Visualizing your work items on a Kanban board gives everyone on your team visibility into which tasks are sitting in the backlog, currently being worked on, currently stuck, and completed. Kanban boards also reinforce a pull system, where people doing the work only begin tasks as they're ready to complete them, enabling teams to complete work efficiently and quickly adapt to change rather than being overloaded with work. In this first phase, you'll learn to “stop starting and start finishing” work by creating a basic board using LeanKit's default template, creating cards to represent your work items, and moving those cards through the board.
Create Your First Board
- Create a new board using the default template or a template from our template library, and give it a name that accurately reflects who will be using the board and for what purpose.
- Invite your team members to your organization's LeanKit account. Each person will receive an email with an invitation to join LeanKit and create their user account.
- Set board user access to determine which actions users can take on the board. Depending on their user role, team members will be able to view the board, perform actions on cards, and edit the board's layout.
Create and Connect Cards
Cards are used to document and communicate important details about each work item, and can also be used as a record for important work attributes and metrics. Just by glancing at any card on the board, you'll be able to see who is assigned to the work, when it is due, what kind of work it is, and an estimate of the effort needed to complete the work.
- Create cards that represent your potential work items in your not started lanes, and your current work items in your started lanes.
- Edit your cards to add visual indicators and additional details about the work. Here's some of the basic information you'll want to include on a card:
- Header: Card headers are unique identifiers for your cards that can be used to track details from external systems, such as support ticket numbers.
- Assignee: Indicate who is in charge of a work item by assigning users to cards in any started lanes, and their avatar will appear on the face of the card.
- Planned Start and Finish Dates: You might choose not to have any dates on your cards, instead using lanes to represent sprints and other delivery cadences. But for certain types of time-sensitive work, setting planned start and planned finish dates on your card can help you visualize important deadlines. If your card is close to its planned finish date, the calendar icon will turn yellow. If it’s past the due date, it will turn red.
- Card Type: Using card types is one of the best practices of Kanban, because it’s an easy way to organize work your by project, type of work, or other process-based identifiers. For example, a marketing team could use any of the following card types on their board: Campaigns, Customer Research, Content, Landing Pages, Website, Events.
- Priority: Prioritizing cards enables teams to know which cards to pull from the backlog first. And since priority is based on overall strategy and value, you can be more confident when making trade-off decisions if you run into capacity issues.
- Size: Sizing can help teams capture estimated effort for each card, enabling them to plan their backlog of work and manage work in process. Approaches to card size (sometimes also referred to as points) vary by team. For example, you can use a scale that corresponds to t-shirt size (e.g., 1 equals extra small, 2 equals small, etc.), a scale of 1 through 10, or a detailed estimate for hours of effort.
- Custom Icons: Custom icons are a secondary option for visually categorizing work in addition to card types. For example, you can use them to identify which customer a card is for, which geographic region a card is connected to, or what product a card pertains to.
- Create parent-child connections between cards to visualize dependencies and accurately represent the size of the work. You may also want to connect cards on the board to other teams' boards, to visualize cross-team or cross-departmental dependencies.
Make a Real-Life Kanban Board
Is your team struggling with placing cards on the board? Try making a physical Kanban board using a whiteboard and color-coded sticky notes:
- Have each team member write a list of their work items on a single sheet of paper. An informal list is all that’s needed; try not to be too granular.
- Post everyone's lists on the whiteboard and compare them. Identify themes among the work by asking, “What type of work is this?” For example, a development team might have feature, defect, user story, or task work types. Keep track of the work types you come up with by writing a list on the whiteboard.
- Designate a different color of sticky note to each type of work. Have each team member write their work items on individual sticky notes of the appropriate color. (Each color will later be represented as a card type in LeanKit.)
- Have each team member write their name on each of their sticky notes.
- Draw an outline of your board on the whiteboard, and have team members post their sticky notes on the whiteboard in the lane that corresponds with the work item’s current status.
Adapted from Kanban Roadmap: How to Get Started in 5 Easy Steps
Standardize Repeatable Work
To save time recreating similar work items, we recommend creating a template card so you can easily duplicate related or repeatable work, saving time and improving efficiency. For example, if a team works on three to four projects per week and each project has around 16 tasks, using a card template can save the team from creating 64 new cards per week.
