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The ultimate guide to Kanban and how to use it in 2021

All of us at monday.com
All of us at monday.com

    Everyone has probably used a variation of the Kanban method in their lives.

    You know how in school or college, you’d keep track of assignments by making “To-Do,” “Ongoing,” and “Done” lists in a notebook or use sticky notes on a whiteboard? This is an elementary version of the Kanban method.

    A Kanban board uses columns and cards to list all the tasks in a project by their current stage in the workflow. So, like your college lists, a Kanban board can be as simple as “To-Do,” “In Progress,” and “Complete.”

    But it also does a whole lot more.

    Project managers (PMs) can boost their project management by using Kanban software to add multiple tasks with all the relevant details, and effortlessly edit and track them.

    In this detailed guide, we’ll take a deep dive into the Kanban project management methodology.

    You’ll learn what the Kanban method is, how it works, which projects to use it for, and how to build a project board using monday.com.

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    What is the Kanban method?

    The Kanban methodology is a visual strategy where a board consisting of columns and cards is used to break down a project into actionable pieces, making it easier to manage.

    an example of a Kanban board on monday.com

    This method originated in a Toyota factory in Japan in the 1940s. It was used to implement the company’s “Just-In-Time” — or JIT— production process, where workers on factory floors moved cards across columns to provide real-time updates on inventory and tasks.

    It’s since been adopted across many industries and evolved into a popular project management methodology in current workspaces.

    The Kanban method is popular because of its adaptability. It’s perfect for personal tasks and also for complex, multi-team, long-term projects.

    How does the Kanban method work?

    In this method, users start with a project board.

    This board will have columns that show each stage of a project or a process in the workflow.

    Your Kanban board can have a straightforward process with just 3 lists/columns for “Working on it,” “Done,” and “Stuck,” like below.

    Kanban board for marketing campaigns on monday.com

    But this isn’t the only option.

    If you have different tasks for different days, you might want to arrange your board to have 7 columns for the days of the week — although, this is closer to a Scrum board than a traditional Kanban board.

    a Kanban board for weekly tasks on monday.com

    With the right platform you can adapt your columns to any variation a project demands.

    You get to define the workflow and implement it using as many columns as you need.

    a personalized Kanban board on monday.com

    Now let’s focus on the cards. Each card represents a task or work item.

    Depending on the software you use, a card can just show the title and due date, or it could have all task-related info in one place.

    In a Work Operating System (Work OS) like monday.com, your task card will have everything an employee needs to complete their task, from descriptions and files to images, checklists, and comments.

    As a team member works on a task and it is reviewed and approved, the card moves through the workflow from one column to the next.

    Let’s look at an example.

    In a content writing workflow, a task card named “Article A” is added to the “Writing” column and assigned to a writer. Once the writer completes the task, they can move it to the “Editing” column, and then the editors will check and move it to the “Approved” column.

    If “Article A” requires revision before it can be approved, the editor can move the task card back to the “Writing” column.

    On a Kanban board, new items or tasks are added in the first column and then move through the process until they’re completed, creating a continuous workflow.

    There are no limits on customizing the process. Every card doesn’t have to move through the columns linearly. So, if you want finished tasks from “Column C” to be moved directly to the “Complete” column, you can set it up that way.

    The 4 core principles of Kanban

    The Kanban method is built on 4 key principles:

    • Visualize current workflow: the Kanban system can be adapted to existing workflows rather than overhauling everything for a new process.
    • Make incremental changes: sudden, extensive alterations lead to doubts and resistance. Kanban tackles this by encouraging users to make small changes that will lead to continuous improvement and ultimately, revolutionize their workflow.
    • Respect current processes and responsibilities: unlike other project management methods, such as Scrum, there’s no need to demolish your existing processes and roles to adapt to new ones. Kanban respects your current process and lets the project team decide where changes are needed.
    • Inspire company-wide leadership: every team member is responsible for a task on a Kanban board. This teaches individual responsibility. The method’s “incremental changes” philosophy can be adapted to team members as well and inspire them to make small changes to evolve into future leaders.

    What is Kanban used for?

    To help you understand the method better, here are 4 use cases for a Kanban board:

    • Project management. Using Kanban, PMs can create a simple day-to-day task management board or elevate their entire project management strategy.

    Remember, Kanban lets you be in charge. Your board can be as basic or as dynamic as you need.

    Here’s a basic project management workflow you can implement:

    a 5-step Kanban board on monday.com

    While basic Kanban tools are adequate for personal task management, team-wide project management calls for more features and functionality, so a platform like monday.com is better suited.

    • Marketing campaign. Marketing campaigns can have complex demands because they have so many elements to perfect.

    A Kanban board can help PMs delegate these elements to team members and keep everyone on track.

    Kanban board for marketing campaigns on monday.com

    PMs and team leads can get an overview of the campaign and track progress at a single glance.

    • Inventory management. A Kanban board is perfect for inventory management.

    A basic board for managing inventory would have 5 columns depicting available resources, starting with “Fully Stocked” and going all the way to “Out.”

    Kanban board for inventory management on monday.com

    You can rearrange columns based on which ones you want your team to focus on first.

