What is a Kanban board and how does it work? 

“Let’s tap into an agile methodology to utilize a kanban board and close the loop on those swimlanes.”

The business world is full of jargon, and even the most seasoned pros struggle to separate useful terminology from mere fluff. So even if you’ve heard terms like agile, kanban, and swimlanes floating around, perhaps you haven’t dug in deep...until now.

But if project management is part of your job, you may be bought into the idea of kanban boards. Maybe you’ve seen them, but you’re unsure how to actually implement them.

Read on for a simple explanation of the concepts behind kanban boards, when to use them, and how they’ll help optimize your workflows. 

What is a kanban board?

A kanban board is a visual system for workflow or project management. Its core components are cards, columns, swimlanes, and WIP (Work in Progress) limits. Born from lean manufacturing methods, kanban boards enable businesses to streamline their workflows so they get to finished products and services faster, with more flexibility, using fewer resources.

A little bit of history can help you understand how to implement these boards. The first use of kanban was in the Japanese automotive industry three-quarters of a century ago. On Toyota production lines, they were first used as a visual stock-replenishment system. In fact, the word kanban is Japanese for “sign” or “visual board.”

In the 2000s, technology thought leader and author David J. Anderson further developed the idea of kanban boards, before introducing them to the world of software development. Today, they’ve been modernized and adapted to just about any type of knowledge work.

Kanban board vs scrum board? 

In your research, you may come across the term scrum board

The difference between a kanban board and a scrum board is this: Scrum boards look similar to kanban boards at first glance, but they adhere to a strict, specific methodology, while kanban boards are used as a basic foundation that users customize rules for. They both track work in short sprints, but scrum boards put a stronger emphasis on team interaction and transparency.

  • Some Airtable users synthesize elements of both kanban boards and scrum boards to help agile teams be most productive and successful. See an Easy Scrum Based Kanban Board.

Understanding kanban boards

Within the kanban method, the board is an essential tool, and the two cannot be teased apart. The kanban board is a unique visual tool, consisting of cards that represent tasks. These tasks are organized into columns to represent where the task currently lies within the workflow:

  • “To Do”

  • “Doing”

  • “Done”

The cards are moved from column to column as they change state. Tasks go from a commitment point—when they are moved from your backlog into production—to a delivery point, which is when finished work is delivered. Ideally, this progression is as quick and efficient as possible. 

Traditionally, kanban boards were physical objects, such as whiteboards with sticky notes representing tasks. The sticky notes could be moved around from column to column to indicate whether they were pending to-do items, items in process, or finished items. Today, kanban boards are often digital, but they retain the look of whiteboards and sticky notes. The presentation is meant to be straightforward, visual, and accessible.

A little bit about each component:

Kanban cards

While the kanban board itself represents the overall workflow, individual kanban cards represent tasks or work items. These cards move through the columns until they reach their delivery point and are completed.

Columns

The vertical columns represent the stage at which kanban cards lie in the workflow: things to do, things being actively worked on, and things that are done. Cards within columns give you a visual representation of how a work item moves through a workflow, and help you spot bottlenecks when cards back up in a particular column.

Swimlanes

The horizontal rows are called swimlanes. Much like actual lanes in a pool, they’re used to indicate items that don’t touch. By sectioning work into rows, swimlanes help teams tell, at a glance, which tasks can be grouped together. For instance, swimlanes might be used to separate hardware projects from software projects. Or they might be used to separate different bugs in a software workflow. Essentially, swimlanes are kanban tools for grouping together similar types of work so teams can be more organized and efficient.

WIP limits

WIP stands for work in progress. The intention of WIP limits is to control how much work is currently in progress at a time and make sure the workload is manageable and realistic. As some people like to say, without WIP limits, you’re not really doing kanban. 

That’s because kanban boards exist to help streamline workflows and get work done faster and more efficiently. Visual bottlenecks represent inefficiencies of progress. When you spot a bottleneck, you know an action needs to be taken. Perhaps the workflow needs to be tweaked, or resources reallocated.

Once you understand these four components of kanban boards, you have the foundation on which to leverage the entire system well and optimize your workflow. 

How to use a kanban board

As you implement kanban boards for your organization, you can save yourself time by following these best practices from the jump. Start with a workflow you know well, and practice iterating on it.

  • Map out your complete, current workflow before building your board — Grab a piece of paper — yes, the kind that comes from trees! — and create a rough map of your workflow

  • Keep it simple to start — You can always add more details and conditions later, but for now, try to capture the basic workflow and the most important contingencies. 

  • Implement feedback loops — The main reason to use kanban is to improve workflows over time, so make sure to include ways to learn and grow. For instance, regularly collecting both internal and customer feedback can help you pinpoint problems and make updates.

  • Limit your WIP (work in progress) — This best practice is built into kanban methodology. Create a rule around the number of cards that are allowed in any swimlane’s “to-do” column.

  • Make other policies clear, too — Kanban itself is a basic framework and does not have a lot of rigid rules, but allows space for you to create your own guidelines and policies. This part of the process is important. Think about what rules and policies will help your organization be more productive, efficient, and ultimately successful.

With these best practices in mind, you’re set up to decide how to create your first board.

How to choose your kanban board

The first decision to make when implementing a board is whether to go old-school or new-school. Old school kanban boards are physical boards, usually with sticky notes that you manually move around — still a surprisingly effective tool for even the most digitally forward companies! However, this method holds one very important drawback: it requires all team members to be in the same room. 

If in-person collaboration isn’t a given for your team, or if you have some team members who work remotely, a digital board is generally a wiser choice. Digital kanban boards can often be shared in the cloud and preserved for later reference, too. The ability to see previous states or versions of your board might prove useful later on.

Since kanban is most frequently used in software development, it’s not surprising that many highly specific kanban software solutions have been designed specifically to help organizations use kanban for project and workflow management. A few of the more popular examples include JIRA, Trello, and Hygger. 

Airtable’s kanban view, which uses information you’ve already entered in your base, can be a smart choice for first-time kanbanners. Within Airtable, you can enter as much information about each task as you’d like, while keeping your kanban board streamlined with only the most important data.

Creating a kanban board with Airtable

While an Airtable base can be viewed as a grid, a calendar, or a visual gallery, embedded in every Airtable project is the ability to organize information into a kanban board — an automatic way to start using the kanban system right off the bat. Sign up for free today!

Within Airtable’s kanban board view, your workflow is visualized as rows of stacked cards. Simply click and drag to move cards between stacks or swimlanes. Airtable also gives you the ability to apply custom rules to your boards. For instance, you might subdivide your to-do cards into high- and low-priority categories.

Start building your board

Airtable has plenty of free templates to get you started creating a kanban board of your very own, and ultimately, every Airtable base can be organized into kanban view. As you begin building a board using Airtable, check out the Airtable Support Guide to kanban view for even more guidance.

Sign up for free


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Airtable's Product Teamis committed to building world-class products, and empowering world-class product builders on our platform.

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