What Is Kanban?

Kanban is a project management methodology that gives project managers full transparency into the task management process. The kanban method consists of principles, practices, kanban boards and kanban cards.

The kanban method was originally created as a lean manufacturing tool to maximize production efficiency. Since then it has become a great task management tool for DevOps and agile teams and has evolved to be used in different industries such as software development.

Kanban software takes the basic visual approach of a kanban board and cards and digitizes it, so now workflow can be seen by the whole team. It makes organization easier and helps project managers and teams manage the workflow better. Therefore, the software fulfills the lean project management core practice of continuous improvement. Cutting waste and automating some aspects of the process through kanban board software features allows agile teams to focus on their activities.

ProjectManager does all this and more. Build automated workflows for your kanban processes, and even work in different views. Build plans with Gantt, then execute in kanban, then track with dashboards. It’s all in one powerful software. Get started for free.

kanban software with kanban board

Kanban Principles

Before we learn about kanban boards, kanban cards and WIP limits, let’s learn the principles of the kanban methodology.

  • Start with what you’re doing now. Don’t make changes to your process immediately, but use kanban for your current workflow.
  • Changes occur organically over time and shouldn’t be rushed.
  • Evolutionary change is incremental, not radical, so as not to give teams cause for alarm or resistance.
  • Respect current roles and responsibilities, and allow teams to collaboratively identify and implement any changes.
  • Encourage leadership from everyone to help keep the mandate of continuous change for maximizing improvements.

How to Use Kanban for Project Management

To explain how to use the kanban method to manage your projects we must first define its main components: kanban boards, kanban cards and WIP limits.

Once we know what they are and how to use them, we’ll be able to explain how to use them in project management.

What Is a Kanban Board?

A kanban board is a visual way to manage tasks and workflows, which utilizes an analog or digital board with columns and cards. The kanban cards represent tasks, and the columns organize those tasks by their progress or current stage in development.

Related: Free Kanban Board Template for Excel

Kanban—which is the Japanese word for “billboard”—was developed by Toyota in the 1940s. It was originally a task management system to execute lean manufacturing. It was designed to improve the Toyota production system efficiency by limiting supplies and resources to what was needed for the immediate work items. Today, kanban boards are used in nearly every industry, most notably in agile software development.

Agile project management teams enjoy using this system due to its ease of use, visual interface and ability to instantly see what everyone is working on. It also provides visibility into task progress, and whether a specific task is holding up the project.

The benefits of the kanban methodology are myriad. As mentioned, it offers a visual means to manage workflow. The kanban board puts the whole process on one page or screen, so it’s easy to see who is working on what and where that falls in the project cycle. Team effort can be focused solely on the task that is needed now, so that work is done faster.

The kanban system keeps work moving without interruption. Project managers can assign work when a team member is idle, and team members always have a task to work on. This process facilitates the smooth movement of workflow, avoiding bottlenecks and overloaded teams with too many assignments at once.

Elements of a Kanban Board

The kanban board is part of the larger kanban project management system. It helps to visualize workflow, keep only what needs to be done in progress, and by doing so, maximizes task management efficiency.

The kanban board represents the overall project and is usually broken up into three columns: to do, in progress and done. Kanban cards represent each task in your project, and they’re placed in one of those columns. You can set work-in-progress (WIP) limits to define how many work items can be executed at the same time.

The beauty of the kanban board is its simplicity, and its ability to portray the project in a practical way. Each column is a stage in the project, so the board gives teams and project managers an overview at a glance. Teams can see what they’re assigned to work on, and managers can track progress.

What Is a Kanban Card?

Kanban cards live on the kanban board, and each one represents an individual task, also referred to as work items. Each kanban card is filled with information related to that task, such as its name and a short description. They will also be assigned to the team member or members, who will be responsible for executing the task by the deadline. With ProjectManager, any supporting files for your work items can be added and there is also a comment box for team collaboration.

Kanban Columns

As noted above, columns reside on the board and are a way to break up the different stages in the project workflow. Kanban cards are organized under the column headings and are dragged to the next column to the right to indicate where in the production cycle or workflow they are.

Work-in-Progress (WIP) Limits

In order to optimize efficiencies and avoid overcapacity, project managers need to set WIP limits to control the number of work items that are placed within the different stages of the kanban board at a time. By limiting the amount of tasks collected in the work-in-progress column, for instance, agile software development teams can concentrate on only those crucial tasks and get their work done faster. WIP limits also help optimize lean manufacturing processes.

