May 19, 2017

The Versatility of Kanban Boards in Project Management

Written by
Laurentiu Bancu

In Japanese, the term Kanban means “signboard” or “billboard.” It was originally a scheduling and inventory-control system used by Toyota to standardize the way parts in their JIT (just-in-time) production lines moved from one stage to another.

Engineer Taiichi Ohno came up with the idea after seeing a similar system in a US supermarket, where store shelves were filled with products that meet customer demand, and they were refilled when there was a visual sign. Taiichi was smart enough to observe that this shelf-stocking technique could be applied to a manufacturing process.

ALSO READ: 4 Reasons to Choose Kanban Over List-Based Tools

Toyota used six rules in their application of Kanban, and the initial process was fairly simple:
add a card to an item at a specific point in production. When work is completed at that stage, you remove the card, move the item to the next logical stage, and add a different card to it. Most projects involve the creation and production of physical and digital goods, so adopting kanban and implement the system into various types of projects was a no-brainer.

Understanding the Basics

The most straightforward way to implement a Kanban system is with a board, markers, and sticky notes.

Kanban System Dry EraseEven if it implies more manual work, it allows you to design a board consistent with the project workflow.

A better alternative might be dedicated Kanban software or project management software that includes a Kanban module. In the long run, the software will save you a lot of time (e.g. automatic notifications are sent when a task is assigned/completed, so you don’t have to inform the project manager or manually update each card). It’s also less error-prone, compared to the previous option. In a project management platform, cards don’t fall off the board, and there are fewer manual actions that could lead to human error. Still, it may initially take some time to test various systems and decide which is best for your team

Kanban board: Paymo

A simple Kanban board in Paymo.

You can start by adding all activities or tasks in a “To Do” column. There’s also a “backlog” column, where you can add ideas and tasks that might be addressed at some point, but you haven’t committed to yet. An “in progress” column contains the tasks that your team is currently working on, and the “done” column (obviously) contains completed tasks.

From there, the process is straightforward: you move a task through all stages, Backlog → To do → In progress → Done. At any point during the lifecycle of a project, you have a clear picture of what’s going on and which team members are involved.

The Kanban system is so simple and efficient that it can be applied to many types of projects, regardless of industry or product:

  • Software development
  • Design projects
  • Architectural or engineering plans
  • Marketing campaigns
  • Editorial calendars
  • IT systems implementation

Custom Columns and Advanced Functionality

Beyond the basic workflow outlined above, you can use Kanban Boards to define custom columns and adapt the system to your unique process.

In the following example, the “In progress” status column has been split into three steps that represent the process a task goes through: Analyze → Implement → Verify.

The columns can also be used to group tasks by user or team and to define priorities.

You’ll sometimes find yourself in a situation where you need define some constraints in order to keep work organized and on pace (e.g. you don’t want your employees to work on more than two tasks simultaneously). Instead of micromanaging, you can set these parameters by defining queues and work-in-progress (WIP) limits in your Kanban software.  

You can also use customized columns to identify bottlenecks in the process. Imagine you have a person working on wireframes for a website and a designer that has to work on those wireframes and build the pages.

Kanban board example

When you look at this board, you can easily identify the problem: there are no completed wireframes at this time, and the graphic designer has no work in progress. The conclusion is simple: the person who works on the wireframes needs to hurry up.

You’ve seen how you can prioritize tasks in a column (by reordering them) but you can also create special columns to define various levels of prioritization. For example, you can create a special “Urgent” column for tasks that need to be completed within 24 hours.

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As you can see, Kanban is a versatile tool that adapts to various types of workflows. The vast majority of the apps on the market offer enough functionality and customization in order to cover all the above scenarios (and many others). If you want to save time, before you start testing different apps, you could map the most common workflows inside your company and then test these with several different apps.


Laurentiu Bancu is the marketing manager at Paymo. He covers project management, web analytics, and advertising. Connect with him on LinkedIn.