digital kanban board presenting

Physical to digital Kanban board in 2020: make the transition

In Japanese, the term Kanban means “signboard”. Kanban boards are an extremely popular and effective tool to manage workflows. However, times are changing, which means that more and more companies are switching from physical to a digital Kanban board. Read on to find out why making such transition can drastically boost your performance!

Origins of the Kanban board

First of all, it is worthwhile to know where the idea of a Kanban board stems from. Kanban was originally a scheduling and inventory-control system which Toyota used to standardize the way parts in their JIT (just-in-time) production lines moved from one stage to another. Engineer Taiichi Ohno from Toyota came up with the idea for Kanban boards after seeing a similar system in a US supermarket. There, store shelves were filled with products that met customer demand. They were refilled only when there was a visual sign of need for that. In other words, the system used a pull instead of push approach. Taiichi observed that he could apply this shelf-stocking technique to a manufacturing process. Thus a Kanban board was born.

Kanban is sometimes referred to as the nervous system of the Lean production stream. Just like the human brain sends instructions to our various body parts, a Kanban system gives production control instructions to each and every work area. It does this by connecting information flow with material flow. As well as by attaching Kanban cards to symbolize individual tasks. This is true for physical as well as for a digital Kanban board.

Seven wastes as defined by Taiichi Ohno that a Kanban board can help you avoid

Ohno was also instrumental in developing the way organizations identify waste. Especially with his “Seven Wastes” model which has become core in many academic approaches. These wastes are:

1. Delay, waiting or time spent in a queue with no value being added
2. Producing more than you need
3. Over processing or undertaking non-value added activity
4. Transportation
5. Unnecessary movement or motion
6. Inventory
7. Defects in the Product

Taiichi Ohno
Taiichi Ohno, inventor of Kanban board from Toyota

Physical & digital Kanban board: reducing waste

When Taiichi originally developed Kanban, one of its goals was to tackle overproduction of goods and the waste that comes with it. A key element of JIT was making only the quantity required of any component or product. This challenged the Western premise of the Economic Order Quantity (EOQ) which was built on acceptance of fixed ordering costs, set-up times. And thus the need to spread these fixed costs over large batches.

A physical as well as digital Kanban board tackles overproduction by using a pull instead of push principle, which means that workflow always moves in sync with demand. In other words, the goal of the Kanban system is to limit the buildup of excess inventory at any point in production. We establish limits on the number of items waiting at supply points and then reduce them. As we identify and remove inefficiencies. Whenever a limit is exceeded, this points to an inefficiency that we should address.

Kanban aligns inventory levels with actual consumption. A signal tells a supplier to produce and deliver a new shipment only when a material is consumed. This signal is tracked throughout the refillment cycle, bringing visibility to all parties involved.

With push strategy, the business is allocating resources to produce products but the return on investment is not guaranteed, leading to unnecessary costs and waste. When production makes use of a pull strategy, work is based on actual customer demand. The pull system also helps teams become more focused, rather than doing multiple jobs at a time. This allows them to be more productive because they operate based on their actual capacity.

10 pros of a transition to a digital Kanban board

1. Saving time

In the long run, a digital Kanban board (like Teamhood) will save you a lot of time. For example, it operates with automatic notifications when a task is assigned/completed, so you don’t have to inform the project manager or manually update each card. Furthermore, with a digital Kanban board, you can create boards, columns and tasks in seconds, which you would not be able to do with a physical board. Obviously, this increases the speed of workload and team management. And allows you to dedicate time to the really important tasks which require intellectual consideration. Leaving the technicalities to the digital Kanban board. Also, it is more difficult to expand a physical Kanban board as physical Kanban boards must also be added to physically.

2. Managing remote teams

It is crucial in 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic and the high probability of another lockdown to be equipped to manage remote teams. Even if your teams are distributed and working at different places of the same building, it is already way more efficient to have a Kanban board available at the touch of your fingertips. Equal access to the information and being able to access it from anywhere is what a digital Kanban board offers. This allows for tracking urgent situations outside the physical office and synchronization of the team.

