Guide to Defining Kanban Boards  

Dovile Miseviciute ·

Passionate content marketer looking to bring better solutions to the project management space. 2020 - Present Marketing specialist at Teamhood. 2014 - 2020 Marketing manager for Eylean.

Guide to Defining Kanban Boards

As with anything in life, starting out with Kanban can feel intimidating. This approach is not based on exact instructions, but instead asks you to experiment within the framework and find your own way.

However, defining Kanban boards does not have to feel like wading through the woods in the middle of the night. There are some practices that will put you on the right track and help optimize the flow of work for the team.

Below, you will find 5 techniques to surely help in defining Kanban boards. We even put them into a nice one-pager for easy sharing with the team!

guide to defining kanban boards

Defining Kanban boards

In most cases, defining Kanban boards is a process that happens early in the Kanban adoption. However, as with everything with Kanban, it is also a process that continues and evolves as the team works together.

As such, the 5 practices discussed below will be helpful to both – new and experienced Kanban practitioners who are looking to optimize flow and focus their efforts on the creation of value.

Let’s look at each of them in more detail.

1. Model your workflow with statuses that signal a path toward value

Board statuses should represent the steps your team needs to take to move each item from an idea to actual value. Think about how your team works and identify the steps. Then use board statuses to visualize those steps on a Kanban board.  

If you are unsure of which steps to include, add what makes sense to you. Remember, your Kanban board is an evolving tool that can be changed and updated once the team starts working and identifies different needs.

2. Use verbs to name Kanban board statuses

To better represent the process that is happening at each stage, utilize verbs to name each status. Aim for simple descriptions like – Developing, Testing, and Reviewing

This will help you think about what needs to be done at each stage instead of the person or department that may be doing the job.

Moreover, by using verbs, you will make it very clear to anyone who sees your board what is happening with each item.

3. Optimize for collective responsibility

Unfortunately, many Kanban teams still tend to fall into the trap of associating statuses with specific roles or departments in the company. This creates further issues for the flow.

Instead of only manning one status, each team member should work in the entire Kanban board. This way, they can help each other and assist in moving items along the process when needed.

Moreover, this fosters collective responsibility and collaboration within the team. Everyone is responsible for progress, not just pushing items through their status.

4. Block items in place instead of moving them backward

Another problem that stems from associating statuses with roles or team members is moving items backward.

For example, an item is in the Testing stage and then it becomes clear it needs more development. In the case of statuses being associated with roles, most teams will push it back into the Developing stage. This is wrong because of two points:

  1. It does not represent the accurate status of the item. It already cleared the initial development stage.
  2. It disrupts the flow of value as it moves backward even though no progress was lost.

Instead of pushing the item back, it should be blocked in the Testing stage and handed over to the developers to improve. Once that is done, it can be unblocked and move forward.

defining kanban boards
Blocking item in status

Work is still progressing, even if there are issues. There is no need to provide a false sense of falling back. 

5. Adjust WIP limits based on aging items

In most cases, WIP limits will need to be adjusted a few times after you are done with defining Kanban board for your team.

To find the right ones for you, look into the aging item numbers in each status. This will be very indicative of what should be done next.

  • A large number of aging items is a great indication that the WIP limit is too high and should be lower. 
  • If there are no aging items, but the WIP limit is reached or exceeded, that may be a sign to raise it.

With these 5 practices, defining Kanban boards will indeed become much more accessible. And if you need some inspiration, please take a look at these Kanban board examples made to fit different types of teams and processes.

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