How Kanban Works in Project Management

Kanban in projects usually takes the form of a visual board composed of a grid and cards. The board may be physical, constituted of pieces of paper (commonly 3" x 5" index cards or sticky notes) on a whiteboard or a wall. Alternatively, the board could be electronic—several software programs and platforms support Kanban-style project management boards. A digital solution is a great tool when a project team is not co-located physically, or when members of the team need to access the board when out of the office.

The Kanban Grid

A Kanban grid in action
Monica Borrell, Cardsmith

For simple projects, a Kanban-style grid would likely have a single row and multiple columns. Columns represent the process through which work flows, from left (start) to the right (end). If the team is addressing more than one type of work, or if there are sub-teams or different types of work streams, the board’s organizer may use rows to separate the cards vertically. 

Cards move across the board in columns according to their current stage in the process. This picture shows a typical Kanban grid in action.

Once their Kanban board is set up, the project team typically meets around the board with regular frequency, in a “standing” or very short meeting. The team’s objective is to “pull” work into the final column of the board, which is often labeled “Done.” At these meetings, the team discusses when each card will be able to move to the next column. If someone is working on moving the card forward and has encountered an obstacle, this would be noted in the standup meeting, with action items taken to resolve the issue.

The Kanban Frame of Mind

Planning with sticky notes
Eva Katalin Kondoros/E+/Getty Images

To reap the full benefits of the Kanban method, a team needs more than a board. Beyond the technical, visual Kanban implementation, there are certain behaviors the team, project manager, and members of management, in general, need to understand and internalize:

  1. Remove bad multitasking. Psychologists and sociologists studying work have written much on this topic. Research indicates that switching tasks slows us down and causes quality issues due to mental resetting and other setup costs.  
  2. Limit work in progress. In order to bring bad multitasking to a bare minimum, you need to limit the number of cards released into the Kanban system. Do not allow management to push more cards (tasks, projects, or features) into the board’s “Doing” column(s). This step may require a significant change in the mindsets of managers who believe that in order to finish work on time, one must start as soon as possible.
  3. Foster a culture of solving problems as a team, rather than one that motivates blaming others.
  4. Keep the top of the backlog prioritized. The cards at the top of the “Backlog” column should be the next tasks, projects, or features that will provide the most value to the customer and business. 

A Kanban system is an effective way to execute on many types of projects. Like most Lean tools, it works best when combined with a mindset of learning and continuous improvement. There is no single “right” way to implement a Kanban board, and many factors can influence its structure as well as the team’s behaviors. In general, any project team that uses the board should be trained in the concepts of Kanban, and then allowed to develop and improve upon their Kanban system as they use it.