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Kanban Board - What It Is, How It Works, Why Use It?

What is a Kanban Board?

A Kanban board is a tool for the visual representation of the work items and their flow. Columns on the board represent the different states or stages of the process and the order of the columns shows the flow of the process. For example: “To Do”, “Doing” and “Done”.

What is a Kanban board? Example with Kanban flow and cards.

Cards on the board represent the work items. They can have various names. For example: “Explain what’s a Kanban board”, “Explain how it works”, “Explain why you should use it”, etc.

Cards (work items) usually start from the left column (e.g. To Do - planned work), move through the middle columns (e.g. Doing - work item is currently being worked on) and end on the right column (e.g. Done - work item is finished).

Also, cards on the board are ordered vertically with the top card having the highest priority and the bottom card having the lowest priority.

This is in essence what is a Kanban board. “Kanban” (and not Kan Ban nor Kanba) means “sign” or “visual signal” in Japanese. Thus, its core concept is using visualization and giving proper signals on where the problems lie or how to act. That is why this board is a crucial element of the Kanban method from which it originates.

One of the biggest strengths of the Kanban board is making intangible work visible. Because of this, you will find many variations of it in Agile, Scrum, and DevOps teams. They may be called differently, like an Agile Board or a Scrum Board (some even refer to it as an Agile project management tool but I would say that’s too much of a stretch). However, all of those are just variations of the original.

There are various additional concepts like using the pull system, limiting work-in-progress (WIP limits), maximizing flow efficiency, process policies, swarming, improving cycle time and lead time, and many more that we will tackle later on, but the beauty of the Kanban board is that even in its simplest form - it has tremendous power!

This visualization of the work and the process enables us to see otherwise invisible work or hard-to-spot problems, and this gives us the ability to act just in time, optimize and continuously improve. By doing this you can skyrocket your productivity and value delivery while cutting down on costs and removing waste in the process.

Physical or an Online Kanban board?

Both types of boards have their upsides and downsides.

Physical boards are great because you can always put them in your workspace and have them as information radiators. They are always there and you just need to take a glance to understand exactly what is happening at the moment with your team or to see what work is coming your way soon.

Also, when you are there you will notice when a colleague has moved something to a new state and you are passing on information without even speaking a word. It’s always so easy to stand in front of the board and start a constructive conversation because it’s just there and your teammates are there as well.

And just the act of creating a board together or mapping out work with real stickies and interactions is already a much richer experience than doing it online. Not to mention the shared understanding that happens in this process.

Simple physical Kanban board example.

On the other hand, physical boards and cards are not that easy to change like online Kanban tools are. And after Covid-19, it’s quite hard to rely on physical assets if half of your team (or your whole team) is working remotely. It’s just not sustainable.

Also, online boards have a ton of automated features that are just enormously more difficult to do on a physical board. Even with a simple limitation of work in progress - you have to count items each time you move them, while an electronic tool does that for you and flags it for everyone, or even sends notifications if you want it to do that.

Or if you want to count how many days an item was in progress, and especially if you want to track metrics, or do a flow analysis. That just takes too long for most people so they don’t track metrics and miss one of the biggest sources for improvement.

Free Online Kanban Board Tool in ProdGoal - Simple Example

This is not the case for online tools. But you need to try it yourself and be the judge of it.

In case you would like to try it online, but are wondering is Kanban board free, ProdGoal is a free online Agile and Kanban project management tool with excellent Kanban board capabilities. Feel free to try it out and you can cancel anytime.

How Kanban board works?

Kanban board works by creating a column for each step in your process, ordered based on how they are being done. Then you write work items on the cards and map them on the appropriate board columns, ordering them from top to bottom according to their priority in the column. The card with the highest priority goes on top.

As items are being worked on, you move the cards along the board columns when their work state changes. When the priority of cards changes, you move them along the vertical axis of the board.

How Kanban Board works? Example with Kanban flow and cards.

This gives you a very good overview of your work, workflow, and the priority of items. The Kanban board is “read” from the right (end of the Kanban flow) to left (beginning of the Kanban flow). And also from the top (the most important items) to the bottom (the least important items).

The focus is to move as many items as possible to the rightmost (Done) column. So, you always start from the right side and see which items you can work on to get them to Done. And as you move through the columns, you always try to start with the uppermost item.

