An all-inclusive overview of the Kanban board, its functions, features and when you should use one.
Kanban board is the main tool used in Kanban project management practices. It helps visualize process, control workflow and maximize results. The board is composed out of columns, swim lanes, cards and limits. This helps manage the work processes, eliminates waste and delivers results faster.
Here is the full story on – What is Kanban board.
The Story of the Board
Kanban boards were first introduced as part of the Kanban framework and quickly became the most important tool used by Kanban practitioners. Over the years these boards have become so popular that some even started calling them Agile boards. However, this term is not correct as different Agile frameworks use different variations of the task board.
Kanban is just one of many Agile applications and thus has a specific set of rules and practices that must be followed. The approach defines itself with these practices: Visualize your work, Limit work in progress (WIP), Make policies explicit, Manage flow, Implement feedback loops and Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally.
It is with the help of the Kanban task board, that the first two practices are implemented. Making the task board an integral part of any Kanban application and the main tool that teams use to control the workflow.
While such boards are usually for Kanban practitioners, they have proved to be so useful that some teams chose to implement them as a standalone solution. With the ability to bring clarity and flexibility to the table, there is little wonder Kanban boards have become a go-to Agile tool.
Kanban Board Components
As teams can freely adapt and modify Kanban boards to fit their needs, there are numerous variations of the task board. And while Kanban does not define a specific look, there are 4 key components each Kanban board must hold. These are – Progress columns, Kanban cards, WIP limits and Swim lanes.
All Kanban boards hold three basic sections – To Do, Doing and Done. This is the setup that most Kanban teams start with and then expand the sections with various columns as they continue working on projects.
Most common additions to the standard board sections are priority columns and progress steps.
Priority columns visualize high priority tasks in the To Do section. As it is up to the team members in Kanban to choose which task they will be working on next, this helps to make sure the most important tasks are completed first.
Progress steps or columns help track task progress in the Doing section. Teams define what process steps each task must go through to be completed and visualize them with columns. These steps differ in every team, for example they could be – Design, Manufacturing, Testing and QA.
With digital Kanban boards like Teamhood, you do not have to worry about figuring out all the process steps right away. Which can be especially tricky if it is your first time using a Kanban task board. Instead, you start simple and build and improve your board as the work goes on. Modifying and reworking a Kanban board template is easy even in a middle of a project.
The second integral part of any Kanban board are the task cards. Used to mark all work that is happening within the team, they are added to the task board and moved through the columns to mark the progress being made. To make sure the task board stays clean and usable, task cards hold just the necessary information like task name, assignee and due date.
This is great for visualization of the process, but when it comes to the team using the board some more details may be preferred. This is where digital Kanban boards have the advantage. Here you can add a full description, files, comments and even estimate and track time. For those working with larger items, tasks can be divided into subtasks and even tracked separately. Creating a full picture of project progress.
To track and control complex projects, Teamhood offers a variation of the task board called 2D Kanban. Here each column can have sub-columns, meaning each of your process steps can have a separate workflow of their own. As large tasks move through the regular process steps, their subtasks are monitored in the secondary workflow created for each process step. This can be as simple as Doing and Done or more advanced and comprised out of various stages.
2D Kanban is great for teams tracking complex projects within a Kanban board. As it allows to monitor the progress of even the smallest tasks.
Columns and cards are great for visualization, but what about limiting work? This is where the work in progress (WIP) limits come in handy. To make sure the team works effectively, the number of tasks that can be pulled into the Doing section is limited. And thus, we have a number that is called a WIP limit.
WIP limits differ from team to team, but the main idea is that each team member should be working on no more than one task at a time. Therefore, it is common for the WIP limit to be equal to the number of people on the team. To control more complex processes different WIP limits can be set for each of the progress columns. This is usually the case where tasks must wait for approval from external stakeholders and thus in the meantime a team member can take on a new assignment.
Limiting work to only one task per team member is great for finishing tasks quicker and making sure any problems are noticed and solved quickly. Instead of being buried under other tasks.
The last information layer on the task board comes in the form of swim lanes. Or as you may know them – rows. It may sound simple, but this additional layer is great for larger projects where there is need to divide tasks. Swim lanes can be used for various purposes – prioritizing tasks, grouping them according to different projects, goals or teams.
