What is Kanban? Definition, types and more

Kanban is a visual management tool that helps a team plan, track and prioritize their work. This article will give you a basic overview of what a kanban board is, how it works, and how you can use it to improve the way your teams work.

Nov 20, 2023
What is Kanban? Definition, types and more
Kanban is a visual management tool that helps a team plan, track and prioritize their work. You can think of it as the equivalent of a whiteboard in the office where you can sketch ideas out. It's basically an endless whiteboard for your team that tracks everything from individual tasks to entire projects.
This article will give you a basic overview of what a kanban board is, how it works, and how you can use it to improve the way your teams work.

What Is a Kanban Board?

Kanban board
Kanban board
A Kanban board is a visual representation of the workflow in a project. It is similar to an Excel spreadsheet, but can be used for any type of project.
It has five columns with two main types of cards: tasks and subtasks. The first column represents the work that needs to be done in order to complete the project, while the second column lists what steps need to be taken next.
The third column holds tasks and subtasks that are waiting for their turn in the system, while the fourth column is for planning purposes and holding those tasks until they are needed. The fifth column is reserved for future planning or changes that may need to happen after completion of the current step.

Elements of a kanban board

There are three elements of a kanban board.
1. The Kanban is the most important element in the board and should be visible to everyone on the team so they know what their responsibilities are for that day.
2. The Processes show how work will flow through the system from one step to another. This includes all stages like planning, performing, tracking, and closing tasks as well as any other processes necessary for each stage of the process.
3. The Storyboard shows when each process is done, what tasks need to be completed next, and when they can be reviewed by someone else or finished off with a sign-off.

Lanes on a Kanban Board

There are five lanes on a Kanban board.
1. Create – this lane is for anything new or beginning stage of the process that needs to happen during any given day and will require some more thought about how it should progress through the system before being put into action by someone else. Some examples of tasks in this lane might be creating a task, scheduling meetings, brainstorming ideas at meetings, collecting research papers from others so that they can get
a more detailed idea of what they should be working on.
2. Track – tracks work that is being done or other information as it progresses through the system. The track lane colors may vary so people can easily tell which process a particular task belongs in at a glance, like green for creating tasks and orange for handing them off to another person/taking corrective action if something goes wrong (such as fixing faulty cards). This is where progress will also
be tracked.
3. Review – show processes that require someone to review work and give feedback before it can be completed without causing harm or additional disruption (like the deadline getting missed due to rushed scheduling). tasks in this lane might include continuous improvement brainstorming, coaching people on what they are doing well, reviewing milestones if appropriate.
4. Perform – shows where tasks happen during a day so others know how busy they should expect the person working on them to be, which helps create the workable workflow. This is where tasks will go to begin being completed; they may also come offdone by someone else or finished off with a sign-off.
5. Hold – indicates anything in this lane is not yet available for others to see and should still remain confidential until necessary. These are tasks that should not be included in regular work communication and should only be communicated with the person who is listed on the card, like sensitive conversations or meetings to discuss confidential information.

Kanban Cards

A kanban card is a two-dimensional representation of a team's workflow. It contains information about their current tasks, and has visual cues to help visualize where work should lie in the process.
A kanban card has three areas:
1. Lane - this is where the work will get visible to others and will often be where a sign-off can happen, things are stored for later use or waiting for approval before moving into other lanes of the process, it may contain a list of tasks that does not require communication with others unless specified on the cards.
2. Process Area – shows processes used when doing certain tasks in order to help direct people where to go next.
3. Summary Area – briefs the audience on what happens when something goes through this lane, who is ultimately responsible for it and other information depending on the task being completed or visibility from its location in process area.

Managing Flow with a Kanban Board

The kanban board is a visual process flow chart that both details each step involved and helps organize the workflow. When looking at their layout, there are three processes to remember:
1. Focused Work - this encompasses all tasks related specifically to one part of the work such as project scope definitions or designing new product features.
2. Background Actions – background activities keep activity going while waiting on conditions or events in the future so they can be done at the first possible opportunity.
3. Backlog – these are tasks that need to be done when time allows and usually will require more than one person’s effort in order to complete them properly or take multiple steps within the same process. Ideally, backlogs should only contain short-term work on which decisions have already been made, but it's not always feasible with limited workload capacity so they may also include long term projects needing further discussion or negotiation.

