To Do.
Doing.
Done.

In its most simple form, those are the three categories of a traditional Kanban board.

A Kanban board is a signboard. In fact, in Japanese, Kan (看) means “sign” and Ban (板) means “board.” So literally, signboard!

Kanban boards became popular in 17th century Japan as an early marketing tactic used by store owners who wanted to quickly — and visually — inform passersby about their shop offerings. In many ways, these Japanese Kanbans were the precursor to the flashing neon signs of the early to mid 20th century … which have now been mostly replaced by digital advertising boards.

But it wasn’t until the late 1950s that Kanban began to gain steam in larger corporations.

Taiichi Ōno, an industrial engineer who joined Toyota Motor Company (aka Toyota) in the early 1940s, quickly rose in the ranks. By the mid-1950s, Ōno began studying ways to reduce waste — overproduction, inefficiencies in transportation and inventory, and so on. After visiting the US-based retailer, Piggly Wiggly, Ōno adopted a “new” method to track Toyota factory demand in his factory. He called this “new system” Kanban.

Fast forward to the early 2000s and, thanks in a large part to The Agile Manifesto, there was a large jump in Kanban usage. The Manifesto also birthed terms and concepts such as the scrum, lean software development, and more generically, agile management.

A brief sidebar: Waterfall vs. Agile

The Waterfall model is a linear project management approach to getting work done. Create requirements. Get sign off from all stakeholders. Map out what needs to get done — by whom and when — and follow the process “down the waterfall” completing one task at a time until you deliver the final desired product or solution.

The Waterfall method relies on dependencies — each phase cannot be started until the previous one has been completed.

It tends to work best in industries and for projects that are highly repeatable, generally inflexible, and most often remain similar from project to project.

Agile, by contrast, is known for its flexibility and quick iterations. Initial project requirements often change and evolve. This method does not rely on dependencies as work as performed concurrently. Finally, agile is accomplished through a series of sprints.

Note: Waterfall and agile are discussed in more detail in Agile vs. Waterfall: Which manager are you? 

The Kanban evolution: From Kanban to Kanban board to Kanban software

And depending on who you ask — or what online search you perform — expect to see some variety in naming conventions: Personal Kanban. Kanban methodology. Kanban cards. Kanban board. Kanban board software. Kanban scrum. Kanban teams.

The above terms and phrases — while slightly nuanced — all are very closely related. For simplicity purposes, here’s a quick definition guide:

Kanban: method to quickly, easily, and visually communicate ideas

Kanban board: a way to implement the Kanban method

Kanban software: tools and solutions (and platforms like monday.com) that include Kanban boards and templates

A whiteboard + a stack of post-it notes + a box of dry-erase markers can make for a primitive, yet quite an effective Kanban board. Simply create three columns, label each “To Do” and “Doing” and “Done” with your favorite dry-erase market color, and begin creating post-it notes with the various tasks your team needs to accomplish.

This physical version of Kanban is perfect for very small, simple projects. However, as with most basic analog tools, one runs into roadblocks when trying to collaborate with multiple parties over many locations (and even time zones).

This is where Kanban software plays a much bigger role. From basic, relatively inflexible boards to fully-customizable solutions and platforms, Kanban software comes in a variety of flavors depending on who is using it and for what purpose.

One of the best parts about Kanban software is that nearly every department in your organization can benefit from its use. In some form, Kanban can be used by: 

  • Engineering teams to manage software development
  • Marketing teams to organize content projects
  • HR teams to plan out hiring and onboarding plans
  • Finance teams to uncover ways to improve stagnant processes

Kanban is even starting to be used to manage students and families during distance learning!

No matter how you slice it, Kanban touches every aspect of a modern organization.

Kanban software as a platform

Kanban project management

As a project management technique, Kanban ensures users know exactly what to do, prioritize tasks, see the pain points at a glance, and match WIP (work in progress) to team capacity.

And while there is no shortage of Kaban software options on the market, most of them are standalone solutions — ones that don’t necessarily integrate into your entire workflow

Our Kanban software fits into this framework perfectly. Specifically, the monday.com Kanban view is an easy way to create a Kanban view of any board. Even better? Change the status of the tasks by dragging and dropping them between the columns in the Kanban view.

It’s like moving that sticky note from one column on the whiteboard to another!

And that’s not the only view you can create.

Here’s one for manufacturing. Instead of “To Do” and “Doing” and “Done,” this view helps team members know when an item is “fully stocked” vs. “running low” vs. “needs to be reordered.” 

And here’s a software development example. As you can see, the Kanban columns are replaced by “buckets” showing when a new feature in development moves from one department to another.

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