If you have spent time looking into project management methodologies, you have probably come across the term “kanban boards.” So what is a kanban board, how did it originate, and how can it be used?

In the early 1940s, Taiichi Ohno, a Japanese businessman and Industrial Engineer created a simple planning system for Toyota to help them manage inventory and control workflow at every stage of production. Compared to their American automotive rivals, Toyota was lagging far behind in terms of productivity and efficiency and desperately needed a way to push back.

With the implementation of Ohno’s manufacturing principles, Toyota came up with a just-in-time production control system that dramatically reduced their cost-intensive inventory of semi-finished products, finished products, and raw materials.

Ohno also proposed seven actionable ways in which organizations could identify and cut down on ‘wastes’ caused by transportation, over-processing or spending time on non-value added activities, inventory mismanagement, long waiting time with no-value being added and production defects. All of Ohno’s ideas were described under a single umbrella term: kanban”.

In 2004, David J. Anderson applied the basic theory of Kanban to the IT and Software industry by introducing concepts such as queuing systems and pull theory. Over time, the Kanban method starting gaining popularity in other work domains like DevOps, marketing, staffing, procurement, sales, and recruitment. With Kanban, you can set up a project management system that visualizes your workflow using ‘boards’ to keep a track of major and micro-tasks.

What is a Kanban Board?

Kanban boards ensure visualization of your entire team’s work, standardization of workflow, and identification of any blockers or dependencies for a quick resolution. A ‘physical board’ can simply be a sticky note on a whiteboard, whereas ‘virtual boards’ are online boards that can be created using drag-and-drop functionality.

The basic version of a Kanban board consists of a 3-step workflow: To Do, In Progress, and Completed, however, depending on the general structure or size of your team and the objective of the tasks at hand, you can map the workflow to meet your specific requirements. Since an online Kanban board allows you to easily collaborate on various projects from multiple locations, your team can communicate amongst each other in real-time and maintain complete work transparency.

How does a Kanban Board work?

Kanban, in Japanese, literally translates to ‘visual signal’ – which is especially fitting, since you use ‘cards’ to represent work items on the board. The Kanban cards should contain detailed information about every work item, so the entire team has complete clarity on what exactly the task entails, who the task is assigned to, the estimated time the task should take and so on. In a virtual board, you can also add digital files, like screenshots, and other important technical details, that can prove to be valuable to the team members working on the task.

Let’s take a quick example to get a better understanding of the nitty-gritties of Kanban board. Imagine you’re the project manager at a manufacturing plant. You can create a Kanban Board by drawing up multiple columns to represent your team’s task-handling process, whether it is developing and testing or planning and deploying. Every column can be assigned color-coded cards to denote the status of a particular task and indicate priority or urgency. Visual indicators, like avatars or icons of team members, can be placed next to these cards to indicate the person responsible for the task, class of service, the source of demand or any other details crucial to your work.

kanban board

Source: Leankit.com 

Why use Kanban Boards?

As it turns out, almost every job in the world has a predefined process: Packaged food goes from a supplier to a stockroom to shelves; parts go from raw metal to finished product on a factory floor; software bugs go from feature request to raw code to finished addition to the product. Here’s how Kanban boards can help regardless on the industry you’re in:

Fewer bottlenecks

In larger teams, equal distribution of work can be a challenge, as you don’t want one person to be working on several tasks, while another person sits idle. Kanban boards drastically limit the volume of work in progress (WIP), helping you identify backups and bottlenecks in the team’s workflow caused due to lack of resources, productivity or skill-set.

For example, a regular software company usually has 4 workflow parameters on the Kanban board: To Do, In Progress, Code Review, and Done. You can easily determine the WIP limit of the code review should be 2. Why? With a low limit on WIP, the team is more likely to pay more attention to the common issues that emerge during code reviews and review other’s work carefully before raising their own code reviews. Over time, this will greatly reduce the amount of time a work-item takes to go through the entire cycle, from to-do to done, on your Kanban board.

Flexibility

When your team is focussed on WIP, they can easily take on new tasks once they’re done with the ones at hand. As a product owner or project manager, this frees up a lot of your time that was spent in delegating and monitoring the work of every individual member in the team. The changes outside the WIP will not impact the team, so you can easily re-prioritize backlog work without obstructing the workflow in any way. Not only this, unlike Scrum, you don’t need fixed-length iterations in Kanban. As long as you remember to keep the most urgent and important tasks on top of the backlog, your team will be assured of delivering maximum value to the company. Unlike Scrum, you don’t need fixed-length iterations in Kanban.

Visual metrics

Kanban boards encourage a culture of continuous improvement, where teams can measure lead times, quality of work, throughput and number of blockages in order to modify their processes, optimize workflow and remove waste from their day-to-day operations.

You can also narrow down which stage (to-do, in-progress or done) is prone to more issues to avoid future integration issues and prevent a defective product from hitting the market.

Choosing Kanban Software

When you’re choosing a software or tool to create a Kanban board, you should ideally look for customizable cards, scalability, companion mobile applications, user-friendly collaboration features and a reporting/analytics feature for analyzing your workflow.

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