Visualize Your To-Do List: Using Kanban Boards To Optimize Workflow

Kanban methodology places a high value on the simplicity and visual nature of project management boards to optimize workflow and delivery. In this article we will explore the structure and organization of a Kanban board, identify Kanban core principles and practices, and look at Kanban metric reporting tools. We’ll also take a look at variations of online and digital Kanban boards. The last section will provide helpful tips for choosing a software Kanban tool.

What Is a Kanban Board?

The Japanese term Kanban roughly translates into “card you can see” or “visual board”—an accurate description for a project management system based on a simple, but highly visual concept. The human brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text, so it makes sense that a streamlined visual representation of workflow is going to have more impact on your team’s productivity than a simple “to-do” list.

The Kanban process is based on team members pulling work from a backlog, and completing work items one at a time and only as needed—a concept known as ‘Just In Time’ in Kanban methodology. Kanban is a highly flexible, loosely structured process that focuses on Work In Progress, or WIP. A work team may decide to use Kanban as a stand-alone process, or apply it to existing projects (see Scrumban Boards and Scrumban).

The Kanban board becomes the physical representation, or heart, of the Kanban process. A basic Kanban board uses just three columns, or lanes—To Do, Doing, and Done (your team may elect to add more columns if needed). Team members move a physical Kanban card representing one task or work unit horizontally across the board from left to right to reflect the status of that task. Cards are usually color coded to indicate priority, assignees, or any other information relative to the project. Cards used in Kanban boards must be easily movable; post-it notes or index cards with pushpins are ideal.


The customer or product owner assembles and prioritizes a backlog of work items to be accomplished—this can be user stories, features, bug fixes, or any measurable unit that can be tracked through the Kanban cycle (the amount of time it takes for a single item to be completed).

Backlog items are posted in the To-Do column on your Kanban board. Team members pull from the backlog at any time to begin work, at which point, the task enters the Work in Progress (Doing) state. No tasks are assigned—team members pull tasks from To-Do column on an as-needed basis. Unlike Scrum, the product owner has the flexibility to reprioritize the backlog at any time without affecting work already in progress.

The Doing column drives the Kanban Process. The only constraints in Kanban are Work-in-Progress (WIP) limits placed on the number of tasks that exist in this column at any one time. WIP limits, set by the team, should be realistic and not result in work overload for one or more team members. The number of tasks in the Doing column cannot exceed the established WIP limits; no new work can be entered into this column until the team completes the current work. This ensures that team members are always working on the highest-priority projects and do not deviate to other tasks.

Unlike Scrum, Kanban focuses on completing an entire project, rather than breaking down work into sprints; therefore, you may want to separate projects using horizontal swim lanes.

Because workflow is continuous in Kanban with no fixed iterations, a Kanban board never gets cleared and reset (unlike Scrum boards); new stories are constantly added with a designated priority and pulled into the Doing column once a previous task is completed.

Jim Benson, Owner of Modis Cooperandi and Personal Kanban guru, explains why Kanban boards work so effectively: “Visualizing tasks when prioritizing requires less energy than holding options in your head.”

In summary, your Kanban board should help you:

  • Visualize your work
  • Limit your work in progress
  • Adapt, monitor, and improve your process

How Kanban Got Its Start

Kanban got its start when Toyota decided to overhaul its assembly and production system in the early 1950s. Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System (TPS), drew inspiration for the early Kanban system when he noticed that grocery stores would only stock enough items on their shelves to meet customer demand. Ohno applied this concept to Toyota’s production plant—rather than maintaining large stockpiles of parts resulting in expensive storage, assemblers pulled parts on an as-needed, just-in-time basis. No backups of parts, no expensive storage needed, just a continuous process of drawing upon a small inventory of parts and completing the work.

As part of the process, Toyota introduced a simple production instruction card called a Kanban to track movement of inventory through the assembly process. The Kanban included product related information, and indicated which parts had been used and when inventory needed to be replenished.

