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Why You Need a Kanban Board for Project Management

Visualize tasks, track progress, and collaborate seamlessly.

Projects are plagued by abstract planning and documentation.

Most project management methodologies rely on extensive upfront planning and documentation - getting ready to do the work. But as any experienced project manager knows, these plans and documents almost never resemble the finished product. Because projects are living, fluid things, and they cannot be pinned down prematurely with project charters and Gantt charts.

The best way to manage a project is to start making something real. Instead of explaining something, draw it. Instead of describing a sound, hum it. The sooner you make it real, the better.

What’s great about Kanban is that it’s focused on getting something done, not just endless cycles of planning and what-if’s. Visual, flexible, and most importantly, rooted in realness, Kanban project management is a popular approach to project management that gives everyone working on the project an bird’s-eye view of where the project stands at any given time.

Kanban has been used in businesses and teams across a wide variety of functions, from software development to marketing to manufacturing. It’s also lightweight and flexible enough for teams of all sizes.

Even if you’re not familiar with the name, you might have seen examples of Kanban in action in tools such as Trello or Jira. In this comprehensive Kanban guide, we’ll dive into:

  • Using the Kanban Project Management Methodology to Visualize Workflow and Organize Work More Efficiently

  • The Benefits of Kanban Project Management

  • How we’ve improved Kanban with Basecamp’s Card Table tool

First, What is Kanban?

Before setting up your own project Kanban system, it’s helpful to understand its origins. Japanese for “signboard,” Kanban got its start at the Toyota factory in the 1940s as a way to manage inventory and reduce waste­. Toyota engineer Ohno Taiichi crafted a series of physical Kanban “cards” that would travel throughout the manufacturing process, triggering certain events (such as making more inventory of a certain part) at just the right time. This system eventually gave rise to the revolutionary lean manufacturing method.

While Kanban was developed as a way to create less waste and more efficiency in factories, it’s grown to be adopted by a variety of industries for countless use cases, which isn’t surprising, because regardless of the application, Kanban offers an important set of benefits:

  • It makes work highly visual

  • It prioritizes effort on the most critical tasks, at the most critical time

  • It eliminates waste (both in work and, in some cases, raw materials and inventory)

  • It increases transparency for teams

Kanban is one of the most effective tools available for managing project-based work. And with the rise in Kanban board apps, it’s never been easier to implement the system in your own work, whether you’re a team of one or 100.

What are the Core Kanban Principles and Practices?

The Kanban system is built on a series of six principles, each of which fall under one of two fundamental practices: change management and service delivery.

Kanban Change Management Principles

While it may appear complicated at first glance, Kanban is designed to easily adapt to your current way of working. Kanban Change Management Principles dictate that instead of demolishing everything you’ve already built, it’s best to start using Kanban to improve existing processes and procedures in a non-disruptive way.

This is achieved through the following three Kanban Change Management Principles:

  • Start with What You Do Now: By starting with an existing process you know well, it will be much easier to integrate Kanban into your workflow in a non-disruptive way.

  • Agree to Pursue Incremental Change: As you begin to work with the Kanban system, you’ll eventually discover areas of your process that need improvement. Start small, making incremental changes as you go, in order to avoid the resistance that comes with large, sweeping changes.

  • Encourage Acts of Leadership at All Levels: Kanban only works when everyone at your company feels empowered to identify and suggest improvements. Be sure to give your team the encouragement they need to speak up when something can be better.

Kanban Service Delivery Principles

While Kanban is an internal system built to manage projects and processes, it recognizes that the work any company does is in service of its customers. The three Kanban Service Delivery Principles highlight this point by reminding users to continually evaluate how internal improvements are resulting in a benefit for customers:

  • Focus on the Customer: Ultimately, any Kanban system you implement should lead to an outcome that improves your customer experience. If not, rework your process until it does.

  • Manage the Work, Not the People: Kanban works when your team is empowered. Make sure your systems are built to manage the work, but leave enough freedom and flexibility for your employees to self-organize and take ownership.

  • Review Regularly to Ensure Customer and Business Improvements: It’s important to review your outcomes frequently and identify the net gain they have on customer and business outcomes. Don’t be afraid to make changes if something isn’t achieving the desired results.

