4 Must-Have Features for a Kanban Tool

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There are many kanban tools on the market today, and they all have different feature sets. There are simple drag-and-drop tools for organizing to-do lists, planning systems for agile teams and hybrid tools for robust project management.

After reviewing dozens of these tools, we’ve found that there are four specific features of a kanban tool that are must-haves for any serious user.

But before we dive in and discuss those features, let’s first explain what exactly we mean when we say “kanban tool.”

What is a Kanban Tool?

A kanban tool is a project management system used to visually organize work into different phases. Cards are dragged from one phase to the next, illustrating a workflow as it happens.

Kanban tools were born from the lean manufacturing process at Toyota in the 1980s. “Kanban” is the Japanese word for “billboard,” so it makes sense why they are sometimes also called kanban boards.

Agile and product development teams have used kanban tools for many years, but they are now catching on with a wider audience. They are helpful for any team or company that wants to better understand their workflow and stay organized.

Must-Have Features in a Kanban Tool

As mentioned earlier, kanban tools have a wide range of features, ranging from extremely simple to complex. We sorted through all of the features and pulled out the most important ones to look for as you search for the right software.

1. Collaboration

Kanban is certainly a helpful tool to keep an individual’s work organized, but where kanban really shines is in its ability to help teams stay organized. A good kanban tool will, therefore, have features that allow teams to collaborate in an effective way.

ProjectManager.com Kanban Board with Collaboration Feature
An example of collaborating on a task while using a kanban board.

Shared Tasks

Projects are dynamic and collaborative, so sometimes there are tasks that require the efforts of more than one person. Look for a tool that allow tasks to have multiple “owners,” so that multiple people can work together to finish the task together.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Task Management

Commenting

In order to collaborate efficiently, an online kanban tool should enable communication at the task level. Task owners can chat about a task, and the history of the conversation will be recorded for all stakeholders to see. Commenting can be used to ask for feedback, to give feedback, to add additional task information or to link to other relevant information.

2. Custom Columns

The most basic kanban tools on the market stick to the simple three column standard of to-do, doing, and done.

  • To-do: These are the tasks that need to be worked on. Agile teams sometimes refer to this column as the “backlog.”
  • Doing: These tasks are currently being worked on. In Agile projects, all of the tasks from the most recent sprint would be found in this column.
  • Done: These tasks have been completed and can be considered finished.

While this is a helpful way to visualize the work at hand, it is also limiting. Most teams find that their actual project workflows are much more complicated than three steps. This is why the best kanban tools will allow column customization, giving you much more control to build out custom workflows to fit your needs.

For example, the standard three-column layout ignores the fact that, oftentimes, tasks need to be reviewed by a manager before being considered “done”. In this case, in your kanban tool you could add a 4th column called “in review.” Your new columns would be:

  • To-do
  • Doing
  • In-Review
  • Done

The best kanban tools will allow you to add/remove/edit columns however you’d like, so that you can use the kanban board in more creative ways. For example, you could instead label each column with a person’s name, so at any point a manager can quickly see who is managing what task.

Custom Columns on a Kanban Board in ProjectManager.com
An example of a kanban board with custom columns in ProjectManager.com⁠—Try It Free!

With customization, there are endless ways to use kanban in an organization. This is why it’s so important to find a kanban tool that gives you the flexibility to change the boards to fit your individual needs.

3. Rich Cards

While simple kanban tools have task cards mimicking a basic sticky note, the best kanban tools on the market will have rich cards that allow for much more information to be included.

A kanban tool with rich cards will allow you to click into a card and expand it to find more information like:

  • Detailed Description
  • Progress Percentage
  • Time Tracking
  • Sub-tasks
  • Attachments
  • Comments

All of these additional features make the kanban tool much more useful to your organization, as they allow your team to work entirely in one platform. For example, with rich task cards you don’t need to use a separate time tracking system, because you can track time right there on the task.

kanban board in ProjectManager.com with task details expanded
ProjectManager.com lets you manage every aspect of your task.

You also won’t need a separate file storage system because you’ll be able to attach and store files at the task level or project level. Rich cards give you the ability to streamline your entire workflow into a central area so that your team can work more efficiently together.

4. Reporting

Kanban tools are primarily used to execute work, but execution is only one phase of a robust project management process. Once work is completed, it is crucial that teams, managers and stakeholders can review the work to learn important information about what worked well, and what can be improved.

The best kanban software will include reporting functions that allow you to harvest important information about the project process both during, and after the work is complete.

Reporting During The Work

A manager’s job is to oversee the progress of their team. One way to achieve this is to use a kanban tool with a real-time dashboard. A dashboard is a visual screen of project information that is displayed as charts and graphs. A dashboard gives real-time information about a variety of measurable data points including:

  • Progress: How many tasks are open vs. how many are complete?
  • Cost: Is a project within its budget or are costs running over?
  • Workload: Which employees are managing their work and who is overloaded?
  • Timeline: Is the project as a whole on track to be completed on time?
Project Dashboard for tracking
Track your project in real time with a dashboard.

Reporting After The Work

While a dashboard is helpful for looking at project information in real-time, the best kanban tools will also have reporting features that allow you to export reports so that you can share them with project stakeholders.

Related: Stakeholder Analysis 101

In contrast to a dynamic, real-time dashboard, these reports present static plots of data that summarize information about the project. There are numerous types of project reports that can be helpful to a manager or team leader, including:

  • Portfolio Status
  • Project Status
  • Project Plan
  • Tasks
  • Timesheets
  • Availability
  • Workload
  • Variance
An example of a task report for a project

Choosing ProjectManager.com’s Kanban Tool

ProjectManager.com offers all of the above features, and more. The tool was built with range in mind, making it the perfect choice for anyone considering implementing a kanban tool for the first time. ProjectManager.com’s kanban is built into a wider project management platform, giving teams options on how they want to plan their work.

First, the kanban board can be used on its own to create workflows for individuals or teams. In this way, the board is a simple kanban tool for organizing work. There is even a kanban tool called “my work” that allows individuals to organize their personal to-lists into their own kanban board.

Kanban board used for personal task management
Manage your work how you want.

And since kanban boards are also built into the broader project management software, boards can also be used for large shared projects.

A project manager or team leader can even create a project timeline using a Gantt chart, then the team can interact with that same project as a kanban instead. This gives teams with different work styles the ability to choose the way they organize their work. ProjectManager.com offers a true hybrid project management platform.

Whether you’re an individual looking to organize your own work, or a large agile development team seeking a new kanban solution, ProjectManager.com has the tools you need. ProjectManager.com is used by over 10,000 teams all over the world to get organized and do amazing things. Sign up today and get your first 30 days of the kanban software for free.

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