Here's how to create a template card so your team knows what information to include on their cards:
- Add a lane for template cards to your board. Make sure the lane class is set to not started, because you don't want your template cards to affect your board analytics. You can also give users additional instructions about how to use the template cards in the lane policy.
- Create cards to represent each type of repeatable item or task, and fill out any relevant information you want to be standardized for each type of work.
- When you or a team member is ready to start work, simply duplicate the template card and edit the information as needed.
The same idea can also apply to scaling your process to other teams or departments within your organization. Once you finalize your board's layout in the next phase, you can use it as the basis for a board template, so other teams with similar functions can use the same processes or get inspiration for their own boards.
As team members have the capacity to take on work, they will pull a card from the backlog and assign it to themselves and anyone else working on the card with them. In a pull system, team members are able to see which tasks are higher-priority, and choose to work on those items first. As the team's work progresses, team members move cards left to right through the board, only pulling each card into the next lane when they actually begin the next stage of the work.
Hold a Kanban Standup
The best way to start observing the flow of work on your board is by holding daily meetings called standups, which get their name because the meeting is short enough to conduct while standing (usually around 15 minutes.) The purpose of a standup isn't to update the team on the status of your work, but rather to observe flow, resolve issues, and engage the team with a shared system.
- Team members should update the status of their work items prior to standup, so the meeting begins with a current picture of the work in process, and time isn't wasted moving cards.
- Begin the meeting by having someone (a scrum master, or a different team member each time) go through the in-progress cards on the board, starting with the cards closest to completion. For each card, ask the assignee what they need to do to finish the task. That way, if they need help, other team members can volunteer to help get the work item all the way to done. Focus on finishing work, rather than starting new tasks!
- After going through the board, ask the team if anyone is working on anything that's not represented on the board, and have team members add cards if needed.
- If there is extra time remaining, look at cards in the backlog and re-prioritize and/or reassign work based on deadlines or your team's chosen unit of value.
- You can also use extra time to observe the flow of work on the board by looking at queues, overloaded lanes, or other indicators of risks and issues. Work items should be moving across the board at a relatively uniform pace, so you may need to continue to divide work into smaller tasks and subtasks. Your cards should represent not only the units of value that your team is expected to deliver, but also your capacity to deliver them.
You can filter cards displayed on the board according to certain criteria (for example, to highlight blocked cards).
Visualize Blocked Work
The Lean technique known as stop the line is the practice of pausing a production line when an error occurs, in order to identify the cause of the error and correct it. No matter what you're using your Kanban board for, you can apply the "stop the line" practice to your own work by blocking a card whenever a work item can’t move to the next stage in your process because of an issue. Everyone on your team will be able to see the reason why a card is blocked, encouraging team members to work together to quickly come up with effective, permanent solutions to problems.
View a card's history and health to see how many times it has been blocked, where in the process the card was blocked, and how long the card stayed blocked.
Now that your team has been working with the board for a while, you may want to update your board layout to better reflect the specific steps in your process. When creating your board layout, keep in mind that this phase is all about capturing your process as it is today, rather than trying to change or improve it. You'll revisit your board layout and make adjustments as your process matures, so don't worry about getting it perfect right away! As you begin to use your newly redesigned board, resist the urge to make major changes to the layout for at least a week or two, so you can identify patterns and discuss changes to the board as a team.
You'll need Board Manager permissions to edit the board's layout.
Create Lanes and Swimlanes
Edit your board layout to rename and/or divide the default not started, started, and finished lanes into steps that align with your process. Lanes can be vertical or horizontal, and each orientation has its own benefits.
Vertical lanes on a board correspond to each stage of your process. For example, this development team's started lanes represent four basic stages of work (analyze, develop, test, and deploy):
Horizontal lanes (also called swimlanes) are useful for illustrating parallel processes that are similar, but distinct enough to require separate workflows. For example, this IT operations team’s started lanes have swimlanes for different types of demand:
Try this activity with your team to help define stages in your process:
- Have each team member write down the top three to five work items they have in process, using one sticky note per item. Be specific so that the whole team understands the details of each work item (for example, "designing new website layout” is better than “website”).
- Next, have each team member pick one sticky note from their collection and stick it to their shirt, to “become” that piece of work.
