How do Kanban Boards Work?

Natalia Plewniok
December 19, 2023
How do Kanban Boards Work?

The Kanban board is a distinctive and practical approach to visualising and managing work using project management tools. As a cornerstone of Agile methods, it facilitates an efficient workflow, ensuring that your tasks are organised and progress is transparent. A kanban board is a tool that helps you see the big picture of your project, tracking the status of different tasks through various stages of completion. It's particularly beneficial in Agile ways of working, aligning with the values and principles of flexibility and continuous improvement. Whether you're new to this concept or seeking to refine your understanding, this introduction will equip you with a solid foundation on how kanban boards operate and enhance productivity.

Understanding Kanban Boards

To grasp the essence of a kanban board, imagine a visual tool that transforms the abstract elements of your project into a clear, tangible format. Originating from Japanese manufacturing practices, kanban boards have been adopted in various fields, especially in Agile ways of working. At its core, a kanban board is designed to visualise work, displaying work items (e.g. tasks) in distinct columns representing different workflow stages. This visualisation is not just about seeing tasks; it's an approach to managing workload and priorities. Limiting work-in-progress encourages focus and prevents overburdening the team. The ultimate goal of a kanban board is to maximise efficiency, ensuring a smooth and uninterrupted flow of work. This method empowers you to identify bottlenecks and allocate resources effectively, fostering continuous improvement in your project management endeavours.

Components of a Kanban Board

  • Columns – The board is divided into columns, each representing a different workflow step. The most generic columns include 'To Do', 'In Progress', and 'Done'. But this approach is often too simplistic. The columns offer a structured pathway for cards as they move through the project lifecycle.
  • Cards / Tickets – These visual signs represent work items (e.g. tasks, requests, initiatives). Each card denotes a specific item, providing an immediate, clear view of what needs to be done.
  • Swim lanes - They are optional elements of kanban boards. Swim lanes help organise tickets on the board. A swim lane can represent different types of work items, different classes of service, workers/teams working together, etc.

A kanban board is the key element of a broader Kanban system that also consists of additional policies, roles, cadences, metrics, and charts. Many of them can also be visualised on a kanban board:

  • Work-In-Progress Limits – Set these limits for each column; these limits control the number of tasks in a single stage at any given time. This constraint is crucial in preventing overloading and ensuring a balanced workload, thereby enhancing focus and efficiency.
  • Commitment Point – It’s technically a line between two columns that marks the moment when the team officially commits to starting the work on this item and delivering it as soon as possible. It’s a critical juncture in managing project timelines and expectations.
  • Delivery Point – This line marks a moment when the work is done from the team's perspective. The delivery point is crucial for measuring the throughput and effectiveness of the workflow process.

Together, these components create a dynamic system that visualises work and optimises the flow and efficiency of your processes. By understanding and effectively utilising each part, you can streamline your work processes, ensuring a more productive and Agile working environment.

Using Kanban Boards

Kanban boards used in Agile product development or service delivery have a dynamic nature and adaptability, fundamental tenets of Agile methods. In an Agile setting, a kanban board is not just a static tool for visualising tasks; it becomes an interactive platform that supports continuous improvement and responsiveness to change.

What sets a kanban board apart is its focus on flexibility. It is designed to adapt to the evolving needs of a project. It allows for rapid adjustments in response to feedback, new insights, or changing priorities, embodying the Agile principle of embracing change.

Furthermore, a kanban board fosters collaboration and transparency among team members. It serves as a central point for communication, where everyone can see the current work state and understand their responsibilities. This openness is crucial in Agile environments, where cross-functional teams work together towards a common goal.

The relevance of a kanban board in Agile methods cannot be overstated. Visualising work, limiting work in progress, and allowing for continuous adaptation helps Agile teams maintain focus, increase efficiency, and deliver value to customers more effectively. A kanban board is not just a tool for managing work; it's a catalyst for implementing Agile ways of working in a real-world context.

Types of Kanban Boards

Physical Kanban Boards

These are tangible boards, often white or corkboards, used with physical magnetic cards or sticky notes for work items. Their primary advantage lies in their simplicity and the tactile experience they offer.

  • Advantages – Physical boards are apparent and accessible, making them ideal for co-located teams. They foster a sense of team collaboration and can be easily understood by anyone, regardless of their familiarity with Kanban certification principles.
  • Use Cases – Best suited for small teams or in environments where team members work closely and can benefit from a shared physical space.

Digital Kanban Boards

These are virtual boards accessible through software applications. They offer advanced features and greater flexibility compared to physical boards.

  • Advantages – Digital boards are perfect for remote or distributed teams, as they can be accessed from anywhere. They provide functionalities like automatic updates, integration with other tools, and data analytics, which are valuable for tracking and improving workflow efficiency.
  • Use Cases – Ideal for larger teams, remote teams, or projects requiring integration with other digital management tools.

