To begin Kanban, you first need to decide on your setup. Though Anderson initially conceived of the kanban board as a physical tool, in the ten years since he published his book, the workplace has changed in significant ways: Remote work is on the rise and teams are often spread between cities—if not continents. “For teams that are distributed geographically, or those who have policies that allow team members to work from their homes one or more days per week, electronic tracking is essential,” writes Anderson. Digital boards are accessible anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection, making them an ideal, flexible solution for modern teams.
Virtual kanban boards provide numerous other benefits. They solve the problem of being able to reference old tasks and projects—old cards get archived, unlike physical ones, which tend to get lost or thrown away. Digital Kanban boards are also often integrated into project management tools like Backlog, making them ideal for managing complex projects. For instance, Backlog's Boards feature makes it easy for users to provide context to their kanban boards by adding comments or attaching documents and screenshots. Team members can also easily switch between views so they can see their entire team's work or just focus on their own tasks.
Whatever tool you choose, make sure it's something your team likes and wants to use—this will motivate them to embrace Kanban and drive process improvement.
Once you've selected a tool, it's time for the fun part—building your board. When you first start using a kanban board, the goal is just to get visual feedback on what you're doing right now. Later on, you can implement column limits and queues to help control the flow of work through the system, but the first stage is just to map your process. Here's how:
Depending on the kind of work you do, your board might be basic or highly sophisticated. The only “right” way to set up a Kanban board is to accurately reflect the work you actually do—your workflow.
If you're part of a larger organization, there's only so much you can control. It's important to recognize this when implementing Kanban. Your Kanban board should begin where you, as an individual or team, take ownership of a process and finish where your control ends.
Once you've identified the start and end points in your process, it's time to break down the steps that make up your workflow—what will become your columns. Handoffs are not necessary between every column, they just show work moving from one phase to another. With Backlog's custom status feature, it's easy to map your unique workflow—here are some examples:
The next step is to identify the types of work that moves through your workflow. Depending on the type of work you do, there may be many kinds or just one. For instance, the primary type of work that flows through a salesperson's process is “deals.” A developer, on the other hand, will process many different types of work, including “requirements,” “features,” “bugs,” “maintenance” and so on. If several different kinds of work move through your workflow, you might find it useful to color-code them for easy visibility. You might also consider implementing horizontal “swim lanes” to distinguish between distinct projects or types of work.
Teams typically use a backlog to collect upcoming tasks, which they can then pull into the input queue at regular intervals—this is part of keeping WIP as low as possible to maximize throughput, which we'll discuss further in the next section. What you call your input queue is up to you—“ready to start,” “pending”, or “planning” are all good options—what is important is that you create a protocol for adding new work to it. Ask:
Many teams have regular prioritization meetings to add new tasks, but how and when you replenish your queue is up to you.
“Classes of service” is just Kanban terminology for work prioritization—just like first class and economy on an airplane. Teams typically have a “standard” class of service for routine tasks and an “urgent” class of service which expedites important or time-sensitive ones through the workflow.
The great thing about Kanban is that it isn't a software development lifecycle methodology or a project management framework—rather, it's designed to work in tandem with other systems. If your team is already practicing Agile, Scrum, DevOps, or another framework, Kanban can give you greater insight into your existing process and illuminate areas of improvement. For instance, if you're already using Scrum, you can use a Kanban board to host your backlog, plan your sprints, and track the progress of tasks throughout your sprint process. The key is to focus on optimizing these existing processes rather than swapping them out for new ones.
The next phase of Kanban is to limit WIP. In order to prevent partially-completed work from piling up, you need to limit the total amount of WIP in the system. Here's how:
A team should be able to complete all work items in the input queue in a given time period. For instance, if you replenish your input queue with new tasks from your backlog on a weekly basis, your queue size should be the number of tasks you can complete in a given week.
At least to start with, set each column limit to the number of people available to complete that kind of task. For instance, if a team has three developers, the “development” column should have a WIP limit of three, so each developer can work on one task at a time. If a column reaches its limit, no new tasks can be started until a space is cleared by the completion of a task.
To absorb the variations between tasks and ensure smooth flow, teams can add “queues”—column sections that show completed work that is ready for the next stage. You can put the queue directly after a completed step (“done”) or directly before the next one (“ready”), the effect is essentially the same. Queues should also have limits to avoid creating excess WIP. They typically look something like this:
Above all, Kanban is a process of experimentation and learning. WIP or input queue limits are never set in stone. “You can select a number and then observe whether it is working well,” says Anderson. “If not, adjust it up or down.”
After you've been practicing Kanban for a while, you might notice that some tasks end up sitting in your backlog, never high enough priority to make it into your input queue. After a certain amount of time has passed (6 months is a good benchmark), delete these tasks. If they end up becoming important later on, you can always add them back into your backlog.
You might find that reducing the amount of WIP feels uncomfortable at first and might even cause pushback from team members or managers. Anderson recognizes this—and encourages teams to lean into this tension. “The tension created by imposing a WIP limit across the value stream is positive tension,” he writes. “This positive tension forces discussions about the organization's issues and dysfunctions.” Take the reduction of WIP as an opportunity to examine the deeper issues at play and discuss solutions.
Like most good things, Kanban takes time. In fact, Anderson's first Kanban experiment at Microsoft took fifteen months to enact. Have patience with the process.
Since Kanban spurs gradual transformation, it's not always easy to see your advancement day-to-day. It's important to keep tabs on your headway to drive your motivation and recognize opportunities for further development. You can use the following guiding questions as a starting point to assess your progress:
What matters is that you're continuously improving, little by little. Small changes compound into big results.
Kanban is a simple system with powerful results. Crucially, it doesn't force teams to change their work habits—it allows them to be unique and become the best they can be through incremental change. David J. Anderson puts it best when he says:
“Kanban is giving permission in the market to create a tailored process optimized to a specific context. Kanban is giving people permission to think for themselves. It is giving people permission to be different: different from the team across the floor, on the next floor, in the next building, and at a neighbouring firm. It's giving people permission to deviate from the textbook.”
Ready to get started with Kanban? Backlog's Boards feature makes it easy for teams to manage complex projects, using their existing systems. These virtual kanban boards plug into Backlog's sophisticated project management and version control platform, allowing team members to manage their projects—and their code—from one centralized location. Get started for free.