Secrets to Choosing the Right Kanban App for Your Needs

By Kate Eby | July 22, 2016

You’re always trying to work smarter, so you may be getting ready to move your organization to Kanban, a project framework that wins high marks for improving efficiency and supporting innovation.

Kanban is becoming a popular choice for project managers because it helps teams manage projects more efficiently. If you’re getting ready to implement Kanban with your team, one of the most important decisions is choosing which tool to use. In this guide, we’ll look at the most important features and functionalities needed in a Kanban app and how to figure out the best one for your needs.

Be sure to use our Kanban apps checklist, which details the most common features that project managers seek.

How Kanban and Kanban Apps Help Your Team

Kanban originated as a lean manufacturing technique in Japan, but has spread far and wide and is used by people working in software development, healthcare, education, and business. This methodology is recognized as one of the best ways to run projects because Kanban makes it easier to see and manage the workload.

The most basic Kanban system is an old-fashioned bulletin board with paper notes in columns for: to do, doing, and done. But that method quickly reaches its limits, so lots of tools have sprung up to make Kanban work for today’s project teams.

To select the right Kanban app, make sure you understand how Kanban can help your team and organization. There are four core properties in Kanban:

  • Make work visible: A visual system for representing workflow is at the heart of Kanban. With Kanban, you should be able to see at a glance your scope of work, determine what needs to be done next, and prioritize tasks.
  • Limit work in progress: This means restricting how many items can be active simultaneously. This limitation contrasts with the way other methodologies rein in scope. For example, the Scrum method focuses on a strict timebox practice.
  • Manage flow: Teams using Kanban focus on identifying areas where workflow is stalled, effort is wasted, or obstacles exist, and then experiment with changes.
  • Improve continuously: Kanban is the keystone to a culture of continuous and collaborative improvement, which is a contrast to other methods, like Scrum, that rely on iterations. Teams track key metrics such as total work in progress, blocked items, throughput, and lead time, and use the data to identify needed improvements.

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Kanban Spreads from Japanese Manufacturing to Software

Kanban is a Japanese term that means, approximately, “card that is visible.” In the 1940s, Toyota improved its engineering after seeing the benefits of just-in-time inventory at grocery stores where clerks would reorder products when supply of a product was running low.

On Toyota assembly lines, workers used cards to represent steps in manufacturing that enabled them to communicate what needed to happen and when. This led to less waste and higher productivity.

The system spread to the software industry in this century. The authoritative State of Agile report found that in the software community, the percentage of respondents who practiced Kanban jumped from 31 percent in 2014 to 39 percent in 2015.

Kanban Succeeds Because People Are Visually Oriented

The methodology has leapfrogged and is used in virtually every field because it capitalizes on one essential aspect of how our brains process data: we extract much more information from visual images than text and retain it far longer. According to research from HP, people retain only 20 percent of what they read, 10 percent of what they hear, and 80 percent of what they see.

Kanban puts visual cues at the heart of the framework, helping everyone on the team stay up to date and on track. Another advantage is that a limit on work in progress minimizes multitasking and logjams while increasing focus and productivity. Kanban apps are also flexible and easy to use.

The Project Board is the Heart of Kanban

The Kanban board is the nerve center of your Kanban project and helps you visualize workflow. As mentioned earlier, the original Kanban board was a bulletin board or white board with a basic three-phase workflow (to do, doing, done).

If you want to see if Kanban is a potential fit for your team, and your needs are simple, start by using a basic white board and Post-it notes. This separates understanding the method from learning to use a Kanban app. Approaching the process in this manner, also helps you identify what you need from a Kanban app.

But for most project managers today, a white board is too limiting, especially when working with remote teams. So they use online platforms, tools, and Kanban apps, often with the addition of bells and whistles that add more features, that act as virtual bulletin boards.

Kanban Boards Adapt to Fit Your Workflow

Your team probably needs more options than the three phases (to do, doing, done) found on the original Kanban board. Luckily, Kanban is highly adaptable. You can diagram your workflow on your board using a combination of vertical and horizontal paths and color coding.

