What’s Kanban? - How to Use Kanban Boards for Effective Project Management


Kanban is among the latest in workflow and project management tools available to businesses today. It offers a host of features and tools to improve the way you manage and mitigate your way through projects, create milestones, set timelines, and more. Essentially, Kanban is revolutionizing the world of project management, offering a solution that is:

  • Agile
  • Visual
  • Efficient

There are several different ways that this concept can be used in modern business. You'll find it across several industries, and there are several benefits to be had from using Kanban boards and the system itself to improve your project and/or workflow management. 

The benefits of Kanban 

Kanban, as a system, is one of the most popular methodologies available today. The fact that it is so flexible is one of the perks, as well as the fact that it’s easy to change things and make adjustments as projects progress and things need to be addressed or modified. Kanban also offers perks like:

  • Shortened time cycles: This is a critical metric for Kanban organizations and teams today. the cycle time is the amount of time required for a work unit to get from the beginning to the end of the workflow. In software development, this would be the time it takes for a concept to become a finished software product. 
  • Fewer bottlenecks: When the process is more efficient, fewer bottlenecks and issues hold things up. It's easy for projects to get ahead of themselves when the team isn’t properly prepared, but with a Kanban system in place, you’ll streamline efficiency and see fewer kinks in the process. 
  • Visual metrics: Nothing is better than seeing results, literally. With Kanban, you can create plenty of visual metrics and tools to track projects on Kanban cards and elsewhere to ensure that everything is on track or address the things that aren’t. 
  • Continuous delivery: With Kanban, you’ll be able to keep the process moving despite any hurdles or needing time to recover before delivering a new product or service. The faster an innovation can get to market, the more competitive its ranking will be. That's why the entire goal is to always optimize the workflow to the customers’ benefit. 

These are just a few of the biggest perks of implementing a Kanban system in your business. To learn more, explore all the different ways that your organization can work with Kanban boards. Read on for tips to help you in your own Kanban project management efforts. 

Kanban defined

The term “Kanban” is Japanese; it means “billboard,” or more literally, “visual signal.” The word itself was used to name a scheduling system developed in the 1940s by Toyota. The original system was designed to help improve the execution of just-in-time manufacturing. The idea is that by visualizing the workflow of a process, the progress tracking would be easier, and the efficiency of the process would improve. 

Put simply, the concept works by limiting the resources and supplies needed to only what is required for the immediate task. This helps improve immediate efficiency and reduce waste in project management. The Kanban board is now a staple in almost every industry. Software development and IT fields especially benefit from Kanban, but you’ll find it all over the place. 

Kanban is effective because it appeases the brain’s need for visual organization. It allows people to see visibly into a task and watch things get accomplished, or even figure out where the project is being held up. In the rest of this guide, we’ll discuss what Kanban boards are and how you can use them to improve project management in your business.  

What is a Kanban board?

A Kanban board is a physical or virtual board that displays the resources and tasks of a project, along with progress, to help improve and manage workflows more effectively. These boards will have columns and cards, with columns organizing tasks by progress or stage and cards that are representative of all of the tasks that are involved in the project. 

The board is part of the larger system of Kanban that is an entire process of workflow improvement. There is a board designated for every project and it will typically be broken up into three areas:

  • To do
  • In progress
  • Done

The caveat here, of course, is that the board is only one view of the project. In digital platforms, for example, you’ll be able to choose from Kanban view, tasks, calendar view, and other options for displaying data. The beauty is that this tool is simple and practical. It doesn’t have any bells and whistles and it doesn’t need them. 

The Kanban system works because it allows teams to see their projects and individual assignments and managers and team leads can track all the progress without much effort at all. 

Kanban cards

Kanban cards are responsible for housing to-do items or tasks that need to be completed, such as products that need to be ordered or manufactured, or a marketing campaign that needs to be launched as part of a project. There can be as many cards as you need on your board—after all, it’s your project. The cards help you define the tasks that require attention, manage them, and keep everything organized accordingly. 

Kanban columns

The columns or lists of a Kanban board are going to be reflective of the stages of the process. They usually contain a list of related cards for a stage of the process or cards that are in the same stage of development. This is where progress is tracked, essentially, and it helps everyone stay organized. Some call this the to-do list or task list. 

6 Kanban tips for more effective project management

If you’re going to make the most of your project management with Kanban boards or the system itself, you’ll need to know what you’re doing. To assist with that, here are six tips to help you stay organized and keep things streamlined to maximize the benefits of Kanban for your business. 

Label Columns Accordingly

Although there are several ways that you can label your Kanban columns on your board, it helps if they are indicative of process stages or points in the project so that you know where everything stands. For example, instead of having an “ongoing” column where all the ongoing projects hang out together, you can have columns for ongoing tasks that are:

  • Awaiting review
  • Awaiting approval
  • Awaiting a task or external activity

These are just a few examples, but they will make a big difference in the effectiveness of your Kanban boards. 