With a digital Kanban board like Teamhood you can assign tasks, add tags, leave comments, attach files to Kanban cards and so much more with just a few clicks. And your team members will be immediately notified about whatever changes there are for them to take into account. Thus optimizing the workflow process by at least 300%.

Furthermore, in the nowadays globalized world, it is quite common for companies to have at least some part of employees working from abroad or from different cities. With regards to that, the digital Kanban board offers a solution of being inclusive to remote team members. And not having to go the extra mile to update them on the current state of affairs as they can track it all virtually.

Active management

If no one visits or changes your physical Kanban board, what’s the board going to do about that? Nothing, of course, it’s not a responsive object. On the other hand, Kanban software provides active management. It notifies people when tasks are due and flags stalled progress for managers. That alone makes it far more effective at getting results.

3. Omnipresence

Kanban boards that live in the cloud are available to all employees 24/7, no matter where they happen to be. Physical boards are limited by both time (office hours) and space (the location). The problem is that workforces are becoming more and more distributed with lots of people working remotely at least part of the time. Such employees become disconnected from the improvement of work which the rest of the team manages on the board.

What’s more, great ideas for improvement don’t always come during working hours. With a digital board, employees can log in or use an app to submit innovative ideas whenever inspiration strikes.

4. Context

Physical boards are great at helping people visualize work moving from idea to completion, but they don’t bring any context to what is happening. Where are all of the relevant documents and other assets that came about as part of the work? Who is responsible for the next step? What are the big goals of the project and expected business impact? Only a digital Kanban board can supply all of these answers and give team members the background information and framework for effective forward progress.

5. Set WIP with one click instead of micromanaging

You’ll sometimes find yourself in a situation where you need to define some constraints in order to keep work organized and on pace. For instance, you don’t want your employees to work on more than two tasks simultaneously. That is because multitasking is time wasting as you are losing broader contexts of your various tasks by attending to them at the same time. Human brain can only store so much information and have it accessible at once. So, instead of micromanaging, you can set these parameters by defining queues and work-in-progress (WIP) limits in your Kanban software.   

6. Data collection

Speaking of context, beyond the data related to the relevant project, it is useful to have information about past improvement work and the ability to track results long into the future. Physical Kanban boards provide neither. Once a project, a user story or a task is completed, it is removed from the board and is no longer readily available. Teams might track the immediate results, but what about after six months or a year? If there is no reminder of it, people might not remember to check in on continuing impact. Digital Kanban boards make this easy and also provide search capabilities so that people can research past projects to see what works the best.

7. Minimizing errors

A digital Kanban board is also less error-prone, compared to its predecessor. To mention a few, cards don’t fall off the board, get lost or forgotten. High priority adjustments that are detrimental to a project’s success don’t get thrown away by the cleaning lady as trash. There will not be a problem of you not being able to grasp your coworker’s handwriting. In general there are just fewer manual actions that could lead to human error.

8. Tracking, reporting, analyzing

Advanced digital Kanban boards like Teamhood come equipped with all the data and information gathering features you need to make informed decisions about how your team is performing. Teamhood for instance provides time tracking, dashboards, Gantt charts and other various tools to help you estimate and track your performance.

It is super easy to notice weak spots, track progress and time and make estimations with Kanban software. All digital Kanban boards come with the feature of automatically capturing metrics and generating reports.

Being able to analyze workflow and WIP, cumulative flow diagrams, cycle times and many more with just a click or two is a huge advantage over physical boards. Physical boards can’t provide historical performance data. Furthermore, analyzing workflow indicators on them is a difficult task. If you are not writing down results consistently, it would become impossible to track each person’s personal cycle time.

Digital tools can automatically produce reports and charts without manual data entry. In regulated environments the audit trail and change management provided by a digital tool can be essential.