Types of Kanban Boards

Essentially, there are three types of kanban boards. The first is a standard board with process lanes and tasks arranged on the wallboard across each other:
1. Single lane or vertical layout – this version has one or two separate processes so it can be less confusing for those unfamiliar with working on kanban boards, but none specifically focused on background activities. This is where all work gets marked out at once to get pulled from future by managers
as they get assigned one at a time.
2. Double lane or horizontal layout – more essential tasks are organized on each side of the board with background activities down towards the bottom and focused work in which management will pull from during different parts of their day, typically top to bottom:
a) Focused Work - focus on designing new product features, processing project scope definitions or conducting customer interviews etc., all projects requiring prioritization by managers over immediate or short-term ones.
b) Schedule - business context we need to consider over time, forecasting customer events and strategic planning. These should be managed by managers in coordination with the team as they come up so it's not just waiting on one person's availability ad hoc.
c) Background – this is where things get done that may not have a designated time slot but demand attention sooner or later: inventory control, general cleanliness etc.
3. Three-Lane or Vertical layout – the board has three lanes which is generally seen at more advanced stages of a project where you have three distinct phases to its lifecycle:
a) What's In Progress - this lane gets used for all work in progress, tasks that are still being worked on and/or unfinished from prior shifts but removed as completed by management mid-day when they assign these tasks back onto the team.
b) What's Completed - these get progressively removed and a new set of tasks is added onto this row as you work through the board making way for what would be called next session.
c) Next Session – when a team has completed their responsibilities within that lane they turn it over to manage the following lane, effectively working back down again toward your starting point:e.g., completing one phase before beginning another in order to free up time for someone to take over.

How to create a Kanban Board

The Kanban Board is a tool that helps to visualize workflow. It consists of cards and columns. The cards are placed in the columns, with each card representing a specific task or work item that is being completed.
To create a Kanban Board:
  1. Set up your Kanban board by creating three columns on the left-hand side of your screen.
  1. Create an "In Progress" column in the middle of the board where you will put cards that are currently being worked on.
  1. Add one more column to the right-hand side of your screen called "Completed". Place completed cards in this column, either at the bottom or top depending on how many tasks you have going on simultaneously.
  1. To add new tasks to the board, simply drag them from the "In Progress" column into any other column except for "Completed".

FAQ about kanban boards

1. How is kanban different from scrum?

Scrum is a team-based, time-boxed process which helps people to deliver working software at the end of every sprint. Kanban is an alternative process where work gets pulled from different queues to be done in parallel.
Kanban is suitable for projects that require frequent releases and frequent changes. Scrum is suitable for projects that have a fixed release date or are meant to be developed over long periods of time.

2. What are the kanban principles?

The kanban principles are the principles that drive how to manage a project with Kanban.
The following are the four principles of the kanban system:
1. Pull System - The process is based on people pulling their work from a central location, which is called a "kanban board".
2. Limit Work in Progress (WIP) - Limit the amount of work in progress for each person or team at any given time so they can focus on what's most important and complete it before moving onto other tasks.
3. Responsive Process - A process that responds to changes in demand by changing what needs to be done next, rather than trying to predict demand ahead of time and assign resources accordingly.
4. Continuous Improvement - Continuously improve your process without requiring a major overhaul or replacing it entirely; this means making small improvements that add up over time into significant benefits for your business, such as increased productivity and reduced costs due to fewer mistakes made by staff or machines and less waste production, while maintaining high quality standards throughout all stages of development.

Wrapping up

Kanban boards are a simple and effective tool for managing work in progress. They are used to visualize the flow of work through a company or organization, which helps workers identify bottlenecks and reduce their time spent on routine tasks. While they may seem intimidating at first, kanban boards can be created using online tools like Trello or Asana. If you want to learn more about how kanban boards can help your business, read our other blog posts!