A Kanban board is a common tool for displaying tasks. You might not know it by name, but you’ve probably used one before and almost certainly seen one at work or on TV. Let’s take a look at how they work.
A Kanban board is used for visualizing task flow from beginning to end. At its simplest, it contains three columns called “To-Do”, “Doing”, and “Done”. To start, you put your tasks in the “To-Do” column, move them to the “Doing” column while you’re working on them, and then finally move them to the “Done” column when you’ve finished the task.
Kanban boards provide a visual representation of process management. In other words, they let you see how your tasks are progressing.
They originated as part of Kanban, a type of lean manufacturing process that has been used in Japanese manufacturing for decades, but have been primarily popularized in North America and Europe as part of task management software like Jira, Asana, Trello, and Planner. If you’ve ever worked in or around software development, this kind of board will be familiar to you.
Originally, Kanban boards were physical, but over time plenty of Kanban software has been created. Unlike a lot of processes that have moved from physical to digital—think music recording, project planning, and bookkeeping—it’s still very common to have physical Kanban boards, often in tandem with a digital copy.
If you’ve walked through an office and seen whiteboards and walls covered in Post-It notes arranged in columns, you’ve probably been looking at a Kanban board.
Somewhere on a server, there will normally be a digital representation of that same Post It-filled Kanban board, which may seem odd. Why have the same data held in two places, as it just duplicates the work of maintaining them?
The reason is quite simple: A Kanban board is designed to be visual and easy to use, so having a physical board makes it easy for a team to see the tasks and move them around the board. But a physical board is no good for data analysis and reporting, which is where the digital version comes in.
The digital version—whether in Jira, Trello, Asana, Planner, or any other software—can also be viewed from anywhere, which makes it more useful for remote teams or interested stakeholders who don’t sit with the team and their physical board.
Using a Kanban board couldn’t be much simpler. You add tasks to the To-Do column and then move them (if it’s a physical board) or drag and drop them (if it’s a digital board) from one column to the next. Every now and then, you remove the tasks from the final Done column and put them anywhere you like, whether that’s an archive of completed tasks or simply the bin.
Kanban boards can have as many columns as you want. It’s common in software development teams to have columns for Design, Development, Testing, and Documentation, for example. Often, more esoteric columns are included that are process-specific, such as “Fuzzing” (a process where deliberately malformed data is entered to test software for error-handling and security), “Pull” (a pull request has been submitted to move the code into a GitHub branch), and “Pre-Prod” (a piece of work has been moved to the pre-production server). But you can use whichever columns you want in a Kanban board, for any type of process.
Getting something done often requires multiple teams and/or multiple streams of work. Kanban boards handle this using something called “swim lanes”. Whilst the columns—To-Do, Doing, Done, etc—are vertical, swim lanes are horizontal bars where tasks for a single team or workstream can be separated out.
In most Kanban applications, you can also color-code tasks. This lets you set up your board with swim lanes for teams and colors for work streams, or vice versa. Many teams synchronize their Post-it note colors, to colors used in their digital boards, which is why so many offices are adorned with multi-color Post-it notes, rather than a single color.
Kanban is a very flexible system that provides for large amounts of customization to fit whatever process you’re managing. It doesn’t matter if you’re putting together a multi-billion dollar space launch at JPL or tracking your kids’ chores, Kanban can help you see your tasks and keep right on track.