Use Kanban Boards To Finally Get Your Projects Done
How you can increase productivity and monitor your progress at the same time
In this article, I share the surprisingly simple but efficient concept of the Kanban Board with you and how you can make use of it to improve the success of your personal projects or even for managing your household to finally get structured and get your work done.
The traditional Kan (sign) Ban (board) system was originally invented by Taiichi Ohno. It was meant to be used as an easy-to-use and lightweight planning system for optimizing the processes at the Toyota Motor Corporation.
Ohno came to this idea after a trip to the USA where he was inspired by a supermarket chain that managed to have its inventory filled exactly as needed  and therefore reached very high efficiency.
After he went back to Japan he began to adopt the system by creating paper cards (tickets) for every product that should be produced. Every worker or team could take only one ticket at a time and took it from process to process (swimlanes). As soon as the last step in the manufacturing process was finished and the product had been sold, the respective ticket went back to the initial process stage. Another worker then could take the ticket and the process replayed.
By following this structure, it could be guaranteed that not more products than required would be produced because every ticket corresponded to exactly one required product. The system had such a drastic impact on manufacturing efficiency that Taiichi Ohno had a major influence with this process management optimization on the overall success of the Toyota company.
The Kanban Board
Impressed by the success Kanban brought for Toyota, many people around the world tried to adapt the concept to improve project processes in their respective working fields.
The approach was so successful in the field of Software Development, that it got a major part of agile software development which nowadays is in most modern companies the preferred model for realizing IT projects .
The concept may vary in other fields, but in this article, I want to stick to the Kanban board version often used in agile software projects which can also be applied to more general areas.
The Kanban board itself is separated into multiple so-called “Swimlanes”. Each swimlane should map a process step just like in the Toyota manufacturing example in the history section. As you probably can guess, the name comes from the rectangle shape that can get sometimes pretty long with its content and therefore resembles a swimlane you can also find at your local public swimming pool.
A set of horizontally aligned swimlanes represent a Kanban board. You can theoretically add as many swimlanes as you like. Concerning the clarity of the overview, you should always try to abstract processes to a higher level and therefore have as few swimlanes as possible. Even if it sometimes cannot be avoided to have more than the minimalistic approach of two to three swimlanes, always try to go for clarity over detail when designing your Kanban board.
Just like Taiichi Ohno created paper cards for every new product to be manufactured at the Toyota factory, every new task for your project is wrapped in so-called “Tickets”.
How you exactly build up the structure of your tickets and to which extend you want to go into detail, describing the respective tasks, is up to you. There is no explicit guideline on how you should write a ticket. But every ticket should at least include the following two pieces of information:
- A description of the respective task.
- Criteria (often called “Acceptance Criteria”) that must be met for the ticket to be considered as done
The following screenshot shows a very abstract example of a Kanban board filled with tickets. If you start a new Kanban board, every new ticket you write comes into the very first lane.
As you can see the lanes already hold some tickets and therefore show a board that already had been worked on. Some tickets have already been moved to subsequent lanes.
Take a look at the first lane. Like mentioned before, the first lane (in this case called the “To do” lane) holds tickets that are ready to get worked on. As an example and for the sake of simplicity, only the first one is filled with actual information.
The description of the tickets says “Go outside and walk the dog”. The acceptance criteria that has to be fulfilled to consider the ticket as done is “The dog did his business”. If you share the responsibility of your dog with someone else you both could share such a Kanban board and work in a team.
Whether you work in a team or just alone, whoever takes a look at the board sees that the dog still needs to be walked thanks to the description. He can also directly see that the work is not finished until the dog could do its business.
In case you see that the ticket is still in “To do” and feel to be able to take up the work, you would drag the ticket from “To do” into the “Doing” swimlane.
For the case the Kanban board is used within a team, you would now also write your name onto the card so that everyone knows who exactly took responsibility.
After you went out with the dog and made sure the dog did its business, as soon as you come back home you open the Kanban board and drag the ticket from “Doing” to “Done”. As soon as you dragged the ticket into the “Done” lane, the task can be considered as finished.
If every member of your team does so, everyone has always come to the board and have the possibility to see who works at which ticket and can always monitor the progress state of a task. Besides that this information can be very beneficial for communication purposes because if you need more detailed information on the state of a task you exactly know who to contact.
