The Kanban Board

Dylan | Apr 15, 2019

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The Kanban Board was developed by an engineer at Toyota in an effort to improve a factory’s manufacturing efficiency. The Kanban Board would grow into a project management goldmine. Kanban means “billboard” in Japanese and is pronounced “kahn-bahn”. The power of the board derives from its unmatched ability to visualize progression and potential bottlenecks.

Kanban Boards not only provide a clear roadmap, but they also allow you the ability to “watch” the project into completion. Every step, big or small, towards completion plays out before your eyes. Whether chipping away at a team project or eliminating your personal weekly to-do list, nothing is as motivating as shifting those Kanban Cards to the right.

How It Works

By nature, Kanban Boards provide its user with a lot of freedom and customizability. Often, teams and individuals will require some degree of experimentation to develop the perfect board for them; however, some general guidelines exist.

Columns

Kanban Boards consist of multiple columns but usually a minimum of three. Each column represents an activity or the state of being of a task. A simple board might consist of the following columns:

Basic Kanban Board Empty

Kanban Boards follow a left to right progression. Aside from these three basic columns, Kanban Boards often contain a “Backlog” column for tasks that are not yet ready to be worked on or implemented. The backlog column is simply just a future to-do list and may even house intriguing brainstorming ideas.

Before explaining the role of cards, it’s important to introduce Work in Progress Limits (WIP Limits). Kanban Boards generally encourage restricting the number of cards allowed in a specific column at a given time. By placing a WIP Limit on the “in progress” column in the image above to a maximum of 2 tasks, you avoid suffering from the inefficiency of constant task-switching.

Cards

Kanban Board columns are populated with cards. Each card represents either a task or project component. If working in a group, cards may be assigned specific ownership to help visualize responsibilities and contributions. Cards are often color-coded to denote whatever the users desire. Colors can convey task ownership or the category of the task (the image below is color-coded by the category of the task). Cards also observe a top-down ordering to denote task priority. The higher the task in the column, the more important it should be.

Here’s the same board from above populated with cards:

Basic Kanban Board Populated

Building Your Board

After committing to creating a Kanban Board, the first important decision is whether to use a physical or digital board. Each option has its advantages; the key benefits between the two are:

Physical
  • Does not require internet or a device

  • Encourages discussion as members must physically go to the board (applicable for a team)

  • Moving from a desk to a board provides a small and rewarding break

Digital
  • Portability and widespread accessibility

  • Quickly assembled and maintained

  • Only viable solution if working remotely (applicable for a team)

The tactile nature of a physical board is difficult to compete with. There’s something quite special about touching your cards and moving them to the next column; however, the general ease and accessibility of a digital board make them difficult to overlook.

I tend to use digital boards. After finding a groove, I can build a board for the entire week in just 10 minutes and rest assured knowing I’ll have access to it whenever I receive some downtime. I still experience satisfaction in dragging the cards to the right on my screen.

Now it’s your turn to go and give it a shot! As always, I don’t believe there’s a single cookie cutter productivity method for everyone. The wider your net, the more likely you are to catch some fish. Get out there and experiment with as many methods and techniques as you can get your hands on. I hope the Kanban Board benefits you even just a fraction of what it has benefitted me!

If you’ve used a Kanban Board in the past, tell me about it! I’m always looking for new ideas and would like to know how you usually set it up. Whether considering trying out a Kanban Board or not, let me know your initial thoughts on the technique in the comments below!

Thanks for reading and watch out for my post next week on combining the power of the Pomodoro Technique with the mighty visualization of the Kanban Board!

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