Having a clear image of your process is powerful. But it’s not the only advantage of the Kanban board.

Kanban also enforces limits on work in progress because having too much in any one phase of your workflow will create a logjam. You’ll be able to see when this occurs easily because the relevant lane on your board will have a backlog.

When you spot a backlog on your board, you’ll want to impose a work in progress limit such as no more than two items.

Narrowing Down Your Choice of Kanban Apps

Now that you have a clear idea of how you might apply Kanban to your organization, it’s time to get to the details of choosing your tool. There are many Kanban apps available and you may find this listing or this roundup of apps helpful places to start.

Once you have a few contenders, it’s crucial to identify the criteria that are most critical. Some noteworthy areas and questions to ask when evaluating Kanban apps are:

  • Visualization – Is the way your work is represented easily grasped in a glance? Does it replicate a whiteboard or look like something else? Does it offer visual cues for notifications? Is the user interface intuitive?
  • Limits on work in progress – Does the Kanban app offer them as a feature? Are they easy to implement at every phase? Can they be modified quickly?
  • Cost – What is the cost to get started? Is there a free trial? What is the long-term expense for the number of boards and team members at your organization?
  • Integration – Does it integrate with existing tools you use? These might include communication apps, project centers, file sharing, and more. Can you collaborate via email?
  • Security – How safe is your data? Is encryption supported? Could the app be hosted on your own server if needed?
  • Support – When is live support available and through what channels? Do you need to upgrade to a premium plan to get hassle-free support?
  • Extras – What features are available to customize your boards? Depending on the Kanban app, these could include widgets for calendars or team activity, visual cues for card aging, custom themes, web attachments, automatic assigning of tasks, notifications, pop-ups, labels and tags and the ability to create personal/private boards in addition to team boards.
  • Reports and analytics – Does the Kanban app make it easy for you to track and improve your key metrics?
  • Getting started – Is there a steep learning curve? What kind of training and onboarding does the vendor offer?
  • Mobile - Does the Kanban have a mobile version so your team can stay up to date on the go or at home?
  • Flexibility – Is the Kanban app sophisticated enough that it will cover your needs as your company grows and evolves?

Compare Kanban Apps Based on Your Most Important Criteria

Once you have identified your key criteria, compare the Kanban apps side-by-side and rate them on each point. We’ve compiled some of the most common features to evaluate in this checklist.


If you are fortunate, one will emerge as a clear leader, and you’ll have found the perfect Kanban app. If there are a few close contenders, take advantage of free trials and test drive the Kanban apps. Use theoretical scenarios or past projects to play around with the tools rather than diving in with a live project. (You don’t want to find out the app is a bad fit for your needs midstream or get held hostage because your trial expired before the project was completed.) Some hands-on testing will provide a clear sense of how hard it is to start using the apps and how they perform in real-world conditions.

Do a Last Reality Check on Your Readiness for a Kanban App

Before you make your final selection, you need to do a final reality check. There are stories of failed Kanban implementation, and the problems usually become apparent on the boards. No app will save you if you aren’t ready to address the underlying issues. Among these pitfalls are:

  • Not keeping the board up to date. If you aren’t confident your team will update the board diligently, you’ll be making decisions and taking action based on inaccurate information. You may have bottlenecks in reality that do not appear on your board.
  • Not reflecting the way you really work. Kanban experts stress that you should start where you actually are. Don’t try to change your process in the beginning of working with Kanban. Tempted by a desire to see a huge advance in results, teams will often structure a Kanban board with a workflow that they would like to see happen, not one they actually use. The results can be disappointing.
  • Not being able to stick to work in progress limits. If your team gets crises thrust upon it regularly and/or the political environment at your organization makes it impossible for you to say no, you will run into problems. If you are constantly violating the work in progress limits of your board, Kanban will not serve you well.

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