Kanban entered the technology field in 2004 when management consultant David Anderson developed a streamlined “pull” system for Microsoft engineers to track and resolve software issues. Developers pulled an issue from a to-do pile to troubleshoot and resolve. Once resolved, the developer sent the software to the next stage of development. Microsoft’s Kanban process remained strictly virtual until 2007 when Corbis (Bill Gate’s image licensing company) introduced a visual whiteboard for tracking IT request tickets using post-it notes.

Today, a Kanban system refers to both the overarching methodology and the visual board itself.

Project Management Boards: Agile vs. Scrum vs. Kanban

The terms Agile, Scrum, and Kanban are often used interchangeably, which can cause confusion. Agile refers to an iterative approach to building software or managing workflow by accomplishing tasks incrementally. The concept of Agile was developed in 2001 by independent software developers as an alternative to the traditional Waterfall approach of completing software development all at once.

Both Scrum and Kanban fall under the Agile umbrella of incremental project management processes; they are the actual frameworks that put Agile methodology into practice. Scrum is a formal, structured process that breaks down projects into fixed-length increments (usually one to two weeks) called sprints. At the end of each sprint, the team is able to potentially ship a deliverable piece of software or product.

Kanban on the other hand, is more simplified and streamlined than Scrum. Kanban does not focus on fixed sprints of work, but rather on how much work is in progress at any given time. Kanban’s flexibility, scalability, and adaptability make it easy to apply to existing projects, including complex projects being worked on in an Agile environment, where a team may need more structure and columns to fully represent their projects.

A Deeper Look at Kanban

Kanban differs from Scrum in that it focuses on completing an entire project of work and not just individual sprints. Workflow in Kanban is measured in cycles—a cycle represents the amount of time it takes for a single task or work item to be completed. Cycles have no set time limits; rather, workflow is based on continuous delivery. As the team becomes more efficient in improving workflow, cycle times decrease as workflow and productivity are optimized—a process known as continuous improvement. As a result, forecasting the delivery of future projects becomes easier and more accurate.

The beauty of a Kanban board is its simplicity. With just three major columns and the focus being on the WIP column, bottlenecks in workflow are quickly revealed, allowing team members to immediately take action by “swarming in” to help move the project to the Done column. Unlike Scrum, Kanban teams are not required to be cross-functional—it is possible to have a team of specialists with similar skills working on a rapidly evolving product in a Kanban environment. Kanban also works well in creative environments.

Through the evolution of Kanban in knowledge-based industry four basic principles and six general practices have emerged.

The Four Principles of Kanban

  1. Start with what you do now: You do not have to start from scratch to apply the Kanban process. Kanban, with its focus on WIP, can be easily overlaid onto your current project and processes.
  2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change: Kanban is incremental by nature and therefore, focuses on making small, continuous changes to current processes that can be easily tracked. Major overhauls of processes are discouraged as large scale changes tend to be met with resistance.
  3. Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities, and titles: Kanban recognizes that your current processes have value and doesn’t mandate that existing processes be changed. Rather, Kanban introduces small, incremental changes into your current processes to contribute toward the overarching goal of continuous improvement. Your team will respond more readily to small adjustments rather than wide-sweeping changes.
  4. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels: In Kanban, leadership is not relegated to a designated few. Rather, the entire team is responsible for fostering kaizen—a mindset of continuous improvement leading to workflow optimization—a process that all team members can contribute to and embrace.