Designing your own Kanban board
Designing a Kanban board is a very individual process. In the following, I will show you some examples but overall the board size can always vary from project to project. In most cases, it highly depends on the respective process you want to map.
If we take a step back and to the history section where I gave you a short introduction into the origins of the Kanban board, we can take the manufacturing process at Toyota from a very high-level perspective as an example. The process mainly consists of three steps:
- A new product is ready to be manufactured
- The product is currently manufactured
- The process is ready to be sold to the customer
If we now map these process steps to respective swimlanes, we get the following Kanban board:
As you can see we mapped each of the process steps to an own swimlane. If a new product should be manufactured we would now put it into the “Ready for manufacturing” lane and a worker could grab it and start the process.
If we think about task steps on a more abstract level, in most cases every task can be described in these three steps. How you exactly label the swimlanes is up to you.
In software development, a very simple Kanban Board in most cases just looks like the following:
But this concept is not limited to manufacturing cars or developing software, it can be used for almost anything. The most generalized concept to think of would probably be the following:
With these three swimlanes, you can probably map almost every process you could think of.
Working in a team
The Kanban board theoretically can be used by a huge amount of people at the same time. If everyone follows the rules for the Kanban board (which can vary from team to team and project to project) everyone can benefit from the information the board provides you. This can be especially useful for large project teams where you quickly can get lost with a proper project management structure.
As already mentioned in the swimlane section, this basic principle can theoretically be extended to an almost infinite amount of swimlanes. For example, think about what additional process steps could take place in software development.
Sample process steps to think of are different states a ticket could get in. Think about missing information in a ticket you need to be able to work and you want to block it temporarily so non of your coworkers accidentally runs into the same problem.
In case that you have a quality assurance team, they could have their own swimlanes before the done lane that a ticket has to run through before it can actually be considered as done and so on.
A huge problem is a growing complexity with each new swimlane. The willingness to move a ticket from lane to lane with every way too detailed process step will shrink as bigger as the kanban board gets.
So in most cases, it can be said that it’s better to go for a more simple than a too complex approach for your board.
How to get your projects done using Kanban
Like you could already see by the previous examples, the Kanban board is not exclusively useable for software or manufacturing projects. It can be used for almost any sort of project or process and is an ideal tool to monitor your progress and motivate you at the same time.
Do you often face the problem of not knowing where to start with your project idea? No problem, create a simple Kanban board and manifest your ideas into tickets. Afterward, you can always come back to the board, look for tasks that are still in todo, and work on them.
Even if the Kanban board is a rather simple tool in its basic concept, it provides you an amazingly good guideline that can accompany you from the project idea to the project completion and further out.
… and besides that, it can also be very satisfying to drag tickets into the “Done” lane.
Try it out yourself
If the concept of the Kanban board sounds interesting to you and you now want to give it a try, just pull out pen and paper and draw your own! Just kidding.
In the following section, I provide some suggestions for free tools you can use to easily set up your own Kanban board for personal or even commercial projects.
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At the time of writing this article, Trello provides in its free option up to 10 boards and can be used by unlimited members. It’s very simple and easy to use. I can especially recommend this tool to you if you never heard of Kanban before and just want to have the very basics.
If you want to have more opportunities for managing your project besides using a Kanban board, then you should take a look at Miro. Miro provides an almost all-in-one project management tool and is very useful for working in teams because of its possibility to cooperate in real-time with each other. If you go for the free option, you can create up to three boards and have, just like Trello, unlimited teammate access.
If you are already a little bit more experienced and want to have more possibilities for setting up your ideal Kanban board, you definitely should try out YouTrack by JetBrains. Besides more possibilities and depending on your needs, you can use YouTrack as a standalone version or as a cloud solution just like Trello and Miro.
The disadvantage with the free version of YouTrack is that it only provides access for one to ten users. So if you have more team members you could either go for a priced plan or look for another tool that fits more to your needs.
Kanban is a powerful project management tool that provides a variety of possibilities to support you in getting your projects done. Besides that, it is really interesting to use it as a monitoring tool on what is still to do and also what has already been done.
Additionally, Kanban can be used in teams of every size and can also act as a roadmap for your project's success.