- Figure out where your piece of work is in your team’s process by asking the following three questions: Where am I right now? Where did I come from? Where will I go next?
Adapted from Kanban Roadmap: How to Get Started in 5 Easy Steps
Chances are, there will be a few stages in your process where work is handed off from one person to another. You can reinforce the kanban "pull system" by building in wait or ready queues to give team members a way to signal that work is ready to be handed off to another person, and so that team members are only pulling cards when they're actually ready to begin working on them.
For example, this development team board splits the Develop lane into In Process and Done sub-lanes, so the developer can signal to the tester that the work is done, and the tester can pull the card into the next Test lane when they're ready to begin the work:
Define Lane Policies
Designate a Default Drop Lane
Designate a default drop lane to keep newly created cards in the right place. The default drop lane is a dedicated lane on a board where new cards appear when they are created via the board toolbar, email, or copied from other boards. It's usually one of the leftmost not started lanes. In the example below, the Emails lane is designated as the board's default drop lane:
Kanban is less about finding the perfect process, and more about continuously improving your process. Many teams use Lean metrics to provide valuable insights about their speed, efficiency, and productivity. LeanKit makes it easy to get these insights, because every action taken on your board is recorded and used to generate detailed reports on cycle time, variability, efficiency, workload distribution, and more. And by paying close attention to blockers, bottlenecks, and queues during your team retrospectives, you’ll naturally come up with ways to improve your processes and promote increased communication within your team.
Observe the Board's Current State
After using your board for a few weeks to a month, use current state reports to make some basic observations about how work is moving through your board, and how work is allocated among your team members.
- Assigned Users: Shows the current distribution of cards within a board by assigned user, so you can quickly determine if work is evenly allocated across all team members.
- Distribution: Shows the current distribution of cards within a board by lane, priority, type, or custom icon. Use this chart to get an overview of how work items are distributed on the board, and how much of your capacity is dedicated to different types of work.
- Exceptions: Displays the number of cards in each priority level (critical, high, and normal) and their status (blocked, missed start or finish date, greater than average cycle time, and inactive). Many teams use this chart to quickly identify where they need to focus their efforts to get a project back on track.
- Timeline: View cards with planned start and finish dates by week, month, or year.
- Board Health: Get information about bottlenecks, flow, and throughput on your board.
Review these analytics and discuss your findings with your team (ideally during a retrospective meeting) then make any necessary adjustments to improve your process.
The Lean principle of delivering fast by managing flow is based on the idea that a piece of work is only valuable when it actually reaches the customer. The faster you can deliver value to your customers, the sooner you can begin to learn from customer feedback; the more we learn from our customers, the better able we are to give them exactly what they want.
Use the Flow report to get detailed information about how your work in progress is moving through the board's lanes. Narrow areas indicate a constraint or bottleneck in your workflow process, while bulges indicate that work isn’t moving through a lane fast enough. Limiting the time that work spends in queues can help keep work flowing through the system. To improve flow, you can implement WIP limits in overburdened lanes, or add a WIP limit to the lane that precedes or follows the problem lane.
Measure Lead and Cycle Time
Lead time measures the total time it takes for work to get delivered, from the moment the work is requested to the time it’s delivered. This includes process time, as well as time that work spends sitting in queues or wait states. Cycle time measures how long it takes a work item to get from point A to point B. Since cycle time can be measured from any two starting and ending lanes, it’s common for several categories of cycle time to exist on one board (e.g., design cycle time, development cycle time, QA cycle time, etc.).
Use the Speed report to track the amount of time it takes for work to move from a specific started lane to a specific finished lane. Identify lanes on the board with an longer-than-average cycle time, or outlier cards that took longer than the average cycle time to complete, and experiment with a few of the following techniques to reduce cycle time:
- Implementing a WIP limit (or reducing an existing WIP limit) on the lane
- Assigning additional team members to certain cards so work can be completed faster
- Adding sublanes or additional lanes to represent steps within the lane (such as review cycles) that may not be visualized, so the team can get a more accurate understanding of where work gets stuck in the process.