The Six General Practices of Kanban

In summary, the Kanban process embraces six practices:

  1. Visualize workflow: Seeing work progress across the Kanban Board is key to optimizing workflow and revealing bottlenecks in the pipeline. When team members can easily identify a problem, they can take specific steps to resolve the issues and put workflow back on track.
  2. Limit work in process (WIP): The WIP column plays a central role in the Kanban process. Limiting work-in-progress forces the team to focus on a limited number of tasks and drive work to completion.
  3. Manage flow: Consistently tracking and analyzing cycle times and other agreed-upon metrics leads to an ever-evolving process of fine-tuning and streamlining processes to improve workflow and forecast delivery.
  4. Make policies explicit: Kanban teams need to establish basic rules specific to their process, including when to move a work item to the next state, how to post WIP limits, how to flag impediments, and how to organize and maintain the board. Team members should also understand and buy into both the overall Kanban process and their own team’s guidelines and goals.
  5. Implement feedback loops: Scheduling Scrum-style standups, review, and retrospective meetings can be helpful for assessing what worked, what didn’t, and what can be improved for each project cycle. This holds especially true for new teams.
  6. Collaborate for improvement, evolve experimentally: With no set due dates, work in progress becomes the focus in Kanban with continuous improvement and delivery as the goal. As team members collaborate to troubleshoot problems and brainstorm new ideas, the process becomes more efficient and streamlined, and workflow is optimized.

Jim Benson, Owner of Modus Cooperandi and Creator of Personal Kanban, boils down the Kanban process even further into two simple rules: visualize your work and limit your work in progress. For more information, visit Personal Kanban.

What Are Some Pitfalls of Kanban?

Kanban is most effective when team collaboration is strong and team members are fully engaged with the Kanban board and process. Problems and pitfalls can arise when team members do not understand or are not fully involved with the process.

  • WIP Limits: WIP limits are a key area where teams can run into trouble. Your team needs to establish limits that are reasonable and then stick to them in order to keep work flowing smoothly. If in-progress work exceeds established limits or if limits are set too high, members may experience overload, putting workflow and delivery at risk. Problems may also arise if a team member veers off to work on a lower-priority task before finishing the one they pulled from the To Do column. It is essential that team members complete high-priority tasks first before moving on to the next.
  • Board Maintenance: A well-maintained Kanban board visually communicates workflow progress and impediments at a glance. Simplicity is key with Kanban—if a board is too cluttered or confusing, or is not being updated regularly to reflect the most work status, workflow is going to falter. If team members are having trouble figuring out where to place a card or are not able to track workflow status, it may be a good idea for the team to discuss how to restructure and simplify the board.
  • Collaboration and Communication: Each team member needs to take responsibility for the team’s success for the Kanban process to work. This includes being on board with established WIP limits and being willing to ‘swarm’ in to help another member if a task is at risk. On the other hand, a team member who tries to “own” a piece of the puzzle and not allow others to help puts the entire team’s productivity at risk. A lack of collaboration and communication between team members threatens the Kanban process and sabotages trust. If communication is failing, the team may want to add daily stand-up meetings, review, and/or retrospective meetings to their Kanban process.

Visualizing the Kanban Metrics

Kanban’s only metric is cycle time. So how do you measure intangible values such as continuous improvement and workflow optimization? Given Kanban’s focus on visualization, it is not surprising that some visual tools have emerged to measure the success of Kanban-managed projects. The most widely used of these are Control Charts and Cumulative Flow Diagrams.

Control Charts

In Kanban, each cycle represents the amount of time it takes to carry one task or piece of work through to completion. Control charts depict a series of cycle times over an established timeframe. Graphics, bar charts, or large dots can all be used to display cycle times. If the team is experiencing continuous improvement and operating at an optimal level, the control chart will display a downward curve of individual cycle times. The control chart visually directs the team toward future delivery goals.

Cumulative Flow Diagrams (CFD)

A Cumulative Flow Diagram is typically depicted as an area chart that displays the amount of work that existed in each work state over an established period of time. Each color in the CFD represents the three (or more) work states on your Kanban board. A CFD provides an effective visual for identifying team performance and bottlenecks at a glance.

Online and Digital Kanban Boards

The steady rise of flexibility in the workplace has driven the need for Kanban boards to become virtual, as well as visual representations of workflow. Online and digital Kanban software tools are rapidly becoming the tool of choice for organizations that are spread out, remote, or distributed globally. Online boards are web- or cloud-based; digital boards are apps that you can upload to your mobile device. Both are characterized by virtual cards that you can easily color code, and drag and drop both horizontally between work states and vertically between swim lanes, just as you would using a physical board. Both are accessible 24/7, and both can be shared instantly to collaborate with team members and stakeholders who are on site or remote.