Choose the format that works for you 

There are several ways that you can use Kanban Boards, from traditional columns to color coding and so much more. There's no right or wrong way to get and stay organized here—it's the general system and concept that count. How you work out the details on each board will be up to you. Don’t just do what you see or what you are told works. Put a Kanban system into play and then tinker with your options for formatting and customization so that it suits your organization. 

Prioritize and organize the backlog

The backlog is a great resource because it’s where your team will be able to plan all future work. However, because of its nature, it’s easy for the backlog to become overwhelmed with ideas and concepts that are all over the place. Refine your backlog regularly by:

  • Merging tasks
  • Removing irrelevant items
  • Creating new tasks that are discovered along the way
  • Breaking down existing items into smaller chunks

You might even want to consider creating sub-columns in the backlog to help separate your tasks by quarter, for one example, or any other time period designation of your choosing. 

Be transparent at all times

The methodology of Kanban relies totally on real-time communication and the full transparency of that communication. Transparency is essential to the success of Kanban as the real-time process cannot work with unknowns or variables. Make sure that your basic boards are descriptive enough to cover all the bases and provide full transparency for all of your projects or tasks. That will make efficiency a breeze. 

Use checklists on all of your tasks and projects 

Even the “simple” projects rarely are, which is why you want to ensure that you set yourself up for success. In this case, that means using checklists for your tasks so that you can make sure that everything is covered. In addition to it, you should always take care about your checklist content quality. For this purpose you can constantly apply various online proofreading tools like Essay Service or Grammarly. Thereby you'll make sure yourself that your checklists for your tasks were made up properly.  When you use Kanban, you can create as many cards as you want and give each one their own checklist or task list to keep it organized.

For example, you might have a board titled “Marketing Launch” and the card might be called “Email Marketing”, so a checklist may include:

  • Opt-in subscribers from marketing campaigns
  • Create email marketing content
  • Follow-up with interested parties
  • Publish press releases
  • Publish website content
  • Measure results from campaigns

Place limits on your columns and cards

For example, if you’ve got a list that is set for “Work in Progress” tasks, you want to set a limit on how many tasks you put there. Otherwise, before you know it, you’ll have 500 “in progress” tasks and nothing completed. Set limits and don’t overextend yourself. The modern tools available today even help you by letting you set limits and then warning you when you get close to them. 

Make sure that your Kanban cards don’t become a wasteland where projects go to remain “in progress” until they are eventually scrapped or replaced with bigger, better projects. And all the while, the Kanban system is failing itself because you’re not using it effectively. Use limits and use them wisely. 

Online vs. desktop Kanban software

If you still want to use physical boards and make actual visualizations, that’s acceptable. However, most organizations today are going to use a desktop or web-based software platform for their Kanban management. Desktop is more popular with enterprise organizations that struggle with implementing change, while mobile and web-based platforms are preferred by solopreneurs, SMBs, and modern startups that want full agility at all times. 

Desktop software is not tied to the Internet, which means it’s going to be more secure than online software because there are fewer entry points that are at risk of being breached. It also usually offers more customization options than online tools because you have installed the full software platform and tailored it to your organization’s needs. Plus, desktop software can continue to work offline even if your Internet service is disrupted. 

Web-based or online Kanban tools are great because they offer real-time data and insights to help you make changes instantly instead of after the fact. You'll also enjoy not having to install a huge software product on your system, nor will you have to worry about training people to use it effectively. Plus, while desktop applications are usually more expensive in terms of licensing, online apps are usually modeled on a pay-as-you-go basis and include various tiers of subscription plans. 

So, what’s the verdict? Well, we regret to inform you that part of this is going to be a matter of personal preference and what works best for your organization. That might not be the same as what works for everyone else, after all. 

Consider a partnership with Smith.ai to cross a multitude of tasks off your to-do list

While you’re streamlining with a Kanban system, consider how you can take the management of your customer service and communications to the next level. For example, the dedicated live agents at Smith.ai can provide 24/7 live website chat, phone answering services, scheduling, lead intake, and so much more. We’ll handle all the admin work while you work on getting things done. 

If efficiency is on your agenda, a partnership with us provides the natural progression. Ask how we can help you create a custom strategy to handle all of your needs, no matter what those might be. 

To learn more, schedule a consultation to discuss our virtual receptionists and how we can increase efficiency by handling after-hours phone calls, live website chat, payment collection, and more. You can also reach us at hello@smith.ai or (650) 727-6484. 

People and Project Management
Written by Sean Lund-Brown
Sean Lund-Brown is a current Marketing Assistant for Smith.ai. A graduate from Metropolitan State University of Denver, Sean graduated with a BA in Music and an individualized degree in Teaching Vocal Pedagogy.

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