In addition to the six Kanban principles, there are six Kanban practices that should be followed anytime you implement this project management methodology:

  • Visualize the workflow

  • Limit work in progress

  • Manage flow

  • Make process policies explicit

  • Implement feedback loops

  • Improve collaboratively

That’s it! Six principles and six practices are all you need to understand the fundamentals of Kanban. With that, let’s look at how your projects can benefit from a Kanban system.

Using Kanban for Project Management?

For people who enjoy having a clear picture of where their projects stand, Kanban is a perfect complement to a project management toolkit.

The beauty is in the simplicity. Cards and columns. That’s pretty much all there is to a Kanban board, meaning you can sort and customize it to fit your project needs. Most project management systems require tremendous amounts of upfront planning…planning that is almost always disrupted once the project begins (good luck finding a Gantt Chart that looks the same at the end of a project as it did at the beginning). But with the “drag-and-drop” flexibility of Kanban, it’s much easier to keep your projects organized and on track throughout the entire duration. Kanban boards evolve with your project.

One of the most common ways to use Kanban boards for project management is tracking tasks. Kanban cards are added to the board to represent individual project tasks, assigned to the responsible party, and moved throughout the various stages of work until they are complete. This gives everyone working on the project a bird’s-eye view of where the project stands at any given time.

Another great use of Kanban boards for projects is tracking milestones and deliverables. And with some Kanban board tools and apps, you can link the to-do list for each deliverable right inside the card on the board. Everything you need is just one click away.

When we developed Card Table, Basecamp’s take on a Kanban Board, we took this concept of bird’s-eye view and detailed deliverable and milestone tracking, and combined them into one tool that operates just like a Kanban board, with a few twists:

1. Columns: Columns represent the different stages or phases of your workflow. Card Table columns can be added or removed as needed, and can also be renamed and color coded to make it even easier to see the status of any given task or deliverable.

Columns are customizable on the Basecamp Card Table.
Columns are customizable on the Basecamp Card Table.

2. Cards: Card Table cards move through the board just like any other Kanban system. But unlike other systems, these cards can also be clicked open to reveal even more information, including due dates, notes, attachments, conversations about that card, and more.

Each Card Table card can be opened to see more information.
Each Card Table card can be opened to see more information.

3. Triage and Done: We believe cards need a place to live before they enter your workflow and after they are complete. That is why we’ve added a Triage and a Done section to each Card Table, allowing you to keep the main workflow columns free of anything but what’s in progress. Even better, if you ever have a card for a task that needs to get done eventually, but not right now, there’s a Not Now section to stash these tasks out of sight until you’re ready to begin work.

Stash new cards in your Triage section.
Stash new cards in your Triage section.

4. On-Hold: There are often times where a task or deliverable on a project gets delayed, leaving it stuck in a column indefinitely. This can be quite frustrating for project managers looking to keep their cards moving along at a steady clip. So, we added an On Hold section to every column, allowing you to set aside any cards that are delayed. Close at hand, yet out of the way.

Got a task that’s stuck? Move the card to “On Hold” so it’s top of mind but out of the way.
Got a task that’s stuck? Move the card to “On Hold” so it’s top of mind but out of the way.

5. Column View: Sometimes you want to drill down into tasks in a specific stage of your process. With Card Table, you can open up a view that only includes all tasks for that particular column, allowing you to get a better understanding of what’s happening at that stage.

Click on any Card Table column to get a view of just those cards.
Click on any Card Table column to get a view of just those cards.

While Card Table offers quite a few features that are unique to Basecamp, it still operates just like any other Kanban board, making it super simple for you to integrate it directly into your current processes and projects.

What are the Benefits of Kanban Methodology for Project Management

There are several key advantages and benefits of adopting Kanban Methodology for your projects. The most obvious benefit of Kanban is its visual nature. As soon as you begin adding cards to columns, project bottlenecks and inefficiencies become much more clear. This allows you to solve issues much faster than you would with other project management systems.

Another key benefit of Kanban project management is the ease of use and implementation. Because Kanban encourages users to adapt the system to existing processes and look for incremental improvements, there are no major sweeping changes or disruptions when you adopt the system. In the case of Basecamp users, we find it usually takes less than 15 minutes to set up a Card Table for a project. It’s that simple.