9. Integration with other digital tools

Another valuable advantage of online Kanban platforms is that they are easy to integrate with other existing systems your company uses. For instance, you can integrate them with email so tasks could appear directly on the board instead of having to create them manually. Consolidation with CRMs and other software tools can also save you a lot of time. Teamhood for instance offers a possibility for you to integrate it into your IT ecosystem with Single Sign On, Azure AD, Excel import/export.

10. Increased security

Physical Kanban boards are fragile. It isn’t hard to imagine a Post-it note falling off or someone misplacing it. Also, the last thing you want if there is a disaster in your building like a fire that sets off the sprinklers, is to lose all of the information on your board. And what about visitors? If you are working on some pretty confidential tasks you likely don’t want clients, partners, and others who visit your building to see what you are working on. Does the fact that the board is not secure prevent the team from working on sensitive projects or serious problems?

Of course, none of this is a worry with Kanban software. You control who has access and data never disappears by accident.

Perhaps the main problem with physical Kanban boards is that unlike digital boards on the cloud, they are not indestructible. Accidents can happen, and if your workplace is damaged by a natural disaster or break-in, damage or loss of your physical Kanban board could have highly negative consequences for your business.

On the contrary, Kanban online boards may have an option for role-based access and each user could have specific rights and restrictions on the board. Most online solutions can guarantee security even on an enterprise level.

Challenges of a digital Kanban board

There are many great things that come with a digital Kanban board that we already went in depth about. However, the digital board poses some challenges as well. Keep in mind that when you are applying the new technique to your workplace.

Desk lock

Some argue that without the need for people to gather around a physical board, personal interaction is lost and employees become more detached from team and the bigger picture. It is true that just because you are able to collaborate from anywhere with the help of the board, it isn’t always the best step to take. Digital Kanban boards are great for day-to-day improvement work, but when there is complex new information, a sensitive subject or disagreement about the direction of the project, it is a good idea to get some interpersonal time.

One way to prevent desk lock is to maintain your practice of scheduled meetings or daily stand-ups, using the boards to stay connected between those meetings and ensure that everyone arrives at the meeting fully updated so that you can better spend your time adjusting strategies.

Small Display Size

If you do get the team together in person, gathering around one computer can be a bit of a problem. People like physical Kanban boards because they are large and it is easy to see items clearly during a meeting. This difficulty is easy to overcome, though, with everyone using their own devices to monitor the digital Kanban board. At least a computer per 3-4 employees during a meeting is a good idea. Furthermore, you could use projection screen to showcase the progress and problems of your digital Kanban board during it.

No Forced Prioritization

A physical board can only hold a certain amount of cards. This forces teams to make decisions about what will be tracked based on the items with the highest priority. Digital boards, however, have no such limitation and can hold as many ideas as the team submits. This is both a blessing and a curse, as you don’t want your digital Kanban board becoming a dump of brainstormed ideas. So, smart teams make swimlanes for prioritized backlog Kanban cards (tasks, user stories) as well.

In conclusion, a digital Kanban board makes it easy for everybody to update their cards in real-time, from their device, without the need to get up and make changes to a physical board. As a result, they are the ideal choice for companies whose workers are mainly using computers to complete projects, or where teams are working together but remotely. It has some challenges to it that you might want to take into consideration but overally is sure to kickstart your business by maximum optimization.

Teamhood is a hyper visual project and team management solution that helps companies to streamline business processes and deliver results faster. Teamhood is designed for professional teams seeking efficiency at work and full empowerment of their talents. Teamhood provides workspaces, customized boards with fine-tuned time tracking, collaboration functionalities as well as visual agile metrics reporting.
Teamhood is developed by Eylean, a project management software company since 2011. Eylean products are valued by its numerous customers globally such as Mercedes AG, Festool, Johnson&Johnson, Rabobank and others.

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