How to set up a kanban board
How do you decide when to buy a new loaf of bread? If you are like most people, you probably buy a couple varieties at a time. And you wait to buy more until your current loaves are almost gone. It is a simple analogy — one that is core to the kanban approach to work. The idea is that you do not want to have too many tasks (or loaves) in progress at the same time since you cannot finish everything at once (and worse, things go stale).
Of course, creating a kanban board for a development team is more complex than buying bread. And it comes with a lot of variables — no two teams will set up a kanban board exactly the same. By design, kanban boards are versatile and can be customized to meet your team's needs.
Here are some of the questions you will get answers to in this guide:
What is kanban?
Kanban is a workflow management system that is popular with agile development teams who want a flexible way to visualize and manage work. Kanban is a pull system — work only gets added to the team board when there is an actual demand for it and the team has the capacity to complete the work.
Importantly, kanban teams are self-directed. They determine when and how their work is completed — with autonomy to establish limits for the amount of work in progress (WIP) they can manage. The idea is to stay nimble and complete work incrementally.
Kanban principles and practices
There are a handful of guiding principles and practices that help kanban teams maintain efficient workflows and deliver high-quality work. The six core principles of kanban are:
Make process policies explicit
Implement feedback loops
Invest in continuous improvement
Keep these in mind as we cover how to build and manage your own kanban board. You will notice that the principles and practices are built into the way kanban boards operate.
What is a kanban board?
A kanban board is a visual tool to track work as it moves through your development process. There is no right or wrong way to set up your kanban board — you can personalize it to fit the way you work. Columns typically represent each step in your workflow, while cards represent the actual work items, such as epics, features, or user stories. Cards are pulled across the board from left to right as your work progresses through your process. More complex boards may include horizontal swimlanes to separate different workstreams or product types.
Below is an example of a simple kanban board for engineering teams with swimlanes that indicate each team member's work.
This kanban board was created in Aha! Develop.
Physical vs. digital kanban boards
The original kanban system used by Toyota engineers leveraged cards on a physical board. Some teams today still maintain physical kanban boards with whiteboards and sticky notes.
But physical kanban boards are not very practical. They only work when everyone can meet in person to interact with the physical board — not feasible for teams with any remote or hybrid folks. And since physical boards are naturally limited by the size of your whiteboard or cork board, you might run out of room for all of your cards. Add that to the risk of sticky notes getting lost or trampled and it is clear that physical boards have their downsides.
Today most teams practicing kanban rely on an online kanban board with digital cards for each work item. A digital kanban board allows you to keep everything in order. Each card can be customized to display the information your team needs to make workflow decisions and the board itself is infinite — growing in response to new team members or additional work items. Since your board is online, all team members can access the contents of the board regardless of their location.
Why use a kanban board?
A kanban board offers a comprehensive view of your team's work and workflow. It creates transparency into who is doing what, the work items you are prioritizing, and what to pursue next. Having a single visualization of everything the team is working on ensures that your priorities align with the tasks that are actually being done. This is useful for understanding capacity and giving leaders and stakeholders a clear picture of the status of work.
The kanban process can also help you increase efficiency by keeping everyone focused on finishing existing work before starting something new. And for distributed teams, a digital kanban board can be a game-changer for facilitating smoother collaboration — providing a shared space for everyone to stay aligned on progress and priorities. But keep in mind that many different types of teams find kanban concepts useful, regardless of the methodology they follow.
Build your kanban board
Your kanban board will not be perfect from the start — nor should it be. You need to start somewhere, then concentrate on making incremental improvements to your workflow. With this in mind, here are five steps to setting up a kanban board:
1. Create a basic board
Choose an agile development tool with a kanban-style workflow board and define your vertical columns. These could be as simple as "To do," "Doing," and "Done." But agile teams often want to designate a few more columns. A good starting point could include the following:
Choose columns that accurately match the current workflow of the team. The idea is to have cards stay in one column for a period of time. Too many columns would make it challenging to absorb what is happening across the board and could become unwieldy to manage.