    In the above example, the focus is on the “Time to order” column, but if you wanted the “Running low” column to be right after, you could just drag-and-drop it before the “Fully Stocked” column.

    • Lead tracking. Sales teams can use a Kanban board to track their leads. Each card can represent a client. This card will move through the sales cycle, with columns created for “Lead In,” “Contact made,” “Meeting Arranged,” etc.

    These are just 4 examples of the many ways you can use a Kanban board. With software like monday.com, you can customize every element on the board to suit whatever projects/ tasks you want to manage.

    The benefits of using Kanban for project management

    Kanban project management has the following benefits:

    • Keep your team focused: in the Kanban method, every team member is assigned one or more tasks to handle. Their responsibilities are clearly outlined and they know what to focus on. This provides clarity and removes unnecessary worries.
    • Increased transparency: while everyone focuses on their tasks, they can also see the entire workflow. This transparency has 2 major benefits — motivation and accountability.

    Since everyone can see how their tasks contribute to the overall project, they’re more motivated to push towards completion.

    • Improve organizational skills: project managers can organize tasks and schedules effortlessly with a Kanban board. Adding and editing tasks becomes a breeze, while they can monitor progress in real-time.

    Organizational skills of individual team members are also improved since they know how many tasks they need to complete that day or week. This allows them to plan their work better and meet deadlines efficiently.

    • Boost communication: when everyone’s on the same page, there’s no need for endless messages, emails, and calls around mundane topics like project updates or deadlines. Conversations can focus on innovation and improvement.
    • Enhance collaboration: improved communication automatically enhances collaboration since team members can assist each other better.

    When to use Kanban for project management?

    There are 3 key times when Kanban is perfect for project management.

    #1. Projects with incremental changes

    Teams that want to change their project approach or start new projects without overhauling the entire process will benefit from Kanban.

    #2. Consistent, repeated work process

    Teams with a consistent, repeatable work process, where every card moves from one column to the next (with limited exceptions), can use the Kanban method.

    So, a workflow where Task 1 moves from Column A to B to C… until “Complete” is ideal.

    The Kanban method is ideal for linear task completion, where tasks go from one process to the next in a smooth flow rather than going through the same phases multiple times.

    #3. Limited task dependencies

    A work process where each task is relatively independent is best suited for Kanban. For example, a writing workflow where each card represents a different piece of content and each task can be completed individually.

    And when should I avoid using Kanban?

    There are 5 key times when using another framework might be more beneficial.

    #1. Overhauling existing work processes

    If your team wants to bulldoze and rebuild their entire project workflow, then Kanban isn’t the right fit. Since Kanban focuses on incremental changes, a complete overhaul is unfeasible.

    #2. Iterative projects

    Kanban isn’t suitable for iterative projects — like app feature development — where one or more tasks could go back to design several times.

    Kanban project management is more suited for the continuous delivery of projects and features, rather than individual cycles.

    #3. Complex workflows

    Like the above point, if your workflow isn’t linear and requires different tasks to be completed differently, you should skip Kanban and try other methods.

    #4. Shared tasks

    While you can assign multiple workers to the same card or task, the Kanban system largely relies on everyone completing their own work.

    So a project where many tasks need interdepartmental collaboration or a large number of shared assets isn’t suited to Kanban.

    #5. Dependent tasks

    Kanban is generally designed around discrete tasks. When you have activities that are dependent on others, it becomes difficult to track and manage them in a Kanban view.

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    What alternatives are there to Kanban?

    There are 3 main alternatives to Kanban project management:

    #1. PRINCE2

    Waterfall project management on monday.com

    PRojects IN Controlled Environments (PRINCE2) is a leading waterfall project management framework. It’s a comprehensive method that leaves nothing to chance.

    In the PRINCE2 method, projects are divided into different stages. Each of these stages has different processes to follow along with defined inputs and outputs.

    This method may not be a viable option for small agencies, since the principles and themes can become too burdensome for small, straightforward projects. It’s also not ideal for projects where there are a lot of unknowns and flexibility is a priority.

    #2. Scrum

    Scrum project board on monday.com

    Scrum is an Agile framework that aims to improve communication, collaboration, and production.

    Scrum was originally used by software development teams but has since been adopted across all industries.

    The cornerstone of this framework is the Scrum Team — a small team of people including a Scrum Master and a Product Owner.

    The team works on items in a Backlog, which is a list of requirements or user stories that is defined by the Product Owner.

    Backlog items are divided and completed in “Sprints”, which are development cycles that last 1–4 weeks. During a sprint, there are daily scrums or meetings to report on project progress and issues.

    At the end of a sprint, there is a sprint review where the entire team analyzes the completed work and plans subsequent sprints.

    While Scrum is adaptable, it is not suited for projects — or clients — that need everything planned out at the very beginning. It also doesn’t work for a continuous workflow.

    Many agencies combine the elements of Scrum with other methods like Kanban to create a hybrid methodology called Scrumban.

    #3. Six Sigma

    Lean project management method

    Six Sigma is a framework that aims to improve work processes with the ultimate goal of increased customer satisfaction and a better bottom-line.

