Kanban

Transitioning From Physical to a Digital Kanban Board

Vidas Vasiliauskas ·

2019 - Present Co-founder and CEO @ Teamhood. 2015-2019 Head of software engineering department at Danske Bank. 2017-2018 Partner Associate Professor at Vilnius University. Lecturer of Software Architecture course 2011 - 2015 Managed numerous smaller IT teams at Prewise. Co-founder of RaveIT, Eylean, No Brakes Games Certified Agile product owner and practitioner. Managed large scale enterprise projects as well as launch of small startup products. MSc of Software Engineering at Vilnius University. Hobbies: Racing, MTB cycling, Windsurfing

digital kanban board

In Japanese, the term Kanban translates to “signboard.” Kanban boards have long been an immensely popular and highly effective tool for managing workflows. However, as the business landscape evolves, many companies are transitioning from traditional physical boards to the efficiency and versatility of digital Kanban boards.

Read on to discover why such a 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 that 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 the need for that. In other words, the system used a pull instead of a push approach.

Taiichi observed that he could apply this shelf-stocking technique to a manufacturing process. Thus, a Kanban board was born.

Digital Kanban Board software example

Kanban is sometimes called 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 boards.

Below is a simple example of a digital Kanban board. If you are looking for more examples used by different teams, use the button to follow the link.

project management software kanban
Kanban board in Teamhood

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

Physical & Digital Kanban Board: Reducing Waste

When Taiichi originally developed Kanban, one of its goals was to tackle the 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 accepting fixed ordering costs and set-up times. Thus, a need to spread these fixed costs over large batches.

A physical and a 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 limit 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 a push strategy, the business allocates resources to produce products, but the return on investment is not guaranteed, leading to unnecessary costs and waste. When production uses a pull strategy, work is based on actual customer demand. The pull system also helps teams become more focused rather than doing multiple jobs simultaneously. This makes them more productive because they operate based on their capacity.

Learn more about the practice from our ultimate Kanban guide.

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10 Pros of Transitioning to a Digital Kanban Board

1. Saving Time

In the long run, a Kanban board tool 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, by using 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 work and team management. And allows you to dedicate time to the really important tasks that require intellectual consideration. Leaving the technicalities to the electronic Kanban board.

Moreover, an online Kanban board can be much more easily expanded when needed. Thus, compared to a physical board, it is much more flexible.

kanban board editing
Kanban board editing in Teamhood

2. Managing remote teams

Covid has changed a lot in the workplace, and there is an unseen need to manage remote teams. Whether your team is distributed throughout the country, the city, or the building, having a Kanban board online is a lot more efficient. A virtual Kanban board offers equal access to information, having everything at your fingertips and being able to access it from anywhere. This allows for tracking urgent situations outside the office and synchronizing the team.

With an online Kanban board like Teamhood, you can assign tasks, add tags, leave comments, attach files to Kanban cards, and do 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%.

Teamhood kanban task
Kanban card details in Teamhood

Furthermore, in the globalized world, it is common for companies to have at least some employees working from abroad or from different cities. With regards to that, the digital Kanban board offers a solution for a team using hybrid collaboration. 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 will the board 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 and Asynchronous communication

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 (location). The problem is that workforces are becoming more and more distributed, with many people working remotely at least part of the time. Such employees become disconnected from the improvement of work that the rest of the team manages on the board.

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

Moreover, by choosing a digital Kanban board, you are enabling asynchronous communication. This allows the team to collaborate without the need for a large number of meetings and face-to-face time.

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 the 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 to keep work organized and on pace. For instance, you don’t want your employees to simultaneously work on more than two tasks. That is because multitasking is time-wasting as you are losing broader contexts of your various tasks by attending to them simultaneously.

The 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-pwiprogress (WIP) limits in your virtual Kanban boards.  

WIP limit
Setting WIP limit

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 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 the continuing impact. Digital Kanban boards make this easy and provide search capabilities so people can research past projects to see what works best.

7. Minimizing errors

By putting your Kanban board online, you are also less error-prone than when using a physical one. 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 with your inability 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 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.

Online gantt chart maker
Gantt chart in Teamhood

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

Analyzing 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 do not write down results consistently, tracking each person’s cycle time will become impossible.

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

Performance metrics teamhood
Performance metrics in Teamhood

9. Integration with other digital tools

Another valuable advantage of an online Kanban board is that they are easy to integrate with other existing systems your company uses. For instance, you can integrate them with email so tasks can appear directly on the board instead of creating them manually. Consolidating with CRMs and other software tools can save you much time. 

Teamhood for instance, offers the possibility for you to integrate it into your IT ecosystem with Single Sign On, Azure AD, and 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 digital Kanban boards. You control who has access, and data never disappears by accident.

Perhaps the main problem with physical boards is that they are not indestructible, unlike digital Kanban boards on the cloud. 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, the Kanban board online 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 Digital Kanban Boards

Many great things come with a digital Kanban board that we already went in-depth about. However, the electronic Kanban 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 the team and the bigger picture. It is true that just because you can collaborate from anywhere with the help of the board, it isn’t always the best step to take. The electronic Kanban board is 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 get the team together in person, gathering around one computer can be a problem. People like physical Kanban boards because they are large, and it is easy to see items clearly during a meeting. However, this difficulty is easy to overcome with everyone using their own devices to monitor the digital Kanban board. At least one computer per 3-4 employees during a meeting is a good idea. Furthermore, you could use a projection screen to showcase the progress and problems on your online Kanban board during it.

No Forced Prioritization

A physical board can only hold a certain amount of cards. This forces teams to decide 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 online Kanban board to become a dump of brainstormed ideas.

To go around this, teams usually have a dedicated section of the board (column) or a separate board to dump all their ideas. Then, during a prioritization, the selected tasks move forward this way, keeping the main board clean and focused.

priority columns kanban
Kanban board with priority columns

Electronic Kanban Board Templates

Being a computerized solution, digital Kanban boards have one more advantage over physical solutions – Kanban board templates. It becomes easy for the team to develop and share such templates to organize work in all departments around the company. Launching new departments and onboarding new teams becomes much easier with predefined EngineeringAccounting, and Marketing templates for departments and Project management or OKRs templates to track the process.

This way, a new team or department can focus on familiarizing themselves with the process immediately instead of having to create one from scratch. If you want some inspiration, take a look at these Kanban board examples, or check out this Kanban cheat sheet for a quick review of Kanban terms and processes.

More on Kanban project management.

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 mainly use computers to complete projects or where teams work together but remotely. It has some challenges it that you might want to take into consideration, but overall is sure to kickstart your business with maximum optimization.

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