These are the basics which are the same for all cases, but you can set it up differently and add many other elements based on your needs. In other words, this is its essence, but how does a Kanban board work exactly - that’s up to you.

For example, you can add assignees on the cards to know who is doing what. You can mark active and waiting steps differently to have more visibility when work is stalled. You can track how much time each card has spent in some of the steps (cycle time) or all steps together (total or lead time).

Free Online Kanban Board Tool in ProdGoal - Example for Assignees, Cycle Time, Lead Time and Waiting (Queue) statuses

These are just some of the things that a Kanban tool can show the team, but I would recommend that you start a board by just mapping out your process steps along with work items and then incrementally adding what you think you need. As you add something new, don’t forget to reflect upon the change and check what impact it has created.

Not all changes and practices will bring a positive impact, and many of them won’t bring any impact at all, especially if you have just started implementing them. Give yourself some time and experiment your way to success.

Focus on doubling down on what works and removing things that impede you or don’t work. People usually don’t remove many things to make their process lighter and simple - be different and use this to your advantage.

What is also great is that to start a Kanban board, you don’t have to change your whole organization. Nor do you have to change your team, and not even your process. You just need to map the current process to it.

In fact, changing the process as you map it could potentially be a bad idea since the first board you create should represent the current state so that you can visualize it and reflect upon it before diving into any improvement experiments.

We have tackled the question of what is a Kanban board, and now we’ve shown how it works in brief, but does this make sense? Why using a Kanban board can be the best thing you’ve ever done? Let’s explore that now.

Why Use Kanban boards?

When using a Kanban board, you visualize work and by doing that, you start to take control over it. You see where the problems lie and what you need to do to manage work better and skyrocket your productivity. That is the main reason why it’s such an impactful tool, but there are many more.

Depending on what your problems and goals are, there are many other reasons why using it can be a true game-changer. I’ve ordered them by what I hear people most often want to achieve.

1. Deliver faster

Speed seems to be the number one problem and goal that people want to achieve. Fortunately, I’ve personally seen teams achieve an incredible 3-10x raise in delivery speed by using a Kanban board properly.

I can tell you that a it can help you with the delivery speed in many ways. There are various practices to achieve this that you may or may not know about, from limiting work in progress (setting WIP limits; high and low), to swarming, following a pull system, creating work policies, focusing on the rightmost items, visualizing blockers, resolving impediments and properly slicing items, all the way to managing a Flight level 2 and 3 board and many more.

I advise you to explore these practices one by one and try to implement them. If you implement the right, you will see great changes in your speed of delivery and you won’t wonder why the Kanban board is a great thing to use.

And if you are wondering where to begin - Start by lowering your work in progress. Some teams like to start lowering their personal work in progress, for example - Andrew has been assigned to 4 items on average, but now he has a WIP limit of 2, so he cannot assign himself more than 2 items until he finishes one of them. Then he can pull in more.

Other teams prefer to put work in progress limits (or work in process limits as some call it, which is more accurate) on board columns. For example, you can set your in-progress column WIP limit to 3 and your waiting column limit to 1. That means that you won’t be starting any new work until you finish what is in progress, nor will you have more than 1 item waiting and if you have more than 1 item in that column, you have to swarm on it to get it out of that state as soon as possible.

These simple policies are extremely impactful and they can multiply your results. But from my experience, whatever you do, strive to limit the whole team’s work in process. Start at the personal level if that is working for you, but move more towards limiting the work in process as a whole. This will give you true teamwork results and will make people truly Agile.

2. Increase focus

9 out of 10 teams that I’ve worked with openly say that they suffer from lack of focus, context-switching, or some kind of multitasking. This is a problem that people are aware of, but it doesn’t seem that serious to them, probably because things do get done at some point in time, whenever that might be. I’ve found this to be the number one impediment to all other values, and the Kanban board can help you a lot with it in many ways.

First of all, use the board to see where you are losing focus. If you are working on multiple items at once, try to finish one item before starting the second one. Lower your personal or team’s work-in-progress limit.

If you see a lot of items getting stuck in some columns, focus on removing the impediments for them and get them done together as soon as possible.

Maybe your items on the board are moving, but you are working on multiple initiatives that just never seem to be done. In that case, lower the WIP limit of initiatives and focus on getting initiatives done.

There are many more examples of what you can do to increase focus, but let’s move to the next reason why using the Kanban board might be the best decision you’ve made thus far.

