Most of us could do with being better organized. Fortunately, there are all sorts of tools to help with that. Some are useful for teams, some for individuals and many for both. We’re going to look at a simple tool that not everyone is aware of in this article by explaining how to use a kanban board.
The project management tools we cover often include a kanban board among their views. The best example of that is Trello, which is almost entirely based around its kanban view. Another is Monday.com, the winner of our best project management software article. You can read about it in our Monday.com review.
Trello is available in web form, but also has apps for mobile devices, so you can use it on the go. Kanban boards work well on mobile. You might find yourself getting a surprising amount of organization done on the train to work.
We’ve covered Trello before in our Trello beginner’s guide, which, along with our Trello review, is a great place to jump on the kanban bandwagon. It’s also the best free kanban board, in case you needed another reason to check it out.
What Is a Kanban Board?
Kanban is an evolution of a Japanese technique intended to improve productivity. Meaning “billboard” in Japanese, it’s named after cards used in factories. The system began at Toyota, but years later it was adapted for use at Microsoft. It’s especially useful for Agile teams using Scrum frameworks.
The kanban board is key to the process and enables teams to visualize how work flows from start to finish. It can also show you how much everyone has to do. That means work can be pulled into the system when people are free, rather than being pushed in as requested.
How a Kanban Board Works: Columns and Cards
Kanban boards are made up of columns. The columns contain cards, which you can move around the boards.
To set up your kanban board, you need to create and name several columns. You don’t have to start from scratch, though. Many of our favorite project management tools have a selection of kanban templates to help you. Take a look at our Airtable review to learn about a platform that has some.
If you’re doing it the hard way, the quintessential kanban setup is the three-column approach. That method uses “to-do,” “doing” and “done” columns. When you create tasks you add them to the “to-do” column.
When you start something, you move it to the “doing” column. That’s an easy drag and drop operation. You’ve probably guessed that when things are finished, they go to the “done” column. It sounds simple, and it is. Give it a try though and it might surprise you how much making your plans concrete can help you get things done.
One other tool we like is Asana. Kanban is just one of its views. When you tick something off as complete, it rewards you by sending a colorful animal flying across your screen. Read about it in our Asana review, and learn how to use it in our Asana beginner’s guide.
Kanban Board Example: Trello
Let’s go through the process of setting up a board in Trello. It’s easy to sign up for and can be used for free, but it has useful extras on its paid plans. They include additional customizations and enhancements to boards.
Once you’ve signed up, the first thing to do is to create a board. You can do that in several ways. One way is to click the “boards” button, followed by “create new board.” A pop-up will then appear.
There, you can give the board a title. Optionally, you can select a team or make the board public, rather than keeping the default setting, which is private. You can pick a background from a selection of nine colors or many photographs. If you’re on a paid plan, you can upload your own backgrounds, too.
There’s a coffee background that we like, but we have to avoid because we drink too much already. We’ve picked this deep red color, which hopefully will make the screenshots clearer. Also, if you don’t understand the reference in the board, we recommend you check out our guide on how to watch Harry Potter.
Trello refers to its columns as lists. The next step is to add some to the board. There’s a big “add list” box waiting for you on the newly created board. We’ve typed “to do” in the name area, as you can see in the screenshot.
The “add list” box moves to the right, and we’ll use it to create the next two columns in our basic setup: “doing” and “done.”.
Now we have our lists in place. We could’ve called them anything or made more of them, but this will do for now. The next step is to add cards. We do that by, you guessed it, clicking the “add a card” text at the bottom of each list.
All you need to do is give the card a name, then press return to create it. A new “add a card” field will be opened for you automatically.
Using Trello Cards
If you want to add more detail, click the card and a pop-up will appear that allows you to add more information.
As you can see, there are several things you can do on the cards. You can add a description, make comments and attach files. There’s a 10MB size limit for attachments on the free plan, which increases to 250MB for paying users. If you need more space for file storage, take a look at our best cloud storage roundup.
You can add labels, a due date and checklists of subtasks, too.
The card details here are specific to Trello. Other kanban tools will be different, but this gives you a good idea of what to expect elsewhere.
Moving Trello Cards Around
Let’s go back to the board. We’ve created a few tasks in the “to do” column. When we start working on a card, we drag it across to the “doing” column, and when it’s finished, we drag it to the “done” column.
As you can see in the screenshot above, we have moved one card to “done” and one to “doing.” Our project is well underway.
You can have several cards on the go at once or work through them one at a time. It’s up to you. You can assign things to people, too, and see who’s doing what and what has yet to be done.
That’s the basic setup for a simple kanban board that you can use for tasks of all kinds.
Alternative Layouts to Kanban
There are other ways to arrange a kanban board. You could have a column for each stage of production or columns for work assigned to different team members, like we do at Cloudwards.net.
You can have columns for tasks that have been paused or archived. Perhaps multiple groups of columns for work assigned to different departments. You can even use kanban boards for seating arrangements, for example, with columns for tables at a wedding reception and cards representing guests.
They work well as menus too, with starters, main courses, drinks and dessert columns. You can make boards public, so customers can view what you offer online or via a tablet in your restaurant.
We’ve focused on Trello for this tutorial, but there are several other tools that include a kanban board. Many of them are stronger at all-around project management and offer features that go beyond Trello’s. We’ve already mentioned Monday.com and Asana.
LeanKit has a useful kanban view, too, and includes a good sample project that shows you how to take advantage of its features. Read about it in our LeanKit review.
ClickUp is another likeable tool. It includes dependencies and also has a free tier. Read about that in our ClickUp review.
There are many other tools out there. Have a look through our project management software reviews to see what suits you.
Other Kanban Features
A lot of tools that include a kanban board offer many other features. Trello provides a selection of “power-ups” that add extra functionality of all kinds. Most tools give you several ways to view tasks aside from kanban.
Most tools let you assign tasks to particular users, which helps you manage projects and keep everyone aware of who is doing what.
Tasks can also be categorized and prioritized. You can usually comment on them and add relevant files. That’s all useful, but you don’t have to use any of it if you prefer to keep things simple.
Dependency management is a way to see which of your tasks depend on others, and it can take your project planning skills to the next level. Read our Wrike review for an example of a tool that offers it.
You’ll also find file storage, team communication and time tracking features in other tools if you look around and compare what they do.
As we’ve seen, getting things done can be difficult, but there are tools to help you, and kanban boards are among the easiest to use. Don’t be fooled by that, though. Breaking complex problems into smaller chunks is a powerful way to solve problems. Even if you are overwhelmed by the small things, clarifying what you need to do can help you get it done.
Two of the simplest tools we’ve mentioned are Trello and Asana. Both have usable free tiers. We compare them directly in our Trello vs. Asana face-off. If you want something more complicated but powerful, we recommend Monday.com. See how it fared against other mainstays of the industry in our Monday.com vs. Jira and Monday.com vs. Wrike bouts.
Use a kanban board effectively and you may find that you have more time on your hands than you thought you would at the end of the day. Kanban boards are used by many large companies because they work and make organizing cheaper.
That means less meetings, fewer delays and a team that’s on the same page. Saving time on a large project can be the difference between failure and success.
If you’ve used a kanban board or have tips to share with us, please tell us in the comments. Thank you for reading.