Why do you need a Kanban board?

Image from Zapier

As I mentioned in the Free Kanban board software post, Kanban (看板) is a Japanese word that means signboard or billboard. It is a scheduling system for lean and just-in-time manufacturing. Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, developed Kanban to improve his manufacturing efficiency.

Kanban goal

The Kanban goal is to help you and your team make sure each part of the product/project is going to build and prioritized with the same level of care at every step. The board is a way to organize and prioritize your flow/queue with transparency and accountability. It focuses on status instead of due dates. Each task moves through different stages, for example, it can move from the stage TO DO, to DOING and in the end it moves to DONE.

Kanban focuses on status instead of due dates

Having a Kanban board the team can track what is in progress easily, they can also check the next backlog item or if they have any impediment/blocker — which is anything that is slowing down the team. The way the board is organized and the backlog prioritized helps the team make sure the increment is going to be finished exactly when it’s most needed. So, what comes first, it’s delivered first!

Image from LeanKit

How Kanban works

1 — Make it visible!

What’s the best way to increase the transparency and accountability? Make it visible! By creating a visual model of the team’s workflow, you will make sure everybody is on the same page since everybody in the team (and also stakeholders) can observe the flow moving through the Kanban board.

The team can also visualize the queue, blockers/impediments and in some cases the burndown chart. It can help your team increase the transparency, collaboration and also communication.

2 — Work in Progress Limits

WIP (work in progress) limit is a strategy for preventing bottlenecks in software development. Work in progress limits is agreed upon by the development team before a project begins and are enforced by the team’s facilitator.

When you have too many tasks in a list at once, it’s difficult to see which one is the priority and which one you should focus your effort first. A research conducted at Stanford University not that surprisedly found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time.

Multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time

You can reduce the time it takes an item to travel through the Kanban system (DO, DOING and DONE columns) by limiting how much-unfinished work is in process. You can also avoid problems caused by task switching and reduce the need to reprioritize items all the time.

3 — Focus

Since you and your team is focused in a task/iteration at a time, the iteration is going to be finished exactly when it’s most needed. Having WIP — work in progress limits helps the Kanban system to have a smooth flow where the team collaborates together to be more effective and improve the work during the Sprint cycle.

4 — Inspection

We’re not perfect, right? Actually, we’re far away from being perfect. We’re humans and this is absolutely fine. Along the product development cycle, we’re going to make mistakes and this is inevitable.

Why not fail fast when we do fail since each failure is also an opportunity to learn?

Let’s focus on continuous improvement. For continuous improvement, we will need to constantly inspection. Let’s track our flow, our velocity, and also our quality. Don’t be afraid to experiment and fail, actually, let’s fail! Since we learn when we fail, why not fail fast when we do fail since each failure is also an opportunity to learn?

How do I start?

If you choose for a physical Kanban board or a software, you’ll need to keep in mind that Kanban has three elements: the board, the backlog, and the cards:

  • Board: The living environment where you’re going to add your backlog list, prioritize it and make it visible.
  • Backlog: A list of features or tasks that need to be dealt with. Basically, it’s a list of work you and your team are going to do.
  • Cards: It has the information about the backlog, such as a feature or task to be completed, and who’s is going to work on that.
My Kanban board at SoFi

Physical Kanban boards

The first thing you’ll need is Sticky Notes. I like to use two different colors and soon I’m going to explain why. The second thing you’ll need to have: your backlog list, of course! Third the person/people in the team responsible for each deliverable.

  • A board or a wall
  • Sticky Notes
  • Sharpie or whatever pen you like
  • Backlog list
  • Person/People responsible for each deliverable
My Kanban board at Lunna

Electronic Kanban boards

The first decide the software you’re going to use. There are a bunch of options in the market right now, some of them are free. The second thing you’ll need to have: your backlog list, of course! Third the person/people in the team responsible for each deliverable.

  • Kanban software
  • Backlog list
  • Person/People responsible for each deliverable

I did a review of some free Kanban board software. You can take a look and decide each you is the best option for your team.

Why do you need a Kanban board?

  • Increase transparency
  • Queue limiter
  • Accountability
  • Collaboration
  • Visual way to see your queue
  • Avoid overloading of the system
  • Establish an upper limit to the work in progress flow

Kanban board software I recommend


My name is Thaisa, I’m a Project/ Product Manager from Brazil and I’m based in San Francisco, US.

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