A Very Short Introduction to Kanban Boards

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Do you sometimes struggle to keep track of how a project is progressing? Or do you wish you had a simple technique for managing resources, and for identifying and managing bottlenecks in your processes?

If you do, then a Kanban board could be just what you need.

It allows you to see at a glance how a project’s tasks are progressing, and helps you and your team manage them through a disciplined workflow. What’s more, the only things you need to create a Kanban board are a whiteboard, pens and some coloured sticky notes – alternatively you can use a virtual board.

What Is Kanban?

Kanban is a visual system for managing work as it moves through a process. Kanban visualises both the process (the workflow) and the actual work passing through that process.

The concept of Kanban dates back to the 1940s. It was the brainchild of Japanese industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno. He worked for the car manufacturer Toyota, and he wanted to improve the company’s inventory control systems. Ohno developed Kanban , loosely translated as “visual signal,” as an easy-to-follow system for managing and smoothing out workflow.

How a Kanban Board Works

The simplest version of a Kanban board uses a whiteboard and colour-coded sticky notes to signify different levels of urgency or priority, or to differentiate types of work or task. As mentioned above, you can also use computer-based, virtual boards (my preferred method).

This simple version of the board is divided into three sections signifying, from left to right, Work To Do, Work Being Done, and Work Completed (“Labels” column explained further down).

Trello Kanban Fig1

The actual wording can vary, and the board can have a column for every step in your production process. Whatever the wording, the point is that the board represents a flow, and your team members move the sticky notes or labels from one section of it to the next, as they start work on a task and take it through to completion.

Kanban Boards in Practice

The best way to get a feel for how a Kanban board works is simply to experiment with one. But let’s imagine how one might work in practice:

You’re project managing the delivery of a new website for a client. So you set up your Kanban board – I’ll be using Trello for this example.

You divide your board into vertical columns, each representing a stage that tasks will go through during your project. For example:

  • Backlog: this is your list of to-do items at the beginning of the project.
  • Planning: this is the planning stage for each task.
  • In Progress: tasks in this column are being worked on.
  • Blocked/Paused: this is a placeholder for issues, dependencies and abandoned tasks.
  • Test: your product is undergoing testing and quality assurance.
  • Complete: your task is complete with no further action required.

Note: A Kanban board can also be sub-divided into horizontal sections, known as “swim lanes.” For example, the board could be split horizontally into different levels of priority: highest, high, medium, and low. This is easier done on a physical whiteboard. In Trello, I simply use labels to signify different levels or priority (and indicate the resource(s) working on a task).

Let’s look at how you can use this Kanban board.

Trello Kanban Fig2

In the “Backlog” column, you’ll have the list of tasks that need to be done.

In our website project, I have progressed the ‘build home page’ through to “In Progress” and “build about us page” is now in “Planning”. This is a simple drag & drop moving tasks along the board as they progress until it reaches “Complete” signalling the completion of a task.

Personally, I like to use an additional column, “Labels”, for task labels. It’s a very useful visual aid.

Note: I strongly recommend using Trello as a Kanban board (ideal for small to medium projects). It’s extremely easy to use and a fantastic tool for collaborating with team members.

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