If you work in a field with a tendency for urgent unplanned tasks to appear, an additional swim lane can be used to prioritize such tasks over others. An Expedite lane is added to the top of your Kanban board. Then, if any urgent work arises it is placed there. In this case, even if the WIP limit is reached, the team can take the task on and complete it before the other committed tasks.
How to use a Kanban Board
So now you know all about the components of a Kanban board, but still wonder how it should be used? The process is quite straightforward.
1 – First, you need to sit down with your team and decided what your Kanban task board should look like. Discuss columns, swim lanes and WIP limits and then draw or use a digital solution like Teamhood to create your board.
2 – Once the board is ready, add in all the tasks you have planned and already going on. This will quickly visualize your current situation and give clarity on what must be done next.
3 – Lastly, start working. Implement daily meetings to review progress, planning sessions to add new tasks to the board and trust your team to take on and complete the tasks.
Remember, that a Kanban task board must fit and visualize your process. If that process changes, the board should change with it. The rest is about implementing a Kanban mindset within your team, not about the task board.
Some of you might still be thinking – this is all great fun, but how will this help my team perform better? By implementing the Kanban mindset and tracking your tasks with such task board you will get 4 clear improvements of your process and results.
Having all your processes visualized in one board provides great benefits. It becomes easy to glance and understand where your team stands at any moment. Also, by having the process visible it is a lot easier to analyze and improve the workflow. Maybe some steps have become unnecessary or maybe something else should be added to make sure all tasks go through the same process? This all becomes clear when using a visual task board, making it easy to monitor and improve your processes.
Limiting the WIP, helps your team stay focused on what they are doing instead of spreading out between numerous tasks. This will ensure tasks are completed faster and with more focus. Working on one task at a time will also make any issues and bottlenecks appear quicker. Thus, allowing you to instantly know about any issues and solve them immediately. Instead of dragging them out until the end of the project.
Limiting the WIP has one more benefit of being able to change the course of action more easily. As new circumstances appear, task priorities can be reorganized. As soon as a team member finishes a task, they will take the new most important item from the To Do section. By not working on several tasks at a time, team members can change course and start working on new priorities almost instantly. Which cannot be said about other project management approaches.
Lastly, working on a Kanban board, you will start to notice and will be able to estimate your teams’ output. Since the team members are working one task at a time, you will be able to easily see how many tasks they complete in a week or a month. Thus, allowing you to better understand when a project is going to be done. This can be achieved by making sure all your tasks are of a similar size or you estimate their duration.
Kanban board vs Scrum board
For those new to Agile, you might still be unsure on how the two most popular Agile application task boards differ. There are two key things to note – form and function.
As discussed above, traditional Kanban board holds three sections – To Do, Doing and Done. These sections can be enhanced with various columns and are up to the team to decide.
Scrum board on the other hand, must hold a little more information. It contains 4 clearly defined sections:
1 – Product backlog for tasks that give a broad idea of where the project must be going.
2 – Sprint backlog for tasks that team commits to complete in the next iteration.
3 – Doing for the tasks in progress.
4 – Done for completed tasks.
Scrum board is managed by the Product Owner and the team separately. The team commits to tasks 1-4 weeks in advance.
The function of a Kanban board is to visualize work and limit the WIP. This way it helps a team to deliver best results. Here the team sets the pace of work and completes tasks based on the changing priorities. While the function of the Scrum board is to hold the tasks that must be completed in the next iteration. Scrum board also visualizes the progress, but it serves more as a project plan for the next 1-4 weeks, than a guide. Making sure team meets the commitment during the allocated time.
The differences between Scrum are Kanban boards are based solely on the differences in the frameworks themselves.
Kanban task board is a visual and informative tool to manage your team and optimize work processes. By visualizing your tasks, you will be able to optimize the workflow, identify bottlenecks, adapt to the changing circumstances and better estimate the outcome.
Reading is never enough for learning, therefore it is now time to create a Kanban board for your work in practice and start planning your work. Just click below to try out Teamhood – an easy and visual Kanban board for professional teams.