How to Use a Kanban Board in 2021: Getting Stuff Done

Kanban boards are a great way to keep rack of simple projects and smaller teams. However, getting the most out of one takes some skill and experience. In this article on how to use a kanban board, we help you with a bit of both.

Fergus O'Sullivan
By Fergus O'Sullivan (Editor-at-Large, Writer)
— Last Updated: 2021-01-20T14:08:04+00:00

If you’re just getting into project management, you can quickly become overwhelmed by the many ways in which you can approach managing tasks. You could use scrum boards or Gantt charts, to name two examples. However, if you’re just starting out, it’s probably best to use a kanban board. (You can skip straight to our instructions by clicking this link.)

Key Takeaways:

  • Kanban boards are the simplest way to keep track of projects and tasks, making them a great way for people new to task management to learn the ropes.
  • Thanks to its layout, a kanban board is one of the best ways to get a bird’s-eye view of how a project is coming along.
  • Because of its simple effectiveness, many advanced project management strategies will have kanban boards at their core, meaning familiarity with them will stand you in good stead throughout your career.

For this brief tutorial we’ll mostly be using one of the best kanban tools out there, Trello, for our examples — if you’d like to know more about it, read our full Trello review. That said, almost every one of our best project management picks has a kanban board available, so you’re not married to Trello. We just like it because it’s free and easy to use.

If you’re looking to integrate a kanban system as part of a larger strategy, we recommend you read our monday.com review. If you’re at that point, though, this guide is probably not for you.

  • Generally speaking, we recommend you use a pre-made, free kanban board from any of the dozens of providers that offer one, like Trello or Wrike. However, if you want a physical board in your office, you can create one with a bulletin board (or pin board), some colored paper and a ton of pins. Don’t use sticky notes or the like on a whiteboard, as the glue wears off too fast.

  • Microsoft Teams doesn’t have a kanban board built in, but you can easily add one by opening a new tab, picking the “VSTS” option and following the instructions on screen.

  • Jira’s kanban board is a breeze to use. Just select kanban as your template when creating a new project and from there it works like any other.

  • Swim lanes (or swimlanes) are dividers placed between sections of a kanban board. They’re pretty useful if you have a large team with different tasks working off the same board, as they’ll make clear which tasks are for which team or group.

Why Use a Kanban Board?

The nice thing about kanban boards is that they’re extremely intuitive to use — all you need is a program that offers one and you’re already halfway there. However, before we get to the “how” and “why,” it may be a good idea to answer the “what” first.

What Is a Kanban Board?

In short, a kanban board is a board with a bunch of columns on it, with each column having cards on it. The magic of kanban is that you can freely move the cards around the columns, and can change their order at whim.

use kanban terms
A brief overview of the elements of a kanban board.

Usually, columns will represent from left to right the stage the kanban cards are in — so “planned,” “work in progress,” “finished,” or even just “to-do,” “doing,” “done” — while the cards represent tasks. A task can either be a job by itself (“Trello review,” “Michael’s taxes”) or one small part of a bigger job (“take images for Trello review,” “get salary information from Mike”).

use kanban stages
Here is one very simple representation of a kanban method with stages.

The kanban method is as simple as moving kanban cards around the columns, so you know where a task is, who’s doing it, and where it will go next. Thanks to the way it’s laid out, you can get all this information at a single glance. For this, we owe a debt of gratitude to Taiichi Ohno, the man who perfected the kanban system for the Toyota manufacturing chain in the 1950s.

Main Elements of a Kanban Board

Before we move on, let’s recap the parts that make up a kanban board, as well as some alternative nomenclature.

  • The board, which is where everything takes place
  • Columns, also known as lists, which show the status of tasks
  • Cards, which denote tasks or issues

The Benefits of a Kanban Board

The reason to make use of a kanban board is twofold. For one, it gives a great bird’s-eye overview of what’s going on with your projects and tasks. The second reason is that it’s pretty much idiot-proof: because it’s so intuitive, even the denser members of your project team should be able to grasp the concepts of the kanban tool quickly.

