the team will have to work only on the 3 items that are in development at any time. When the team is expected to work only on 3 items, more than one person will work on each item. This helps the team to move the work items to the next state faster because the entire team is working only on 3 items.

The team can pick only when at least one item is moved to the next state. This will drive thinking from the right side of the board – DONE. The team will focus on moving the work items to DONE.

Kanban is a PULL system and not a PUSH system. The work items are pulled as and when the team can work on and this goes all the way to the last state “Done”. 

WIP limits adjust demand to capacity at bottlenecks and enable the flow through the board.

  1. Buffer your bottlenecks to enable the flow

If you see any bottleneck in the flow, you can add a “buffer” column in the Kanban Board to make sure the works are kept there as a buffer before it is pulled into the next stage. This will enable a smooth flow to an extent.

kanban board Buffer

Note: Adding too many buffers will not be the right thing to do. Having 1 buffer column in the flow will be ideal, however, I have seen multiple buffer columns in the Kanban flow like the columns in the below picture.

buffer column

How does PULL work?

Look at the above picture. “Deployment” WIP limit is 1. Hence, those who are working in this state will focus on completing this and moving it to do. Only after “C” is moved to Done, the team can pull “A” from the previous state to the “Deployment” state.

Until “A” is pulled, work items under the Development state cannot be pulled to the Testing state. The team will focus on making sure “A” is pulled to Deployment so “D” can eventually be pulled into the Testing state.

Why use a Kanban Board?

Now that you understand what is Kanban Board, let’s see why you use Kanban board. There are many reasons why you must use a Kanban board in your work or personal life. 
First, they can help increase your productivity by giving you a visual way to see the tasks.

Secondly, they can help you stay organized by keeping your tasks in one place. And finally, they can help you communicate with others working on similar projects by allowing you to leave comments and feedback on each other’s work. 

Thirdly, the Kanban board can be used to speed up the execution of work items. As we discussed earlier, it should increase the overall efficiency of the value delivery through work items.

To learn more about the usage of the Kanban board, you can always opt for the Kanban certification course.

What are the types of Kanban boards, and how do they work?

  1. Physical Kanban Board

The most popular type is the physical board, which uses sticky notes to track tasks. Where the teams are collocated, they use the Physical Kanban Board. Physical boards are great for small teams because they’re easy to set up and use.  This board is kept next to the team, so it is visible to them ALL THE TIME. You don’t have to open the backlog management tool to see the flow. This influences the team to move them to do more often.

physical kanban board
  1. Digital Kanban Board

Post-Covid, most of the teams work remotely. Another popular type of Kanban board is the electronic board. Electronic boards are easy to update and provide more flexibility than physical boards. However, they can be more expensive to set up and may require more training for team members to use them effectively.

There are many online/digital Kanban board tools out there to explore, here are a few names – JIRA, Kanbanize, Trello, ClickUp, Asana, ProofHub, Azure DevOps, Flow-e, etc.

Pros & Cons of Physical Kanban Board and Online Kanban Board

  1. On the Online board, all information is stored in a central location. This enables anyone to access it from anywhere.
  2. Physical Board enables the team to see the board every moment and work towards closing the work items more often.
  3. Flow analytics can be done through Online Kanban boards like the image given below. The tool can generate multiple flow metrics using online data and enable us to take the right decisions.
image 15
  1. It can also be integrated with other tools like CRM.
  2. Online board – If you are a leader, you can access the Kanban board of multiple teams at the same time.

Tips for using a Kanban Board

There are many ways to use a Kanban board, here are some tips to get the most out of this tool:

1. Use it to visualize your work: A Kanban board can help you see the jobs you need to take care of and deliver on time. It will help you meet all the deadlines and avoid mishaps with work. Hence, first, visualize the workflow and then define your Kanban Board according to your workflow.

2. Break down tasks into smaller pieces: When you have a lot of work to do, it will help you break it down into smaller tasks that you can complete more easily. Moreover, it will help you in focusing and make progress more quickly.

  1. Set priorities. Not all tasks require the same attention, so it’s essential to prioritize the most important ones. You can ensure that the most important work gets done first. 
  2. Use Swim Lanes: You can use swim lanes to define the lane for each card to travel. Examples of swim lanes are – Classes of service (Expedite, Fixed delivery date, Standard, etc), Repetitive tasks, Individual / Team / Client, etc. This will help you to classify each work item in the respective swim late and move it right based on their priority.
  3. Define Flow Metrics: There are many Flow-based Kanban metrics like Flow efficiency, Flow Load, Flow Time, Flow Distribution, etc that can help take the right decision and continuously improve.
  4. Continue to optimize the Kanban board: Over a period, you will notice that the team is getting mature, then you should continue to make improvements to Kanban Board. For ex., re-defining the WIP limit, removal of buffer columns, adding/reducing columns to increase efficiency, etc.

Work management skills are essential for anyone using the Kanban methodology. By understanding what a Kanban board is and how it works, you can be sure that your team is on the right track to success. The team can use this Kanban Board to bring transparency to the flow, identify all the limitations, and continue to improve and increase the efficiency of the flow of work.

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