Kanban Boards Are the Simplest (But Most Effective) Way to Manage Your Project Flow
The first time I encountered a kanban board was when I saw a friend use it to manage his personal work 15 years back. It was a simple 3-column “swimlane” view of all the things he was doing or planning to do. I came home that evening and drew two lines on my whiteboard dividing the whole board into three sections: to-do, doing, and done. It was so easy to keep track of my tasks and that helped me plan my whole day accordingly.
It wasn’t too late until I adopted this idea to work. I adapted the board to suit my work requirements and extended it to a few more columns. Then I built one for my team where everyone could collaborate on. We used small sticky notes and moved them around as we cruised past tasks.
What’s a kanban board?
Kanban is Japanese for “sign” or “billboard”. The system was popularized by Toyota.
The Kanban board is a system of organizing tasks and helps you visualize the flow of work from one stage to another. In other words, it lets you see the work units that have been started but not yet finished. The method utilizes a simple board and card system, allowing the entire team to see the larger picture as well as on individual tasks that need to be accomplished.
How to set up a kanban board
Almost every team at Kissflow–marketing, sales, customer support, and of course, engineering, uses kanban boards because of their flexible nature. That’s one of the most important reasons we chose the Kanban framework when we built our project management tool. To fully understand the potential of kanban boards, you must know how to set it up the right way and when to use it.
The first step is to design the board and map out the processes. From ideation to completion, think about the phases or stages you could divide your project into. There’s some value added to the “unit” at each stage. The simplest board has three phases while it could go up to a lot more depending on your project.
While it’s a simple tool, it won’t take much to overcomplicate this. Only add information that’s absolutely essential. Also, limit the number of work units in each column. This is called WIP constraints. If this becomes unwieldy, it becomes difficult for you to stay on top of your tasks. How large (or small) the WIP constraint is, depends on your team’s capacity. Ideally, it should be equal to the number of people it takes to handle that particular task. You need to make sure that work does not move on to the next column until space opens up for it.
The only time I make an exception to this rule is in the planning/ideation stage. I usually add a “buffer stage” next to this where I filter and temporarily store some of the tasks.
You’re almost done configuring the kanban board. The last important thing is you need to communicate the rules of your kanban. Establish priorities. I use a hybrid framework of FIFO, fixed date, and expedite. This lets some work units jump the queue. There may be unanticipated scope changes that need to be addressed immediately.
Pro tip: A kanban board is a work in progress. There’s no permanent configuration and be ready to make changes to your board periodically.
Managing project flow with kanban boards
Kanban boards help address a number of project management nightmares. They help manage the flow of the project across different stages and individuals.
The first column of the board acts as a to-do list. Every time someone in the team has an idea, we make a note of it there. The second stage is the buffer stage where we filter and screen plans based on priority, budget, resources, and other factors.
Also, I like to use a master board to keep track of all projects while individual boards for each project. The second board is more comprehensive and detailed and has the sub-tasks mapped out.
Since you have all the tasks and sub-tasks ready, you can assign individuals and deadlines to each work unit. A digital kanban board like Kissflow can help you visualize all the cards along with these details allowing you to get all the details in a glance.
The visual nature of the kanban boards makes it very easy for you to keep track of the progress. You can see the work flowing from one stage to another sequentially. It’s easy to keep track of metrics like cycle time, lead time, and throughput and ensure that everything is kosher.
Identifying bottlenecks and inefficiencies
Kanban boards help you quickly identify where tasks are being held up. If there’s a column that is full, then you know it’s a bottleneck that needs to be addressed. Either that stage needs more people or the amount of time required to complete those tasks was grossly underestimated.
Kanban is an incredibly powerful yet surprisingly simple tool that can help you stay on top of all your work progress. It plays well with Agile best practices and offers an excellent feedback loop. No matter the size and scope of your project, a kanban board can be your best friend.