A Kanban board is a tool for work visualization. To make the most of this work visualization tool, it’s important that you understand the anatomy of a Kanban board. “Kanban” in Japanese means “visual signal”. This project management method uses visual signals for improving resource utilization, bottlenecks identification, and problem resolution. The main tools in the Kanban method are the Kanban board and the Kanban cards. Find out more about the anatomy of a Kanban board to understand how you can utilize them better.

What is a Kanban Board?

The Kanban board is a tool for visual representation of the overall work and workflow. It is very practical for managing projects in a simple and clear way. Visualizing and maintaining your tasks and workflows on the board makes it easier to spot potential bottlenecks. Additionally, it improves the team’s efficiency and communication. And helps you optimize the pace of work and use of resources.

Presenting your project on a Kanban board means splitting your workflow into stages and assigning tasks to each one. To better understand the anatomy of a Kanban board, you should know what each element represents. On the Kanban board, the columns represent different workflow stages. You can also create different swimlanes for the different types of activities that happen during each stage. Just like the work moves from the one stage to the next, the tasks–represented by Kanban cards–move from the first to the last column of the Kanban board.

Main Elements of a Kanban Board

The first Kanban boards were physical boards. Nowadays, thanks to technology and software applications, such as Kanban Zone, teams are using virtual (digital) Kanban boards. The main elements, or the anatomy of a Kanban board include the board, columns, and cards (Kanban cards). It’s up to you to choose between a physical or a digital one.

The board itself is the main workspace where you manage the whole project, from beginning to end. The Kanban board is the hub of all project-related tasks and accompanying data. Organized into columns and stored into Kanban cards. Meaning, all project information is visible on the board and all team members can see it and use at all times. As a result, the Kanban board can save you a lot of time. Otherwise spent on progress reports, unnecessary meeting and interruptions.

The columns represent the different stages of the workflow. They can be further broken down into swimlanes to separate different types of work done at each stage. The Kanban board columns contain lists of similar and/or related tasks (cards) that belong to the respective process stage.

The most basic Kanban board has three columns – To do, In Progress, and Done. To make the most of your Kanban board, you are free to decide how many columns you need in order to organize the board better and depict your specific workflow more accurately. Depending on the complexity of your processes, the anatomy of the Kanban board for your team can differ from those used by other teams.

The cards represent certain tasks or ideas. Kanban cards also store task-related information, files, and data. They can also serve as task-related communication channels between team members who work on the same task. But you need to create cards for all tasks and work items related to the project completion and not only the ones you are working on at the moment.

Kanban Zone - My board with cards

It’s a good rule of the thumb for each card to represent one task only. Once the cards are placed on the board, they help the team and stakeholders get a better understanding of the project’s scope and status. They also help spot any bottlenecks, unassigned tasks or missed deadlines.

Additional Components of a Kanban Board

To make the Kanban implementation successful, you need to implement three more components. These components ensure Kanban is actually helping you improve your efficiency. They are WIP(work-in-progress) limits, a commitment point, and a delivery point.

WIP (work-in-progress) limits are an important part of Kanban. You can create two types of WIP limits. WIP limits of the number of tasks that can flow through the board at the same time. Or WIP limits of the amount of work in each stage of the process separately

Either way, the WIP limits are a great way to encourage smarter tasks distribution and work commitment among team members. They are also critical for exposing bottlenecks and maximizing flow. All of which are often the main reasons for poor and untimely execution.

Commitment point is the moment when a task goes from the backlog onto the board and work starts. All tasks and project-related work can’t be directly distributed on the board. That’s why tasks and ideas are usually stored in a backlog. From the backlog, team members pull the tasks they will be working on next.

As soon as a task leaves the backlog and goes into the first column on the board, typically the ‘To Do’ column, the team member responsible for it commits to completing it.

Delivery point is the end of the workflow. Usually, associated with project completion and product delivery in the hands of the customer. The main goal of a Kanban team is to pull all tasks from the backlog, one by one, and complete them as fast as possible. The time it takes the team to do the work and get from the commitment to the delivery point is called Lead Time.

Setting Up Your Kanban Board

Using a Kanban board can be very helpful for projects with complex processes and dependencies, especially if you fully understand the anatomy of a Kanban board. Since all the work is visually laid out, everyone can see and understand the workflow. The Kanban system has many benefits that any team and business will notice shortly after implementing it.

Once you map and visualize the workflow you add a layer of transparency and trust among team members and with stakeholders. This gives both sides a clear overview of everything that needs to be done and how work is progressing. Making it easier for team members to focus on the work at hand.

Knowing the anatomy of a Kanban board also helps team members better understand the process, spot any weaknesses, bottlenecks, and impediments that cause delays. Additionally, modern digital Kanban boards can automatically collect data about cycle times, lead time and other important KPIs. This can help you make data-driven changes that help improve efficiency and speed up delivery times.

Kanban principles encourage starting with what you are doing at the moment. But it’s important for the whole team to be included in the implementation of Kanban and the creation of the board.

First, break down the work in specific activities and decide on the workflow that is suitable for all team members. Next, figure out when new cards will be pulled on the board. Also, try to decide on a time or complexity assessment that will be identical for estimating all cards. Then decide on the commitment and delivery points.

Now, start working. Over time, monitor your workflow carefully and don’t be afraid to make adjustments and changes to the process and improve it accordingly.

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