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What Is a Kanban Board? A Comprehensive Guide

Kanban boards help you to put on display your workflow. By visualizing work on a Kanban board, you can gain a better understanding of your process and overall workload.

The Kanban board is a tool designed to clarify your work process and enhance efficiency by limiting work in progress. 
With this new level of transparency, you will quickly identify problematic work stages, and by improving those, your team will soon work more efficiently.  

In this guide, we will explain what a Kanban board is, discuss the basics, and clarify important details you need to understand, especially if you are a beginner.

The Kanban Board Explained

The Kanban board went through a long journey to become what it is today. Let’s start with a brief history.

Brief History

Kanban (English: signboard) started as a visual scheduling system, part of the Toyota production system. A few decades later (2007), David Anderson further developed the Kanban method's idea and introduced the Kanban board. Indeed, Darren Davis (Anderson’s colleague) was the one who suggested that the workflow should be visualized on a whiteboard. This is how the Kanban board was born, as we know it today, to become one of the most useful agile project management tools for knowledge work. Nowadays, its usage by Agile teams is so widespread that you can often hear people refer to Kanban boards as agile task boards. 

What Are the Kanban Board Features and Components?

Kanban boards use Card, Column, Swimlanes, and WIP Limits to enable teams to visualize and manage their workflows effectively. Let us introduce you to the main components more closely:Kanban

Kanban board components 

Kanban Cards – This is the visual representation of tasks. Each card contains information about the task and its status, such as deadline, assignee, description, etc.

Kanban Columns – Each column on the board represents a different stage of your workflow. The cards go through the workflow until their full completion.

Work-in-Progress Limits – They restrict the maximum amount of tasks in the different stages of the workflow. Limiting WIP allows you to finish work items faster by helping your team focus only on current tasks.

Kanban Swimlanes – These are horizontal lanes you can use to separate different activities, teams, classes of service, and more.

Commitment Point – A commitment marks a point in the work process where a work item is ready to be pulled into the system.

Delivery Point – The point in the workflow where work items are considered finished.

Types of Kanban Boards

There are two types of Kanban boards – physical and digital boards.  

A physical Kanban board is the most basic form of a Kanban board where teams use sticky notes (representing tasks) and a whiteboard (corkboard). Work phases are represented as columns and sticky notes are getting moved from one stage to the next. 

A digital Kanban board is a software solution, making it much more accessible than its physical counterparts. These types of boards can provide you with visibility into the progress of work from virtually anywhere while facilitating team collaboration. Some digital solutions are highly flexible, allowing managers to track multiple workflows and organize their work in different categories. There are plenty of examples of Kanban boards successfully applied throughout industries and teams with various backgrounds.

What Are the Benefits of Kanban Boards? 

As you implement this powerful tool, you will be able to start small and step-by-step build sustainable, long-term improvements in your processes, thus enabling a greater level of productivity, reduced stress, and enhanced quality, among other benefits. 

  • Enhanced visibility 
  • Increased productivity 
  • Greater flexibility 
  • Improved team focus 
  • Decreased levels of waste 
  • Better collaboration 
  • Improved predictability 
  • Alignment with company values

How to Use a Kanban Board?

When building your Kanban board, begin with a simple structure, gradually enhance your board and transform it into a workflow management system following these seven steps:

1. Visualize Your Workflow

Use the Kanban board to map all the stages of your work process. When looking at the board, you should be able to understand how work is processed. Start with a basic Kanban board structure and split it into a few primary sections that show different work stages.Basic Kanban board

Start with a basic Kanban board structure

2. Spot Workflow Bottlenecks

The Kanban board is a perfect tool for visualizing potential problems in your process. The logic is simple: if you see a column in which tasks arrive faster than they leave, work will start to pile up, and the problem will become visible to the whole team. This may be caused by a temporary issue or a bottleneck in your process. 

We advise you to map your workflow as precisely as possible to have a clear picture of where the problem lies.

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For example, on a simple Kanban board with just one "In progress" section and many cards awaiting activity, it will be challenging to determine why work is getting stuck and how you can alleviate the situation.