    It falls under the Lean methodology, which is a popular approach to streamline manufacturing and transactional processes.

    It’s a fact-based, data-driven methodology to eliminate workflow variations, cycle times, and waste, while simultaneously promoting standardization.

    Six Sigma is often used for improving internal workflows and processes, rather than tackling client-based projects. It is best suited for organizational change and business improvement.

    Implementing a Six Sigma infrastructure requires considerable time and effort, rather than approaches like Kanban or Scrum, which are easier to adopt.

    To learn more about different project management methodologies, you can read this article.

    How do you use Kanban for project management?

    Once you’ve decided that Kanban is the way to go for your projects, you can set up and use a Kanban board by following these simple steps:

    #1. Choose your Kanban software

    monday.com Kanban software

    First things first, you must choose the right software.

    No, that doesn’t mean the most expensive one, the one with the best looks, or the one that has a gigantic list of features.

    We mean software that can adapt to all of your needs. There’s no use picking a tool with a never-ending features list if you only need 10 of those for your project.

    This is where monday.com excels. It lets you be in charge and make your Kanban boards as simple or complex as you want.

    It has all the features to implement a 3-step workflow or a dynamic process with 10+ steps.

    You can read more about why monday.com is the best for Kanban project management below.

    #2. Create a project board

    To create a Kanban board for your project in monday.com, you need to add a project board to your workspace.

    This board can be used to list and group all your tasks. You can add columns for deadlines or priorities or any other task details.

    Once you’ve added all your tasks, you can use the Kanban view to get things going.

    project board on monday.com

    This automatically converts your project board into a Kanban one, where tasks and processes are divided into lists and columns. With monday.com you can then customize your columns to best suit your workflow.

    Kanban view on monday.com

    #3. Identify and add the steps in your workflow

    To implement a custom workflow, first, identify the steps in your workflow.

    These steps could be just “To-do”, “Working On”, and “Done”, or they could be a complex workflow with many steps — it’s all up to you.

    Once you’ve identified your work process, add a column for each step.

    #4. Add cards

    Add as many task cards as needed in their respective columns.

    Update your task cards with all the relevant information. On monday.com, you can go beyond the essential deadlines and titles.

    You can add detailed task descriptions, checklists, images, and files. You can also assign each task card to multiple team members.

    To boost collaboration, you can add comments to task cards so team members can talk in context.

    #5. Task management

    Once you’ve added your columns and cards, it’s time to manage them.

    When a task is completed, it can be moved to the next step in the workflow. Users can do this by dragging and dropping it in the required column or clicking on a card and updating the “Status” field.

    Cards do not have to move linearly. They can be sent back to previous columns if needed.

    PMs can quickly identify any workflow issues using a Kanban board since task cards in that stage or column will pile up, or they will stay in one column longer than the others.

    #6. Analyze

    PMs can use Kanban boards to analyze past and current projects.

    They can track how long cards take to move through the workflow or see how many tasks were finished in a specific time period. PMs can use this information to identify issues and make improvements for upcoming ones.

    Why monday.com is your ideal Kanban software

    Not to toot our own horn, but using monday.com, you can effortlessly build and manage Kanban boards for every project.

    Here’s a small taste of what we offer:

    #1. Easy setup

    #2. Detailed task management

    Kanban is all about smooth task management, and we’ve got the interface and tools for it. With detailed and highly customizable task cards, no one using our platform will have to go looking for task information.

    #3. Collaboration

    Ever have someone on your team ask you a question about a task, and you have no idea which task or detail they are talking about? Well, that’ll never happen on monday.com because we have in-task comments on every task card and discussion boards for every project.

    Using our platform, you can ensure that work-related conversations happen in one place and within context — making collaboration a lot easier.

    #4. Automation

    When most tasks follow the same process, you don’t have to waste time manually moving them. Instead, you can set up automation rules, so certain tasks move to a specific column or a particular team member gets notified when a new card is added.

    You can automate almost any part of your workflow on monday.com,

    #5. Switch views

    Kanban is just one of over 8 views for project boards on monday.com. You can gain new perspectives on your project using a Gantt chart, timeline, calendar, and more.

    You can also implement a hybrid framework and split view where you use Kanban in combination with another view.

    #6. Dashboard

    Track project progress, workloads, and budgets all in one place with a project dashboard.

    monday.com’s Dashboard lets PMs add 23 different visual widgets to track and understand every project aspect. Widgets are updated in real-time, so there’s no delay in data transmission.

    dashboard example in monday.com

    #7. Customer support

    At monday.com, we understand that fast customer support is essential for project management.

    This is why we offer 24/7 support through our live chat to all our customers regardless of their payment tier.

    On top of all this, our plans are affordable, and we offer a 2-week trial period where you can test out our platform.

    Kanban brings efficiency and visibility to your project

    Kanban project management is one of the most efficient ways of tracking tasks and overall progress. The method is easy to understand and implement for teams of all sizes and across different industries.

    With monday.com you can build your perfect Kanban board, since we offer all the features you’ll ever need at reasonable rates.

    You can test out our platform and build your own Kanban board by using our Project Tracker template.

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