3. Create more value

People want speed, but it’s mostly when they achieve it that they start to realize that creating more value is what they need. If you deliver super fast but are not creating more value, you are probably just creating waste faster.

Just to be fair, it’s better to create waste fast than slow, because you will know this sooner and will have more time to change your direction.

With that being said, use the board to make sure that you are truly delivering value. This can be done in various ways, like doing discovery work to find out if the items you want to deliver even have value - and why not make sure that there is a column on the board that represents the state of doing discovery work? It will constantly remind you that it needs to be done.

Also, when you deliver something, make sure that you check if you have delivered value or not. For this, you should also create a separate column. One other idea is that you can (if you know how) understand the Cost of Delay of your items and then focus on delivering the smallest and most valuable ones first, following the SWJF (shortest weighted job first) principle.

Free Online Kanban Board Tool in ProdGoal - Example for Cost of Delay, Weighted Shortest Job First or WSJF

If you implement these practices, and can see all your work items on the board in one glance, you will be able to easily see and decide which are the items that bring the most value, focus on getting them done first and checking if you delivered value or not.

4. Eliminate waste

If you are delivering value without actively trying to eliminate waste, you are only doing half of the job. Eliminating waste is one of the 7 principles of Lean and it’s of utmost importance to constantly inspect your process and items and to work on removing anything that is getting into the way of delivering value.

When you look at the Kanban card that you want to deliver - check first if there is an item of bigger value that you can deliver. If there is one, deprioritize the first card and finish this one instead, otherwise, you are introducing waste in the process.

If you have understood that this work item is the card that brings the most value, inspect it even further and try to see if some parts of it can be delivered separately and still bring value. Also, see if some unnecessary or low-value parts of that card can be removed (forever or for now).

Free Online Kanban Board Tool in ProdGoal - Example for removing waste

These are just some of the examples of how you should use this board to eliminate waste and also how to use your resources more efficiently.

A lot of waste in the process can be tackled by employing things that were mentioned in the first sections, so I will not create waste myself by repeating it here ;)

5. Realistic capacity

Apart from speed, I see almost all teams suffering from unrealistic capacity expectations. What does this mean? We as people mostly want to please other people (especially our managers and bosses, but colleagues as well), don’t want to say “no” to their requests, and think that we have to make their expectations happen, no matter how unrealistic they are. Also, we as humans are terrible at estimating.

Because of all of this, almost all teams that I see take on too much work and don’t deliver what they think or say they are going to. This causes dissatisfaction on both sides, stress, and many other bad things.

Kanban system has a clear goal of creating a continuous flow of work, so to do that, it’s very the work in the system must match its capacity. This is where Kanban boards can help again, but only if you implement (and adhere to) WIP limits, focus on removing impediments and managing dependencies, as well as create work policies that will strengthen this kind of work.

You can also see what your capacity is by checking out your throughput (the number of items that are being done in a certain period; for example, 9 items per week), but if you want to use the best solution there is on the market, I would advise that you use Monte Carlo simulations.

By taking your historical data and doing probabilistic Kanban forecasting, Monte Carlo simulations can give you no-effort 90% likelihood estimates in a second. These Agile and Kanban forecasts show you and all your stakeholders your true capacity and will also let you know automatically if something changes.

Free Online Kanban Forecasting Tool - Example for Instant Adjustments and Re-planning

Maybe you are wondering why other online Kanban tools don’t have these built-in. That’s mostly because this is an advanced method that people still haven’t put to use in its full capacity. So, be one of the first to start using it with ProdGoal and create a competitive advantage for yourself.

6. Improve communication

Whenever I sit down with people and try to map out what we need to improve, there is always a communication topic around. Often, this is even a problem that people point to as the biggest one they see in their team or company, but it’s just too abstract to them.

On the other hand, I’ve seen both physical and online Kanban boards solving a great deal of the problems by just visualizing the current state of the work and the process, so I can say that it’s worth giving them a try.

Some things happen naturally when you start using this kind of a board and even create a great impact without you even noticing it at first. One of those things is improved communication. If you do this properly, you will see great benefits, especially in the team and work satisfaction, as well as more productivity.

With this kind of tool, work becomes transparent, so you don’t need to spend time trying to figure out what you need to do, or go through endless emails, calls, and meetings. You just take a glance at the board and you know what is happening.