Both types of kanban boards serve the fundamental purpose of enhancing workflow visualisation and management. The choice between a physical and digital kanban board should be guided by your team's specific needs, working environment, and the complexity of the tasks. Understanding these differences is crucial for anyone pursuing Kanban certification, as it equips them with the knowledge to select and implement the most effective kanban board for their context.

Scrum Board vs Kanban Board

Understanding the difference between Scrum and Kanban boards is crucial in navigating the Agile landscape. Let's start with the Scrum board. First of all, it does not exist! The Scrum framework is primarily designed to support sprints, which are fixed-duration iterations typically lasting two to four weeks. Work planned for a sprint in Scrum is visualised in an artefact named the Sprint Backlog. It is common to visualise it as a board, often called a “Scrum board” or a “task board, " but it’s not mandatory. Scrum guides us a Sprint Backlog have to exist and consists of the Sprint Goal and selected Product Backlog items. It says nothing about its form, so e.g. a simple checklist would also be possible. Typically, the so-called Scrum boards offer workflows that are way more simplistic than the kanban boards.

Now, let's delve into the key differences between Scrum and kanban boards. Firstly, the process flow: task boards in Scrum are reset at the beginning of each sprint, reflecting the sprint's specific goals and tasks. In contrast, kanban boards have a continuous flow, where tasks are constantly moved from 'To Do' to 'Done' without being tied to fixed iterations.

Roles also differ significantly. The Scrum framework involves specific roles like Scrum Master, Product Owner, and Developer, each with defined accountabilities. In contrast, Kanban doesn't prescribe particular roles, focusing more on the tasks and the workflow. For those pursuing Scrum Master certification, understanding these role dynamics is critical.

Task management in Scrum is sprint-focused, with work often estimated and selected to fit the sprint's capacity. Kanban limits work-in-progress at any time, regardless of sprints or iterations, promoting a sustainable pace.

Despite these differences, both boards converge in their Agile roots. They both aim to improve project management efficiency, transparency, and collaboration. They facilitate Agile values like adaptability, continuous improvement, and customer-centricity. Both boards provide visual insights into the project's progress and encourage team collaboration, making them invaluable tools in Agile methods. Using a Scrum or Kanban depends on your project's needs, team structure, and workflow preferences. Understanding both can be a significant advantage, especially for those with Scrum Master certification, as it allows for greater flexibility and adaptability in applying Agile principles.

Getting Started with Kanban Boards

Implementing a kanban board is a part of building the Kanban system for a selected service. In a professional setting, it begins with understanding its core purpose: to visualise work, identify bottlenecks, and optimise the flow of tasks. To start or update your system, we recommend STATIK or Systems Thinking Approach to Introducing Kanban method. It is a step-by-step process guiding you on that journey.

Leadership and continuous improvement are vital in this journey. Unlike in Scrum, where roles like the Scrum Master or Product Owner (as outlined in Scrum Product Owner certification) have specific responsibilities for guiding the team, Kanban suggests leadership at all levels. Everyone is responsible for managing the flow of work and suggesting improvements. Regular reviews and retrospectives are essential to assess the Kanban board's effectiveness and make iterative improvements.

Encourage team members to participate in these reviews actively. Their insights are invaluable for understanding your workflow's real-world challenges and opportunities. Remember, the goal of a Kanban board is not just to manage work but to continuously improve how work is done.

Adopting a Kanban board is a step towards a more Agile and responsive work environment. It empowers teams to manage their workload effectively and fosters a culture of transparency and continuous improvement. As you embark on this journey, remember that the Kanban board is a tool to facilitate, not dictate, your workflow. Adapt and evolve it to suit your team's unique needs and challenges.


In the dynamic landscape of modern project management, kanban boards have emerged as a pivotal tool, offering clarity, efficiency, and adaptability. They epitomise the Agile ethos, turning abstract concepts into tangible, manageable elements. By visualising tasks and workflows, kanban boards facilitate a deeper understanding of work processes, enabling teams to identify and address bottlenecks swiftly.

The beauty of kanban boards lies in their versatility. Whether you're part of a small startup or a large corporation, the principles of kanban can be tailored to fit your team's unique dynamics and project requirements. This customisation is not a one-time effort but an ongoing process of refinement and improvement, aligning with the Agile commitment to continuous adaptation and growth.

As you consider integrating kanban boards into your workflow, remember that their value transcends task management. They are instruments of cultural change, fostering a collaborative, transparent, and proactive work environment. Embracing and adapting kanban boards to your needs can significantly enhance productivity, team morale, and project outcomes. In essence, kanban boards are not just tools but catalysts for a more Agile, responsive, and efficient approach to project management.

Watch our recent webinar on Kanban, and hear experts telling us aboud practical Kanban applications across different industries.

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