Kanban Cards: Uses, Benefits, and Examples 

Kanban is a work management framework or methodology which helps you visualize your work, limit work in progress (WIP), and maximize efficiency – or workflow. A Kanban board is perhaps the simplest way of visualizing Kanban.

A Kanban card is the simplest single component of Kanban. Think of it as a kind of sticky note that represents each individual task – Kanban cards are what are displayed on Kanban boards. Because they are the most basic unit of Kanban, it’s worth explaining what they are and how they’re used, with some visual examples of how this looks in Teamhood.

What is a Kanban Card?

Picture a software development team using sticky notes on a whiteboard to represent each item or task they’re working on. As the team works on bugs and features, they move the notes along a series of columns labeled Prioritized, Design, Development, Testing, Blocked, and Done. 

Kanban cards are essentially the same thing – a way to represent specific work tasks as they progress through a team’s workflow. The cards track the progression of a work item through its various stages so that the team always knows the history and status of any work item at any time.

kanban cards

A Kanban card contains valuable information about the task and its status, such as a summary of the assignment, responsible person, deadline, etc. They can be physical and digital. Here is a digital Kanban card example from Teamhood so you can see how they look. You can use this as a kind of Kanban card template for your own team:

kanban card teamhood

History of Kanban Cards

Kanban is a Japanese word that literally means ‘visual sign’ or ‘visual card’ or ‘signboard.’ Japanese industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno developed Kanban as a concept at the end of the 1940s. Ohno worked at Toyota, the car maker, and had been looking for ways to optimize manufacturing processes at the firm. 

Ohno had observed just-in-time delivery and stocking processes at US supermarkets. He noted that this approach reduced waste and overheads and increased efficiency. He realized this same concept could be applied to manufacturing processes.

Ohno developed an inventory Kanban card system. Each card indicated quantities and would signal workers if those quantities dropped below a minimum required value. This in turn would trigger a replenishment – or restocking – a process that notified the supplier to fill the items that were low in stock. 

Significantly, each card also contained specific information about the requirements, which made it easier for suppliers to fill the demand. Toyota used this system successfully for years, before publicizing it in the 1990s. After this, it became a staple of Lean manufacturing methodologies around the world. 

Why Kanban Cards are Useful

Kanban cards are information hubs and increase transparency in the work process by providing complete details about work items. Team members can look at a Kanban card. At a glance it provides them with:

  • The task overview
  • The person responsible for the task
  • The task status
  • It’s due date
  • Significant points or other information about the task that the team needs to know

The benefits of this are that the cards:

  • Facilitate smooth and efficient handoffs. Because the cards contain clear and consistent statements of expectations, that makes it easy for everyone on the team to read and understand them. When tasks are handed over, there is no loss of data. 
  • Increase process efficiency. Kanban cards document the time is takes for a task to go from start to completion – its lead time. This allows team members to spot and resolve bottlenecks quickly. 
  • Remove the need for meetings – at least to some extent. Because the cards contain all the most relevant information about the task on the card, this means that members don’t need to have physical meetings so often. This increases the time available for work itself, thereby increasing productivity. 

What Kanban Cards Look Like

As you might expect, Kanban cards – like other kinds of cards – have two sides. 

The front side of the Kanban card is what you’re looking at when you look at a Kanban board. That’s why this is the side that communicates the most important information related to the task that the card represents, including: 

  • Title/Identifier. Each card has a specific name. Sometimes they also have a number to help speed up identification.
  • Task owner/manager. This is the person responsible for the task.
  • Due date. This is the deadline/end date of the task.
  • Task description. This is a brief explanation of what exactly needs to be done.
  • Type of work. This shows whether the task is developing a feature, researching a question, dealing with a bug, etc. The work type is usually represented by a color to help save time.
  • Estimate of time or complexity. Each task usually also includes an estimate of how long it will take to complete.

The back of a Kanban card or the card details in Kanban tools usually contains more detail about the task, albeit information that is not so important to take in at first glance. This kind of information includes:

  • The project scope. 
  • Links or attachments. When talking about digital Kanban cards, these are used to offer more relevant information to the task.
  • Comments. Useful for team members to share thoughts, feedback, or other notes relevant to the task, the process, or the overall project. 
  • Subtasks.
  • Start and end date.
  • Lead time. 

Different Kanban Card Types

Kanban cards can be digital or physical, although their function is the same regardless. It is more the industry or project context that leads to different types. 

For example, as we’ve seen above, in manufacturing and retail it is common to use Kanban cards for inventory. A Kanban card may be used to signal progress on a task, the type of task or job that it is, or who is responsible. 

In manufacturing, Kanban cards can take several different types, for example:

  • Production Kanban cards. A production Kanban card is used to signal that production should start. They are also used to track components needed for production. And they can show quantities and the quality of work required.`
  • Withdrawal Kanban cards. These kinds of Kanban cards are used to signal that work is completed in an area and needs to move on to the next and that a team is ready to work on the next item.
  • Supplier Kanban cards. These are used to keep track of suppliers, their contact details, and the type of communications they need to receive.

More specifically, Kanban cards can be used in customer service, to capture customer feedback and create actions for customer service teams to progress. In the software industry, Kanban cards facilitate continuous delivery. This is where teams deliver small and frequent updates on a rapid release cycle, rather than letting bug fixes and features accumulate into large launches. 

Creating Kanban Card Templates

A great advantage of digital Kanban software is that you can use it to create Kanban card templates. This is particularly helpful for dealing with recurring tasks in the workflow.

Kanban card templates help you avoid duplicating effort. They also reduce the need for rework. Templates provide all team members with a clear understanding of what needs to be done and a consistent format for task completion. 

Here’s an example of what such a Kanban card template can look like in Teamhood:

item templates

Visual Kanban Card Examples

It helps to visualize Kanban cards – particularly the many different types and uses. Here is how Kanban cards look in Teamhood.

task management

Getting Started with Kanban Cards

Now you have a better understanding of what Kanban cards are and their many different uses, you hopefully have a good idea of how you can apply them in your organization or your projects. Used well, Kanban cards form the foundation of flexible, transparent, and productive use of development or production resources, and they are useful for a whole host of tasks and projects. 

Find out more about Kanban by browsing our fast-growing selection of Kanban resources and research

Find out more about how Teamhood’s flexible Kanban system works, or book a demo to see how it could work for you:

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