The ability to expand virtual cards with notes and attachments, brand your board with your business’s logo and colors, view your data in multiple ways, and analyze data using built-in metrics are just a few of the ways you can turn your Kanban board into a robust online or digital asset. Some Kanban software tools can be integrated with third-party software such as Google Apps or JIRA, giving them an even stronger advantage over physical boards.

Excel Kanban Boards

The ability to move data between columns, filter and pivot data, and apply numerical formulas makes an Excel spreadsheet ideal for creating a rudimentary Kanban board. You can assign your three columns (lanes), add your tasks, and use color coding to give your board some of the visuality of a physical board.

Today’s more sophisticated Kanban software tools use an Excel-based spreadsheet as the data access layer for information displayed on virtual Kanban cards—how data is organized and filtered on the spreadsheet determines how it will be presented on the cards.

Scrum Kanban Boards and Scrumban

Scrum is a formal, structured process developed by Jeff Sutherland in 1993 as a framework for implementing Agile methodology. Scrum uses fixed-length iterations to drive workflow toward producing a potentially shippable, deliverable product or piece of software. The Scrum process includes its own set of specified roles, procedures, and meetings, and is designed to encourage team commitment, increase efficiency, and optimize workflow.

While Scrum is a specific project management framework, Kanban can be applied to existing Scrum processes. This hybrid of Scrum and Kanban is known as Scrumban. Scrum teams can use Kanban boards to visually zoom in on work-in-progress, make changes as needed, and identify logjams in the pipeline. Imposing limits on work-in-progress keeps work flowing smoothly and promotes continuous improvement.

Vice versa, a small Kanban startup team working on a rapidly evolving product may choose to incorporate Scrum daily standups and other meetings and roles into their Kanban process to enhance team communication and keep product development from derailing. This would also be an example of Scrumban.

As in Kanban, Scrumban operates according to the principle of making incremental changes. This makes Scrumban ideal for teams wanting to make the transition between Scrum and Kanban.

JIRA Kanban Boards

JIRA is a proprietary issue-tracking software developed by Atlassian in 2002. Originally developed to track software bugs, JIRA now incorporates an iterative project management approach for tracking issues. JIRA can be integrated with your project management tool to assign priorities, monitor workflow, and drive work through to completion—your online tool becomes the visual face for your Kanban board while JIRA operates in the background to manage your workflow. JIRA complements the Kanban process by automatically syncing updates with your online tool and ensuring that work status is always current. JIRA makes it easy to observe backlogs and set WIP limits.

Personal Kanban Boards

Now that you have learned how Kanban Boards can help improve workflow and increase productivity in a business environment, why not use them in other areas of your life as well? Kanban can be used in any type of situation that involves tracking work items and moving them to completion. In his book, Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, that he co-authored with Tonianne DeMaria Barry, Jim Benson stresses the importance of value over production—that is, how to use Personal Kanban to make your life better, as opposed to just getting more done.

A personal Kanban board can be used in any scenario where you can visualize a chunk of work, break it down into manageable components, and limit how many tasks you can physically accomplish at any one time. Personal Kanban projects are typically less defined and more unruly than those in a work environment. In most cases, you alone are responsible for completing the work, rather than a team; as a result, personal projects can feel overwhelming at times. Limiting your work-in-progress gives you the breathing room to completely finish one task before starting the next. As you move your cards across the board you will experience a sense of accomplishment and relief from stress as you move forward toward your goal.