Of course, any project management methodology will have its weaknesses. In the case of Kanban, there is always the risk of the visual boards being overwhelming if there are too many cards. This is why Basecamp’s Card Table was designed to include several areas not typically found on a Kanban board, including the Triage, Not Now, and On Hold sections, which allow users to keep active cards front and center, and everything else out of the way.

How Do I Set Up a Kanban Board for Project Management?

Here at Basecamp, we create a unique Kanban board (or Card Table) inside each individual project. Here is a step by step guide on how to use the Kanban Board:

1. Determine use case of your board: Are you tracking tasks? Deliverables? Bugs? Development?

2. Identify your workflow stages: Begin by understanding the different stages your tasks or work items go through from start to completion. At Basecamp, the default common stages include “Figuring it out”, “In Progress” and “Done”. Tailor the stages to fit your team’s specific workflow.

Name columns to fit your specific needs.
Name columns to fit your specific needs.

3. Build your columns: Write the stage names or use visual cues to represent them clearly. Leave enough space within each column to accommodate multiple tasks. Here’s the trick with Kanban columns — only add what is actually going to be useful. For example, if you run a sales team and want to track the status of your proposals with a Kanban board, it may be overkill to include a column for each and every time a salesperson follows up.

Example of how you might name columns for a sales pipeline.
Example of how you might name columns for a sales pipeline.

4. Add task cards: Create task cards to represent each work item or task. Inside each card, we’ll add details such as points we want to make, a space to link the examples we can use as resources, due date, etc and place them in the “To Do” column.

Add specifics to each Card Table card.
Add specifics to each Card Table card.

5. Visualize progress: Once your Card Table is up and running, you can begin to track progress visually through the board. Encourage your team to move cards through the columns as soon as they are ready for the next stage, so that everyone viewing the board has the most up-to-date picture, no matter when they take a look.

Cards progress from one column to another in the Card Table.
Cards progress from one column to another in the Card Table.

6. Review and update: Like any other Kanban system, Card Table is meant to highlight areas of improvement. As your team adopts the tool, ask them to start identifying places where the system slows or breaks down. For example, perhaps you notice that nearly half of all cards enter the “On Hold” section of a particular column. You knew tasks got delayed in the past, but now you have a clear view of just how many are getting stuck before the next stage. Work with your team to figure out why so many cards end up in On Hold here, and test potential changes and improvements until you see that number reduce.

If you want an even closer look at creating your own board for project management, check out these Kanban board templates.

Kanban Project Management FAQs

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about Kanban project management:

Do due dates exist in Kanban Project Management?

Yes, due dates can exist in Kanban Project Management. While not required for Kanban systems to work, many teams find adding due dates to tasks and deliverables to be a helpful way to keep projects on track.

Is there a work-in-progress limit on Kanban boards?

Limiting work-in-progress on Kanban boards is a matter of personal preference. Some teams find it helpful to set a limit to how many active tasks can be in the project project pipeline at any given time, so as not to get distracted by too many things at once. However there are no set rules for Kanban work-in-progress limits. With Basecamp’s Card Table, you can limit work-in-progress by keeping tasks out of the way in the Triage or Not Now section until you’re ready to begin work.

How to manage multiple projects in Kanban?

If you’re looking to manage multiple projects with Kanban, it’s best to create separate Kanban boards for each project. With Basecamp’s Card Table tool, you can integrate a dedicated Kanban board into every single project (both new and existing). If you have projects that do not require a Kanban board, simply go into that project’s tools and click Card Table to “Off”.

Can you have a backlog in Kanban?

Yes, Kanban boards can have a backlog of tasks. Because a large collection of backlogged cards can make your entire board hard to manage, it’s best to look for a tool that has a dedicated place for backlog management. In Basecamp’s Card Table, backlog cards can be held inside the Triage column until you’re ready to begin work.

In addition to the Triage section, there’s also a Not Now bucket. As we outline in our book Shape Up, our team doesn’t care for backlogs. So instead of letting a list of ideas accumulate in our Triage, we stash any cards that aren’t actively being worked on in the Not Now section. This moves the cards out of immediate view, yet keeps them just one click away. Meaning our main board stays free of clutter and distractions.

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