Kanban Swimlanes

Horizontal lanes on kanban boards can also be helpful. They’re called swimlanes and help to separate different work items, activities, teams, services, etc.

What is Kanban Software?

Naturally, to execute a kanban system you need some sort of a kanban board, but it doesn’t necessarily need a digital platform. The structure is simple and could be applied with a wall and a bunch of sticky notes in columns. However, the right kanban software can help project managers and their teams visualize their workflow and collaborate even better.

Kanban software facilitates the continuous improvement of the production process. That’s because it has added task management features, such as tracking, WIP limits, reporting functionality, forecasting and more.

Web-based kanban software further adds efficiencies for kanban teams by being accessible from everywhere and at any time. This is a boon for remote or distributed teams, keeping them in communication and fostering collaboration. Also, with an online project management software, updates are instant and changes go live immediately. This adds to efficiencies as the project manager and teams are able to see the actual progress of the workflow.

To learn more about kanban software, watch the short video below.

Project management training video (8cbjgsisvj)

Desktop vs. Online Kanban Software

Your choice of either a desktop or a web-based online kanban software really depends on your (or your organization’s) needs. Desktop software tends to be more popular with larger, more established organizations who might be more reluctant to change; whereas web-based kanban tools are generally preferred by smaller organizations, more modern large companies, and startups.

Desktop Kanban Software

Some of the benefits of using desktop kanban board software include:

  • Security: While online kanban software continues to become more secure, a desktop program untethered to the internet is going to have fewer points of entry.
  • Customization: In general, a desktop program is more likely to customize to your needs than an online one.
  • Work Offline: Obviously, a desktop kanban software can continue to work even if you have a disruption in your online service.

Web-Based Online Kanban Software

Here are some of the benefits of using online kanban software:

  • No Installation: Online software doesn’t require lengthy installs and usually online kanban tools don’t need a lengthy period of training.
  • Subscription Model: Desktop applications tend to be expensive and more so for each team member you license to use it. Online kanban board tools usually are pay-as-you-go and offer tiers of varying payment plans.
  • Real-Time Data: Because updates are instantly reflected in the kanban tool, you know where your project is at that moment and not a point in the past — better data, better decisions.

Choosing the best kanban software for your project is an important decision. Some project managers might just prefer the old-fashioned desktop version even as the project management industry increasingly moves online.

However, if you’re working with teams and they’re distributed across the country or the world, online kanban software erases the distance between them. They can collaborate, communicate and work more productively together.

Benefits of Kanban Software

When you have a team working on a project, it’s important to direct them, but not get in their way. Kanban boards offer task management transparency for project managers, who get a window into the production cycle. They can see where the tasks are and reallocate resources as needed to keep the work flowing forward.

Teams get to manage their own work items, plan sprints, collect their backlog and execute the tasks of highest priority first. They know what to do when. All this is facilitated by kanban software. Here are a few of the reasons why kanban software is so important.

  • Keeps tasks organized
  • Create customized workflows
  • Share boards for collaboration
  • Track production of tasks in real-time

Must-Have Kanban Software Features

Kanban software varies in terms of what tools it offers, so when you’re looking to use one be sure it has these features.

Work How You Want

No two projects are exactly the same, nor are the teams that execute them. Therefore, kanban boards need to reflect this flexibility with customizable columns. You want to add as many as you need and name them whatever you want.

Custom Columns image

Get Teams Working Together

Connecting your team, wherever they might be, boosts productivity. Sharing kanban boards and being able to add comments to cards gives your team a platform to collaborate. Get a real-time tool that will notify you whenever there’s an update to the task, too.

Collaboration image

Hold All Important Documents in One Place

Giving direction helps teams execute their tasks better. Being able to add files and images directly to a kanban card makes those directions more clear. In fact, having unlimited file storage to keep all your project documents in one place would be ideal.

File Attachments image

Sort Through Your Task With Ease

Projects have many tasks, finding the one you want can be an ordeal. If you tag your kanban cards for priority, type of work, team, etc., filtering the tasks will bring up just what you want to see without having to dig through every file on the tool.

Filters image

View Project Status Anytime

Managers need to monitor their project to keep them on track. Kanban boards offer transparency into production, but a dashboard calculates other project metrics. It shows what you’re spending, the overall health of the project, variance, time and much more.

Dashboards image

Make as Many Projects as You Like

Some kanban software can only manage one project at a time—more will cost you. But you want to have a tool that can handle as many projects as you need. Even one project is really more like a bunch of sub-projects and you need a kanban tool that can accommodate them all.