Also, if somebody still ends up making a mistake (stupid people are too inventive for anything to be truly idiot-proof), thanks to kanban boards’ visual nature you can usually find and track the issue quickly. Fixing it is then usually just a matter of moving the card back to where it belongs.

Who Uses Kanban Boards?

As a result of its ease of use, kanban boards are used by, well, everybody. Almost every single piece of project management software will offer some kind of kanban board, and we assume most users integrate it into their systems. A kanban board is just too useful a tool to ignore, and they’re incredibly flexible, to boot.

Despite being first developed in a car factory, the kanban board has found a home in all kinds of industries imaginable. At Cloudwards, for example, we keep track of our editorial calendar with a kanban board. Each card represents an article, and by just looking at the board we know whether a piece is being worked on by a writer, being looked over by an editor or on its way to publication.

use kanban cw calendar
Looks complicated, but it’s just a variation of to-do, doing, done.

You could also manage tasks in a marketing team with a kanban board: give team members or entire teams each their own column, then move tasks from column to column when one group is done and another can take over.

You could even ditch the whole idea of a column being a stage of a project and use kanban boards to do your wedding dinner planning, with each table being a column. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

use kanban table setting
Though it’s a basic example, this just goes to show you can use kanban boards for more than just seeing what needs doing.

Kanban Boards vs Scrum Boards

One place where kanban boards are used a lot is in software development teams, though they often will use a modified version called a scrum board. We won’t go into detail on how they work — that’s an entirely different article and will involve discussion of the Agile methodology — but the main difference between a kanban board and a scrum board is the part of the process it targets.

A kanban board looks at the whole process of a project, like a video game, while a scrum board looks at just part of it. This part is then broken down into smaller parts and completed in a so-called sprint, which is a short time frame. One project can then be made up out of many sprints. Read our Jira review for one program that does a great job of using scrum boards with kanban boards.

use kanban sprint
We used Jira for making this example sprint, but as you can see, visually it’s the same as a kanban board.

How to Use a Kanban Board

The nice thing about the kanban method is that explaining the “what” and the “why” also covers much of the “how.” Name your columns, add some cards and move them around as you please. While we do have a full Trello tutorial that will help you get started (though it also covers a few Trello-specific quirks), probably the best way to learn kanban is to just use it.

After all, nobody knows your company and its goals as well as you do, so often the best thing you can do is download Trello, Asana or another one of the best free project management tools and get to experimenting. That said, let’s look at some specific uses for kanban boards before we leave you.

Find out Who Does What With a Kanban Tool

If you’re running a large team, there’s a good chance you may lose track of figuring out everybody’s workload. There are a few ways to figure this out (read our Asana review for an analysis tool), but by far the easiest is to assign each team member their own column and pile their daily responsibilities into them.

use kanban office
In this example, Susan could be doing less, while Jimmy could do a lot more.

If any lists or columns are substantially longer than others, it could mean you either have a few people overloaded, or that some people are consumed with busywork. Whatever the case may be, there’s a good chance you may have found an issue that needs improvement.

Locate Bottlenecks With Kanban Boards

Another big problem in any workflow process is bottlenecks, when tasks heap up in one or more parts of the operation. Generally, though, you can only tell if there might be a bottleneck at the end: there’s just less coming out than is being put in. A kanban board can help you if you make each column a step of the process.

use kanban bottleneck
In this example, the editing part of the process is the obvious bottleneck, though the writer may also need checking up on.

In this case, assuming each card is a task of equal size, the column in the middle is holding up the steps after it. There are a few solutions available now, like assigning more people to that step or maybe splitting the step up, but either way you’ve probably found your culprit.

Final Thoughts

We hope this article got you on the way to using kanban boards. For our money, they’re probably the best way not only to get started with managing projects, but also to keep an eye on them far into the future.

As for programs, we recommend you check out Trello for a free kanban board, Asana for one that doesn’t look as good but plays nice with others, and monday.com if you want a board that both looks good and works well.

Hopefully, this guide is all you needed to get started — let us know how you got on with your first kanban board in the comments below. As always, thank you for reading.