Product Management Productivity Project Management

How to create the perfect kanban board for your team

The Kanban board is a tool used to track progress in projects. In a Kanban board, the tasks needed to complete the project move along a progression of states. Project managers can use it assign work to teams and team members,  who will use it to track the progress of development, letting everyone do things like addressing bottlenecks or predicting delays.

Making your Kanban board

The basic Kanban board has three vertical swim lanes with names that are quite informative about the kind of tasks they contain.

  • To Do
  • Doing
  • Done

The user stories that need to be worked on are written in cards and arranged from high to low priority. Other information can be added to the cards depending on the team internal organization: the person in charge of doing the task, the deadline, the estimated effort required to complete the work, a finer definition of the task, references to other cards, labels for systems affected or project epics or milestones…

Other versions of the board use more vertical swim lanes for different stages (such as waiting for approval, testing…), or horizontal swim lanes for the different teams and for blockers and critical issues. Some have brief names and some include definitions of states that can help teams decide the right move to make.

Kanban can be extended as much as you want. You can complement your user stories cards with colour stickers to indicate their priority or assignee, or use different card colours to differentiate stories that belong to different components of the project.

Depending on your team size, the complexity of your project and other variables like the amount of supervision needed or the experience of the team you may want to use a simpler or more complex board. Remember that tools are at your service and not the other way around, and feel free to add your own personal flavour to your Kanban board.

Making your Kanban board part of your team’s daily routine.

The Kanban board is not a tool for project managers, it is a tool for team communication. When bringing the Kanban board to an organisation it is necessary that you communicate the purpose and functioning of the board to all the team members that will actively use it (project managers, developers, designers, testers, copywriters…) or benefit from it (executives, product owners…).

A good idea is to use your Kanban board in your daily Standup. This will help you collect your team’s feedback; move tasks forward, mark them as blocks or put it in another team’s row. If you don’t do daily stand ups or don’t have a scrum master, you can ask team members to move cards across the board themselves as they progress through the day.

If Kanban is new to your organisation, as a project manager you will usually find that is is not natural for team members to update their progress in the board. Sometimes this will mean that Kanban is not the right tool for them, but if you really believe that a Kanban board can improve your performance and communication openness, don’t hesitate to follow up directly with each team member and move tasks across the board yourself. Evil PM tip: Let them know every time you do it. This will probably push them to start doing it themselves just to avoid hearing from you.

If you like this post I suggest you continue reading to a post I wrote with arguments to use project management tools like this.

7 comments

  1. Nice introduction!

    Yes, we do use a kanban board. About pro/cons I think that’s actually hard to say as I think kanban doesn’t really dictate the way you work, I find the tool to be kinda neutral to my teams workflow. I have to say it works better (and it worked better in the past) with teams that are not “trapped” into a too strict approach.

    I would prefer to use a paper based board. I like the physical aspect of it, the act of moving a card has a spatial/ritual meaning. Problem is: there’s a kinda generic need of looking at the status of things where you’re not in the office. So I do use (I don’t want to say I prefer…) an app for it. But my gut feeling is telling me it may be a good idea to use a paper based one for what I call “tactical projects”. Projects with very fast iterations and short deadline, with a very small team. In those situation it may be enough to constraint “looking at the status of things” when you’re at the office. I still have mixed feelings about all of this and I’d probably keep having.

    About the app (since we briefly talked about it on twitter) I tried a lot of them and they all are good at something but they all share something I really don’t like. They do too much. So I wrote a small tool. The main reason why I’ve done it is giving my team the possibility to adapt the tool the the workflow needs and not the other way around. So far I’m pretty satisfied and I think we’ll start polishing the app to open source a generic version that can be used at a starting point for other teams.

  2. Hi there, I loved this post. I do use a Kanban board, it’s an indispensable part of my daily routine. I started with a paper kanban. but after a while I moved to digital, and think this is more efficient, as I can view and edit it anywhere I am, either from a laptop or my smartphone.
    I remember getting started was a little tricky though. I got my system set up, but it didn’t really work,
    so I got changing it over and over (thought there is something wrong with Kanban), until finally I got what I needed. This is a valid point, that I’d like to underline – kanban is an ever-changing process and part of making it work is periodical evaluation of the system and making adjustments for it to always suit the needs.
    There is a nice complimentary article on this that I’ve just read: http://kanbantool.com/blog/why-isnt-my-kanban-working, and would like to recommend. Please always keep in mind, that kanban will only work for as long as you place enough attention on it.
    Best of luck to all kanban-doers!

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience with us Jason! You are totally right in your remark – tools and processes are not static, and after all they are there to help us do our jobs better. Reviewing and adapting is important, and most of the things we implement will go through a series of changes before they get where we need them to be.
      The post you shared is interesting – I wish I had read it when my first kanban was not working and I felt it was a personal failure.
      Keep in touch! Always good to exchange impressions with fellow kanban users :).

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