Personal Kanban boards can be used to plan vacations, weddings, home improvement projects, or even in your own kitchen to plan weekly meals. A brightly colored Kanban board can inspire children to complete household chores with a feeling of accomplishment. Personal Kanban boards can be as simple as a chalkboard, as slick as a mobile app, or as decorative as frames covered in fabric and cord. Because personal Kanban boards are used in less structured, more fluid environments, you can adapt them in whatever way works best for you. Whatever style you use for your board, keep it simple and make it visual. Allow your personal Kanban board to pave the way toward increased productivity and reduced stress in your daily life.

Tips for Choosing the Right Kanban Board Software for Your Team

Here are seven tips for choosing a software tool that is customizable and meets the needs of your business or organization.

  1. Flexibility and Scalability: A smaller team in a flexible working environment is more likely to benefit from Kanban’s informal, streamlined process than a larger, more formal organization. Look for a tool that is easy to use yet provides a variety of customizable features that will accommodate your team’s work style and projects. If your team is planning to expand, select a tool that offers a high-degree of scalability.
  2. Sharing and Collaboration: Your Kanban software tool should provide multiple features for sharing and collaborating with team members, stakeholders, outside contractors, etc. Look for a tool that includes easy-to-use email integration and discussion options, as well as one that provides a means for exporting your board’s data. The tool should include a method for securing restricted information, with the ability to share only relevant or approved information with stakeholders and third parties.
  3. Card Display and Expandability: You will want your online Kanban board to resemble a physical board as much as possible. You should be able to easily color code your virtual cards, and drag and drop them between columns. Your tool should also allow you to expand your cards by adding notes, images, and reports—something you cannot do with a physical board.
  4. Ease of Use: A good Kanban board software tool should be easy to set up and intuitive to learn, with a clear correlation between card data and spreadsheet columns. Team members need to intuitively understand how to to implement features such as email sharing, color coding, and symbology.
  5. Drag and Drop/WIP Limits: Team members should be able to easily drag and drop cards between columns to reflect current work status and stay within WIP limits. Too many tasks in the WIP column can put workflow at risk; therefore, team members need to be able to drag and drop one or more cards back to the To-Do column. In addition, a tool that lets you toggle your card display between different sets of data, such as status or owner, will give you a higher degree of flexibility in viewing and tracking workflow.
  6. Metrics Reporting and Display: Your tool should include a Reports feature that allows you to compile, filter, and share information gleaned from spreadsheets and virtual cards. A tool that can also chart and display high-resolution, color-coded graphics such as Gantt charts, would be a valuable asset to your team.
  7. Integrable: Look for qualities that set one software tool apart from the rest, such as the capability to integrate with third party software. For example, a software tool that offers integration with JIRA’s issue tracking software will save team members valuable tracking time and eliminate duplicate entries. A tool that integrates with Google Apps would provide your team with the ability to communicate via Google Hangout, export to and import from Google Drive, and publish cycle times from your software’s calendar to Google’s live calendar.

If you are specifically looking for a digital Kanban app for your mobile device, learn how to choose the right Kanban app to meet your needs.

Create a Customized, Sharable Kanban Board with Smartsheet

Smartsheet is a spreadsheet-inspired task and project management tool with powerful collaboration and communication features. Smartsheet offers four flexible and easy-to-use interfaces—Gantt Chart, Card View, Calendar, and a traditional spreadsheet. This multi-view functionality let’s you categorize and filter task and project data, while simultaneously acting as a single data hub for all project information.

Smartsheet’s built-in, customizable Kanban Template automatically opens in Card View with default status columns—all you have to do is add virtual cards. Card View allows you to visually prioritize work and simulate the behavior of a physical board. Smartsheet makes it easy customize virtual cards with notes, images, and reports so that all card information resides in one easy-to access storage point. Furthermore, Smartsheet lets you Intuitively change lanes and filter cards to view your workflow from multiple perspectives.

Share your Kanban board with other stakeholders for easy collaboration and to keep everyone up to date on task and project status; alert team members of updates in real-time. Open discussions with team members or access Google Hangouts to join in chat or video calls. Display a calendar of your cycle times and sync with Google’s live calendar. You can also elect to sync your Kanban board with the JIRA tracking system.

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