2. Add current work
Now it is time to build out the details and add kanban cards that represent work items. The layout of each card is an important consideration, as you want folks to be able to understand the work at-a-glance. Consider including the following:
A brief summary or description
Status (e.g., not started, in progress, or blocked)
Theme, product type, or component
Owner or assignee
In the example below, each kanban card has an assignee and a colored label to indicate the theme of work. Cards are also labeled by the epic that they support.
Each card on this kanban board in Aha! Develop can be expanded to show additional details — such as estimated effort, release, sprint, progress, and team ownership.
With your card layout defined, add cards to the appropriate columns on your kanban board. Move cards from left to right as you make progress on the work. When you are ready to start something new, you will pull a new card directly from the top of the backlog.
3. Organize your backlog
The value of using a kanban board is visualizing current as well as upcoming work. Future work that you have committed to should be added to your backlog. And if you have any work that originates in another tool — for instance, tickets from a customer support application — it is ideal to import these over to your kanban tool as well. You want to account for everything that needs to be done.
Prioritizing work in the backlog is a crucial step of the process. Ideally, these features have already been prioritized by a product manager based on product strategy — using a prioritization framework. But now that the features are on your backlog, it is up to an engineering manager to work with the product manager to continually review and reprioritize the backlog.
Maintaining a prioritized backlog ensures you can select the next item from the top and feel confident that you are working on the most essential next thing.
4. Establish team policies
You are ready to start using your kanban board — should you jump right in? Not so fast. Set goals and ground rules with the team. Who is responsible for adding and removing cards? What happens when a card is blocked? How often will you review the team's workflow? To answer these questions, assign an owner of the kanban board and work closely with product management to establish and review shared policies.
5. Optimize workflow
As the work gets underway, use regular meeting times to gather feedback and walk through your kanban board together — starting with the items closest to completion. Discuss how you can work together to move cards over the finish line. The idea is to collaborate on improving flow and overall velocity as a team.
Actively using the board on a daily basis is the best way to hone in on improvements. Here are a few tips to help you optimize the flow of work across your board.
Track bottlenecks and blockers. As teammates share what's slowing their work, look for common elements — like shifting priorities, scope creep, or unavailable skillsets that signal a larger process issue.
Hunt for hidden work. Ask if anyone has work that is not shown on the board — then be sure to add it. If your kanban board doesn't visualize all of your engineering team's work, you cannot be sure the right tasks are being prioritized.
Limit work in progress. In kanban, these are called work in progress (WIP) limits. WIP limits help boost velocity as you zero in on a few tasks at a time.
Automate repeats. Take inventory of repetitive and manual tasks — such as handing off work, creating to-dos, and updating status labels. Can you automate any of these tasks to lighten engineering overhead? If you use a development tool like Aha! Develop, no-code automation rules can be set up to minimize manual work.
Take your Kanban board further
Go beyond the basics with some more sophisticated additions to your board. Here are a few of the most useful upgrades that agile teams make:
Job queues and ready queues
Make space for hand-offs between coding and testing. Add a ready queue to your kanban board to visualize work that is waiting to be picked up. Code reviewers can pull from this queue as they have availability. If you consistently see work pile up in job queues, dig in to figure out the wait times and resolve bottlenecks.
"On hold" status
How do you handle work that is blocked or displaced by a high-priority need? Consider adding an "On hold" column to identify items that have been deprioritized to make room for something else. Use an "Urgent" tag on cards to indicate unplanned, critical tasks that must be addressed right away.
If these things become habitual, it will slow your velocity. Having a way to visually distinguish them can give you a clearer picture of how often priorities are shifting.
Visible WIP limits
Setting limits is useful — and it is even better if you can define limits visually in the kanban tool that you choose. For instance, apply a limit to the number of cards that can be added to any column or customize card colors to show work that is overcapacity.
Consider adding "Ready" queues, "On hold" status labels, and WIP limits.
These are just a few examples — of course, there are lots of ways to craft a kanban board that best suits your team. Look for an agile development tool like Aha! Develop that has customizable kanban boards. This way, you can add custom elements and visualize the status of work by individual, team, or status.
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