Multiple Projects image

How to Use Kanban Boards for Project Management

ProjectManager, a cloud-based project management software, is an ideal kanban software for project managers and teams. It visualizes workflow and has task management features that make assigning and executing tasks as simple as a keystroke.

To use the kanban view with ProjectManager, start a free 30-day trial. Then, upload your task list, or create a new project. Follow this step-by-step guide below to get started with ProjectManager’s free kanban board.

1. Add Columns to your Kanban Board

The traditional kanban process has three columns: To Do, Doing and Done. But you can title the columns whatever suits your workflow. There can be as many columns as you need to visualize the various task management stages. But, basically, this is a flow from assigned to executing to complete.

Standard kanban board setup in projectmanager's software

2. Add Kanban Cards

Now, beneath the To Do column, add the individual tasks or work items to the kanban board. Your kanban cards should have a descriptive title so they can be easily understood. Remember to define WIP limits to control how many kanban cards are being executed at the same time.

ProjectManager's Kanban boards, ideal for manufacturing and software development projects

3. Add Description and Assign Task

Write a description on your kanban cards to provide instructions for the task. The kanban card can then be assigned to one or more team members, and supporting documents or images can be attached to it. These kanban cards will move to the Work-in-Progress column as they’re being executed and to the Done column when complete.

ProjectManager's kanban board

4. Collaborate on Tasks

You can open up your task right from the kanban view. Throughout the process, comments can be added at the task level, and team members will get email notifications when an @ is added before their name. This keeps everyone on the same page and enables real-time team collaboration.

Tasks in the ProjectManager kanban board view

6 Core Practices of Kanban

  1. Visualize workflow, whether through a physical board or software.
  2. Limit work-in-progress to keep teams executing tasks quickly.
  3. Manage and improve workflow by observing work and resolving bottlenecks.
  4. Be explicit with process policies: define and share them.
  5. Have feedback loops, such as review stages, to deliver the end-product to the customer as quickly as possible.
  6. Be collaborative and experimental to always push for improvement.

What Is Kanban Used For?

Now that we’ve learned how kanban works, let’s go through its most common applications in project management: Lean manufacturing, agile software development and scrum.

Kanban and Lean Manufacturing

A kanban system can manage the whole value chain of any lean manufacturing production process. That is, from the supplier to the end customer and all points in between. It does so by helping project managers with inventory control and task management throughout the production cycle from ordering parts and components to creating the production schedule.

In order to use kanban for lean manufacturing, kanban cannot be an isolated tool but must be used throughout the entire value chain. That’s necessary as lean project management continuous improvement principle requires to constantly remove waste from processes while keeping resources balanced with the needs of production.

For example, bottlenecks slow down production because there is too little supply or too much supply for the resources allocated to the process. Kanban helps manage production inventory by using a pull system to control workflow. That pull system consists in adding more work items to the kanban board, only when other tasks have been completed.

This facilitates resource allocation, because it gives project managers time to prepare resources for the next tasks in the queue and organizes the whole production process. Given time, the kanban method achieves its goal of increasing production efficiencies.

Kanban and Agile Software Development

Kanban is a very popular project management approach for agile software development. That’s because kanban and agile have principles and practices that are compatible. Agile is seeking continuous iteration, and kanban seeks continuous improvement. While agile works best when the final goal is not set and adapts as the project progresses, kanban works to reduce waste and eliminate those activities that are not adding value.

Agile software development teams work in short sprints, of usually no more than two weeks, and kanban strives for short cycle times as well, so it can deliver its features faster. Both are tethered to constant communications to enhance collaboration.

One of the main reasons why agile teams love kanban is that kanban boards are a great visual tool to manage the user stories of software development projects, while providing an overview of the whole project.

Kanban vs. Scrum

Agile is an iterative and incremental project management approach, and scrum is one of the implementations of agile. So, how do kanban boards and scrum get along?

Many teams that are using scrum in projects find kanban a powerful tool. Scrum and kanban can work together, especially as a way to visualize workflow. But they also complement each other, as both focus on process and the elimination of waste.

There are differences however: roles and responsibilities in a kanban system are not pre-defined like they are in scrum. Kanban is not scrum. It’s visual, and scrum is iterative.

However, kanban can be customized to fit in a scrum framework to manage projects, workflow and processes. There’s even a project management methodology called scrumban that mixes elements of both scrum and kanban.