Free Online Kanban Board Tool in ProdGoal - Example for prioritizing, days in progress, total time and done items

This board shows you all done, in progress, and upcoming work without talking to anyone. Cards are ordered by priority so you don’t have to ask, they are in the right process stage and you can see how long the work is taking.

Everything you need should be on the board, and if it’s not - find a way to get it there. This gets the communication chaos to a minimum, thus improving productivity and satisfaction manyfold.

Also, if you try to update the board at least somewhat regularly, you won’t require additional status meetings. You can also see what’s coming up next, or if you don’t have anything coming your way and you need to sit down together to figure out the next most impactful work that needs to be done.

If this wasn’t enough for you, let me give you three more reasons why you should use a Kanban board yourself.

7. Boost collaboration

Collaboration sounds very generic as a word, but if you know what it is and how to use it, you can move mountains. People mostly don’t know what true collaboration is, and what I see is that collaboration usually boils down to being in a couple of meetings together, along with some regular Agile (read: status) meeting in the morning. This isn’t collaboration.

First of all, you have to have a shared picture and this is where the Kanban board enables you to do so. If everyone can see on the board what’s happening with the work, it’s much easier to collaborate, that is - jump in to help with a task that is taking too long, or ask for help to get the job done, try to bring everyone to swarm on the most valuable item or instantly question if we are working on the most valuable thing and remove items which don’t have much potential, etc.

Collaboration will bring you great results especially when something gets blocked, and that will happen. You will deliver much better and faster, together and you will be happy as a person and as a team. This will be the fuel for your future endeavors and this will create a virtuous circle.

Free Online Kanban Board Tool in ProdGoal - Example for Blocked items

Even if you fall asleep, someone else will see what you’ve missed and, if you are truly collaborating, will help you get up and do things much better. And with information being always available to everyone involved, people can collaborate and discover smarter ways of working.

With this kind of work, people are enabled to decide more on their own, without the need for micro-management, and will move more towards self-management. And in the end, teams will be happier, deliver faster, have less waste and waiting time, and deliver more value. I hope that answers your question about why Kanban boards should be used, but if not - there are more reasons.

8. Improve continuously

If these boards are used properly and there are metrics in place, you will be able to improve continuously. This is at the heart of Kaizen, the Japanese word for “continuous improvement” and one of the key concepts in Kanban. This is why the board is part of Kaizen as well, enabling these improvements in many ways.

When you visualize your work and your workflow on a board you see the whole process in front of you and instantly get ideas on what can be improved and optimized. It’s now much easier to see where the bottlenecks are, what parts of the process are problematic and holding you down, and by knowing that you know what you need to improve.

The beauty of this is that everything changes, and so does your work, but your ability to inspect your process, reflect upon it and improve it is there to stay with the Kanban board. That’s just how it works. You can always check the metrics if the efficiency of the process is in line with your expectations and also if you need to define or change some process policies on the board.

Free Online Kanban Board Tool in ProdGoal - Example for Process Policy and Analysis

This is how this board can help you efficiently and actively manage your way of working and thus your satisfaction and productivity.

9. Work less, achieve more

After teams have gotten proficient in using a Kanban tool for a while, I think this is what they would tell you if you were to ask them why using a Kanban board is a good idea for you. Working less and achieving more is what happens with time and it’s the cherry on top. It makes everyone happy and it’s real. It happens when you employ various practices that are mentioned above and start mastering them.

I’ve seen teams work with less stress, less busy work, and fewer working hours (some of them even agreed with their bosses to have fewer working hours as a standard) while achieving not the same, but much better results.

Hopefully by now you completely understand what’s a Kanban board and how it works. I think you will have some compelling reasons to show them and hopefully, you will experience all of them yourself.

Is Kanban board free?

Well, having a free Kanban board depends on the tool that you would like to use. We have compared the top free online Kanban tools for you, but feel free to explore on your own.

What we can tell you is that ProdGoal is free forever. Really. It has unlimited users, projects, and boards with Kanban board templates ready to be used without any setup. Also, you can cancel anytime. So, why not give it a try?

Free Online Kanban Board Tool in ProdGoal - Simple Example

With that being said, If you have more questions concerning any of the mentioned topics, or if you want to see some examples, feel free to contact us and our experts will be happy to give you an answer.