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I am a product management professional. I combine my work as a Product Director at Launchmetrics with content creation and public speaking.

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.

What are the basic lanes in a Kanban?

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

Creating and Arranging Cards

The user stories that need to be worked on are written in cards and arranged from high to low priority. If what I just said makes no sense to you, stop this right now and check my post about the Product Backlog. If you understood this, let’s continue talking about the cards in your Kanban. 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 color stickers to indicate their priority or assignee, or use different card colors 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 flavor to your Kanban board.

Digital or paper based kanbans?

Speaking about tools, you may have noticed I haven’t mentioned a big topic when it comes to Kanban boards: What’s a good tool? Shall you go for a digital or a paper Kanban board? The answer is, as you may already anticipate, that it depends. A paper Kanban can make wonders in very small teams that work together, or for individuals who like to stay organized, and is also the best way to introduce the tool to teams that are not very digital yet.

A software kanban has other advantages: it makes it available to everyone, anytime and anywhere, which makes remote work possible. Besides, software kanbans can be integrated with other tools to automate status changes or reporting. Tell me about your team, I will tell you about your Kanban!

Make an introduction of the kanban

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…). You may be used to Kanban boards and think that everybody knows how to use them, but you’d be surprised.

Collaborate to define your kanban conventions

As a team, you need to reach agreements and define conventions about how tasks move through the kanban board, make sure to involve the team in this process and to have a written documentation of the conventions you define. This not only gives the team a single point of reference, it also makes the onboarding of new team members much easier.

Use the Kanban in the daily standup

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.

Keep the Kanban current

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.

9 responses to “How to create the perfect kanban board for your team”

  1. Product Backlog with Jira • Cristina Santamarina Avatar

    […] with a lot more definition that’s often consumed and worked on by team members using a Kanban board. The Sprint Backlog and the Product Backlog are not to be mistaken. Make sure these concepts are […]

  2. Manage your product backlog with Jira • Cristina Santamarina Avatar

    […] Sprints are time boxes in Scrum that have a set goal and a list of related work items that are feasible within the time and capacity of the team. You can read more about Sprints in this blog post. Each Sprint has an associated Sprint Backlog, a section of the Product Backlog with a lot more definition that’s often consumed and worked on bu team members using a Kanban board. […]

  3. Github Projects – Cristina Santamarina Avatar

    […] don´t know how to start with this blog post. Remember my love for Kanban boards and how I am an advocate of GitHub and the ZenHub plugin for project […]

  4. 7 (more) web tools I use and love | Cristina Santamarina Avatar

    […] you follow this blog you probably know of my love for Kanban boards and you may have even this blog post about how I use GitHub and ZenHub together to stay organised. […]

  5. cristinasantamarina Avatar

    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 :).

  6. Jason Masters Avatar
    Jason Masters

    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!

  7. GitHub + ZenHub : Project management where your developers are | Cristina Santamarina Avatar

    […] am a believer in tickets and boards (check my posts ‘no ticket no party‘ and ‘pm tools: the kanban board‘ if you missed them) and also believe that project management should be as easy as possible […]


  9. lucapettecapette Avatar

    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.

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