How to use Kanban boards tutorial

How to use Kanban, learn with this Kanban tutorial how to boost productivity and predictability of your team

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Have you ever heard about Kanban? While this word may sound exotic, it is one of the core concepts of Agile development. In this post, we are going to see what it is, and how to use kanban to better manage your work.

Understand Kanban

Kanban is a Japanese word, which we could translate to signboard. However, forget about the boards for now, and focus on the concept. If you truly understand the concept behind Kanban you will get the most out of it.

It all starts with lean manufacturing, the approach Toyota used to become the biggest car manufacturer after world wars. In spite of the complexity of an assembly line, the principle of lean manufacturing is simple.

You should have the least possible pieces sitting idle halfway in the process.

A complex factory of automobiles is an assembly line. Pieces of the car go from one place to another and get assembled together. Eventually, the car exits the production line. Now, it is during the assembly line that the magic happens.

Each worker has to put some parts together. It gets those parts from another worker that assembled them. Thus, the output of the work of someone is the input for the work of someone else.

If the factory works smoothly, as soon as one worker finishes the other can take the part and start its job. You want to avoid that a worker has to wait doing nothing. while its inputs are being made. And, on the other hand, you want to avoid having many parts waiting for processing.

In the first case, you pay the worker for nothing. In the second, you block much of the materials as an”unfinished product inside the factory.

Apply Kanban

The principle

Kanban is a great tool to apply the principles of lean manufacturing to literally any activity. Better yet, you can start using Kanban quite easily and at no cost. No jokes, literally for free.

In lean manufacturing, we don’t want to have many unfinished parts left waiting in the warehouse. Quite the opposite: we want to have as little as possible. In Kanban, we apply the same concept to work activities – or tasks.

With Kanban, you don’t want to have many tasks in progress at the same time. Of course, for a task to be in progress, it means someone is working on it.

Kanban limits the amount of work you have on your plate at any given moment.

Why would you do that? How can something that limits the work you do make you more productive? Read on.

Multitasking is bad

If you have two tasks in progress at the same time, it means one is waiting for you. In fact, you can’t do two things at the same time.

If you want to read two books, you can start them at the same time. However, if you are reading the first, you are not reading the second. In the same way, if you are working on a task, you are not working on the other.

You can quickly see the point here. If you are not working on a task, what is the point of having it in progress in the first place? Chances are, there is no reason for that.

Of course, some degree of parallelism is good. Imagine one task is making a cake, while the other is preparing a soup. At some point, you bake the cake and you are waiting for the cake to finish in the oven. At that moment, you can cook the soup. Yet, the cake is not finished, it is still in progress. This is one case when having multiple tasks in parallel makes sense. When one task is on-hold waiting for something, you may work on something else.

And, of course, if your team has multiple members you can have multiple tasks open at the same time. Each member will be working on one task.

How to use Kanban


Now it is time to have some fun! If you are wondering how to use kanban, boards are the best way to start. They are simple, quick, and free.

Imagine you have a whiteboard. Divide it into columns, each representing a state a task can be in. The simplest way is to have three columns:

  • Backlog, on the left, means that you know the task is something you need to do. However, nobody is working on the task just yet.
  • In progress, in the center, means that someone is working on the task.
  • Completed as you can guess means the task has finished.

Now go get some sticky pieces of paper. Each will represent a task: write on each piece of paper a task, and put it in the appropriate column. Then, start working.

How to use Kanban: kanban boards are a way to quickly visualize the tasks you are working on
An example of Kanban board with three lanes and tasks represented as cards.

When you figure out some new work needs to be done, create a new card and attach it to the backlog section. Instead, when someone picks up a task and start working on it, it moves it to the “in progress” column. When he finishes, he will move it to “completed”.

Of course, you can remove tasks from the completed section after a while.

A physical board is all about prioritizing

On a whiteboard, you have a finite space. You cannot put unlimited tasks on that whiteboard. This means you need to prioritize things.

Of course, with some common sense, you can avoid having many tasks in the “in progress” column. Yet, it is very easy to get too excited and have a huge backlog. After all, it is easy to think about what needs to be done than actually doing it.

The whiteboard poses a limit on how many tasks you can have in the backlog. Of course, trying to put as much as possible on the board is not the best approach. Instead, set a limit of tasks in the backlog.

This will make you prioritize tasks. If will give you a sense of how fast you are working, because if you are not proceeding fast enough you won’t remove items from the backlog. If you don’t, you won’t be able to add new more.

You can identify where the bottlenecks and pain points are. In other words, you can be realistic about what you will achieve. This leads to better planning, more accurate deadlines over time, and happier customers.

Digital tools

Come on, a physical board in the new millennium? You are completely right, we have better – digital – alternatives.

The probably most famous tool for Kanban online is Trello, which is free and has a paid version upgrade. You can register to it for free.

How to use Kanban boards? Start for free with Trello, a great tool quick and easy to use
An example Trello board.

If you are a developer, and you want to use Kanban to speed up your development process, you can use Jira. This great tool by Atlassian is free up to 10 users and has some great features to obtain statistics from your workflow.

If, instead, you are a software developer using Azure DevOps, don’t forget to check out their Boars feature, directly inside your project.

Play with it!

While the core principle behind Kanban is simple and somehow strict, you can play with it. Adapt Kanban to your workflow, and see how it works best for you.

For example, you could add additional columns (e.g. an “In Review” column before the “Completed” one). Or, you could tweak with the limit of tasks you set for your backlog. And, if you are playing with a digital tool, you can experiment with labels, a nice way to categorize and color your tasks.

Sky is the limit!

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

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Alessandro Maggio



Project Management, DevOps