- Simplifying requirements for the work
Measure Throughput and Scope
Throughput is the average number of units processed per time unit. In a Kanban system, examples can include “cards per day,” “cards per week,” or “story points per iteration.” During planning or sprint meetings, teams determine the work breakdown of the project and predict the time in which each task can be completed. From this task breakdown, the plots of the burndown chart are created, and a line reflects the ideal number of effort hours needed to complete the project. As their project progresses, teams can use the Burndown chart to:
- Determine the amount of work done in each iteration
- Show the work completed
- Visualize the remaining work
- Make short-term predictions about when a project or sprint will be finished
Establish WIP Limits
It may seem counter-intuitive, but limiting the amount of work in progress actually helps teams manage capacity and improve flow. Setting WIP limits on your board will help your team focus on delivering just a few projects at a time, quickly moving things through to Done with the fewest possible distractions, delays, or hand-offs. On a LeanKit board, any lane exceeding the WIP limit turns red, and anyone that causes the WIP limit to be exceeded by moving a card will be prompted to enter an exception.
Many of LeanKit's reports can help you decide how you should implement WIP limits. Here are some of the different ways you can work with WIP limits on LeanKit boards:
1. Set board lane WIP limits to limit the number of work items that can be placed within lanes, sub-lanes, and swimlanes.
2. Set user WIP limits to ensure that people aren’t assigned too many work items at a time.
3. Set card size WIP limits to identify when estimated effort associated with work will cause the system to be overloaded. (If you choose to base WIP limits on card size, it will override any WIP settings based on number of cards.)
Use the Efficiency report to determine the amount of your work in process that is active or inactive over a specific period of time, and understand which lanes or areas of your board may be inefficient.
Learn From Retrospectives
A kanban retrospective is a team meeting that happens less frequently than standups, usually every week or after a project is completed (for example, development teams often hold retrospectives after they complete a sprint.) Review the various reports in the sections above, and evaluate your work process with the team by asking the following questions:
- Is there any hidden work in process (WIP) that isn't on the board? Searching for hidden WIP is an ongoing process. It’s not always evident and can take time to reveal itself. As you find it, add it to the board.
- Can we identify any impediments to the flow of work? Identify where work is piling up on the board, where work is getting blocked, or parts of the workflow that may be “starved” for something to work on. Discuss ways in which the process or the team’s policies could be modified, such as implementing WIP limits or adding wait queues to remove impediments to flow.
- Do our cards represent work at the right level of granularity? If some of your cards are so big that they will take months to move across the board, use card connections to break them down into child cards you can complete in a few days or weeks. If your board is littered with very small tasks, consider using card taskboards within cards. Tip: You can easily convert cards into tasks.
Adapted from Kanban Roadmap: How to Get Started in 5 Easy Steps
Celebrate Your Wins
Finally, don't forget to celebrate your wins along the way! Taking time to acknowledge the team's progress helps everyone stay motivated.
- Share ‘shoutouts’ on your team Slack when a project is completed
- Acknowledge team wins during larger organizational meetings
- Host a team ‘Demo Day’ where team members can share their deliverables
- Host team ‘Lunch and Learns’ where team members can share insights learned from improvement projects
By celebrating those small wins, you’ll demonstrate to your team that continuous improvement activities matter – and that their efforts will be recognized.
Set Up Integrations
It's easy to connect LeanKit with the other tools you're using, so you can keep information flowing between dispersed teams and accelerate delivery across the entire value stream.
- LeanKit integrations powered by Tasktop provide real-time synchronization for many different types of systems. For example, if your QA and development teams are using JIRA to manage their work while your IT Operations teams are using LeanKit, both teams can stay aligned because LeanKit cards and JIRA tasks can be bi-directionally synced.
- LeanKit's integration with Zapier lets you connect web apps so you can easily move your data and automate scheduled tasks. With Zapier’s automated online integration tool, the project and task information you manage in other business applications for communication/meeting management (Google, GoToMeeting), CRM (Salesforce, Zendesk) or marketing automation (Emma, HubSpot) can be consolidated in LeanKit. Likewise, your applications will automatically reflect updates made to your LeanKit boards.
- See a full list of LeanKit integrations here.
Infographic: How to Achieve Continuous Improvement
This short infographic explains how Kanban boards in LeanKit evolve over time with small, yet meaningful changes.
Process Design Worksheet Part 2: Testing and Refining Your Process
This free eBook outlines 7 steps to move you beyond basic board setup and into continuous improvement.