Conversely, mapping your workflow in great detail with dedicated columns for all the working stages will allow you to understand at a glance where improvements can be made.

process with a bottleneckSpot process bottlenecks on a Kanban board

Once you've noticed a problematic column/bottleneck, act swiftly to resolve it and prevent it from occurring again. The simplest thing to do is limit the work in progress earlier in the flow. This way, you will provide more time to the people who "own" this stage, allowing them to alleviate the bottleneck. Another option could be re-distributing the team's efforts to meet the new requirements. As you can see, the method is designed to offer maximum flexibility, so you are kept in the driving seat for all crucial decisions.

3. Use the Kanban Board to Limit Work in Progress and Focus

The Kanban board is a great way to discourage your team from multitasking by applying WIP limits according to your capacity. You can either use a limit on the total number of tasks that can be in progress simultaneously on your board or put individual limits on each stage of your workflow.

WIP limit exceededApply WIP (Work-In-Progress) limits on a Kanban board

If you wish to increase the rate you deliver value to your customers, you will want to keep every team focused on finishing work instead of starting a new one.

This way, they will stop starting new work and concentrate on finishing assignments that are already in progress. Knowing that everyone can see what each person is doing is a great motivator to pursue better performance all the time as well.

4. Use It as a Dashboard to Save Time Wasted on Unnecessary Meetings

A significant benefit that comes with the implementation of Kanban boards is that they save you much time spent on meetings, progress reports, and many other unnecessary interruptions.

Use the Kanban board as a dedicated information repository. It will spread knowledge about who is doing what at any time. The Kanban board will keep you and everyone in the team in the loop about how assignments are progressing. This way, you won't need to schedule meetings so often to receive progress updates.

Furthermore, the Kanban board will allow you to forget about those long progress report books that take ages to be prepared and are already out of date by the time they are presented to the stakeholders.

5. Visualize Work Blockers on Your Kanban Board

The Kanban board allows you to visualize problems that prevent your team from completing any given task. On a typical physical board, blockers are usually indicated with red magnets (or pins if you are using a corkboard).

blocked card on Kanban boardUse visual blockers on a Kanban board

Digital Kanban software has more advanced ways to visualize blockers (e.g., stop signs on blocked cards). When something stops your team from continuing work on a task, they can label it as blocked and start working on another assignment without breaking any WIP limits.

6. Automate Work Processes on Your Agile Kanban Board

Automating work operations is a great way to build a mature workflow management system. Often teams have to deal with recurring tasks, quickly notify their colleagues about emergent changes, set reminders about deadlines, and smoothly handoff work between one another. All of these can take up a lot of time, create waste and chaos in the system when you handle them manually. 

That’s why modern Kanban boards allow you to apply automation rules to your tasks and optimize their flow within the system. Usually, they are in the form of “if-this-then-that” rules, which enable you to trigger predefined actions inside your Kanban board whenever something else occurs.

automation rule on Kanban boardApply automation to a Kanban board

This way, you will be able to automate repetitive processes where possible, reduce wasteful activities, and bring greater efficiency to your workflow management system.

7. Collect Key Workflow Metrics and Improve

Contemporary digital Kanban boards can automatically gather information about your tasks' cycle time, lead time, and other key performance indicators. This will help you make data-driven decisions about any changes to your process and save you plenty of time otherwise wasted on collecting metrics by hand.

Using tools such as Businessmap, for example, you can use multiple charts within your Kanban board, where you can measure your workflow data and continuously optimize task and project delivery.

service delivery metricsUse Lean/Agile metrics and charts

Additionally, knowing how to use a Kanban board will help you prioritize tasks in a much better way. By visualizing everything in one place, the whole team will always be on the same track.

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In Summary

The Kanban board is a tool for mapping and visualizing your workflow and is one of the key components of the Kanban method. Kanban boards help you to:

  • Visualize bottlenecks and workflow weaknesses
  • Focus on the work currently at hand
  • Eliminate the need for basic status update meetings
Pavel Naydenov

Pavel Naydenov

Head of Marketing | Kanban | PPM Ops Certified

Pavel is a natural-born optimist with 10+ years of experience in the marketing field. By leveraging Kanban, Lean, and Agile practices for years, he drives brand growth and engagement through data-driven marketing strategies. He believes every message should express the fundamental values of a brand, and if delivered positively, it can change the course of its existence.

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