What Is Kanban and How Can You Use It?

Kanban workflow on a card

You may have heard of Kanban, a project management technique that uses visuals to demonstrate a process. If you think this could be an option for your next project, we walk you through how to apply it, tools you can use, and an example project using the Kanban method.

What Is Kanban?

Kanban is a common method of agile project management that’s used in many industries, but it started in the manufacturing industry decades ago.

Study Of Toyota Production Kanban System
Image source: Flickr

It was developed in the 1940s by Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota. The intent was to improve efficiencies in manufacturing by using a visual tool to demonstrate process and provide transparency. As a simple planning structure, Kanban was used to control work and manage inventory at each stage throughout production. The result was increased productivity while reducing costs at the same time.

Many years later, it was David J. Anderson who applied the Kanban system to the IT industry and software development. Anderson went on to further develop the method and its concepts and later published the book Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business in 2010.

Over time, Kanban has become a solid and common way to manage projects of nearly any kind and size.

How Kanban Works

The word Kanban is derived from the two Japanese words “Kan,” which means “sign,” and “Ban,” which means “board.” This provides the basic visual used with the Kanban method.

Picture a board, even a large physical whiteboard, with columns and squares listed within each. The board represents the project, columns represent stages, and squares represent cards.

Whiteboard using Kanban

You use each card as a task, then arrange the cards in the stages based on priority. When you complete a task, you move its card to the next stage in the project and continue this process until the task reaches its completion.

This can be as simple as moving tasks from the “To Do” stage to the “In Progress” stage to the “Done” stage.

Chalkboard using Kanban

It can also be more in depth, depending on the project or industry. For example, an IT project may include stages for “Backlog,” “Planning,” “Development,” “Testing,” “Deployment,” and “Complete.”

Team with a Kanban board

Ideally, the cards move through the stages on the board evenly. If cards move to a stage, and that stage becomes flooded with cards that aren’t moving forward, you’ve found a bottleneck in the project.

Tip: use Kanban together with the Eisenhower Matrix to manage the tasks in your project.

Online Kanban Boards

Because of Kanban’s popularity, you’ll find many Web-based tools for using this method of project management. Although each may have its own set of unique features, the basic Kanban concept is at the root. You have boards, stages (also called lists), and cards.


Trello Kanban board template

Trello is a fantastic Kanban tool and a true favorite with its intuitive interface. You can use a different background for each of your boards, making it easy to recognize which one you’re viewing. You can also copy or move a list (stage) easily, automatically sort lists, and mark favorite boards for fast access.

Standout features of Trello include:

  • Multiple workspaces
  • Board templates
  • Automations
  • Power-ups (add-ons)
  • Checklists, labels, due dates, attachments, and custom fields for cards

Platforms: Trello is available on Windows, Mac, Android, iPhone, iPad, Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari and the Web.

Pricing: free with paid Trello subscription options that include unlimited boards, a dashboard, calendar views, and other features.

Tip: Trello is one of many project management tools we recommend.


Asana Kanban board

Another good Kanban option is Asana. It offers a handy “My Tasks” section in the navigation to quickly see those to-dos assigned to you. You can also set up rules for moving tasks when the due date is approaching or create custom rules with a paid Asana plan.

Standout features of Asana include:

  • Apps and integrations
  • Dependencies and milestones
  • Approvals
  • Multiple views
  • Subtasks and follow-up tasks, comments, tags, and collaborators for cards

Platforms: Asana is available on Windows, Mac, Android, iPhone, iPad, Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari, and the Web.

Pricing: free with paid Asana subscription options that include forms, reporting, unlimited dashboards, and other features.

Note: Asana is also a great alternative to Microsoft Project.


Monday.com Kanban board template

One more Kanban tool to check out is Monday.com. With it, you can customize your item terminology to fit your project. For example, you can use terms like campaign, client, lead, or a custom option. You can also save boards you create as templates for future projects.

Standout features of Monday.com include:

  • Multiple workspaces
  • Customizable notifications
  • Automations
  • Apps and integrations
  • Assignees, statuses, due dates, activity logs, and file attachments for cards

Platforms: Monday.com is available on Windows, Mac, Android, iPhone, iPad, Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari, and the Web

Pricing: free with paid Monday.com subscription options that include unlimited items, a dashboard, calendar view, and other features.

Tip: use Monday.com to replace Microsoft SharePoint.

For additional Kanban tools, you can also check out ClickUp, MeisterTask, Wrike, Zoho Projects, and Kanbanize. Keep in mind that some tools may only have paid options, so be sure to look for free trial offers to review before you purchase.

How to Use Kanban: A Sample Process

If you’re ready to try the Kanban methodology on your project but aren’t quite sure how to get started, we are walking through an example and creating a new project using Trello.

Create the Board and Stages or Lists

To begin, select your tool, create an account, sign in, and head to your main workspace to create a board.

  1. In the main Trello workspace, select “Create new board.”
Create a New Board on Trello
  1. Enter a “Board title,” and select a Background, Workspace, and Visibility, if you would like. Click “Create.”
Set up a new board on Trello
  1. When your new board opens, you’ll add the stages or lists for your project. Select “Add another list,” enter a title, and click “Add list.”
Add a List on Trello
  1. Do the same for the additional stages or lists you’d like to use. For our sample project, we are creating the stages “Ideas,” “To Do,” “In Progress,” “Review,” and “Done.”
New lists for Kanban on Trello

Add Cards to the Stages

Once you have your stages or lists, you can add cards for the tasks. Start with the first stage, or incorporate tasks that are in progress or already completed that you want to add for tracking.

  1. Select “Add a card” and enter the title of the task.
Add a card on Trello
  1. Once you create a card, you can open it to add a description, details, checklist, label, due date, or another helpful item.
Add card details on Trello

Move Cards Between Stages

As you complete tasks, you can easily move the cards to the next stage or list in the project.

In Trello, you can simply drag a card from one list to the next.

Drag to move a card on Trello

Alternatively, if you have the card open, you can choose “Move” and pick the stage or list.

Move a card on Trello

Take Advantage of Board, List, and Card Features

Depending on the tool you select, you may find other useful features to work with the Kanban board yourself or with a team.

Some features include:

  • Sharing boards
  • Archiving a stage or list
  • Assigning cards
  • Searching, filtering, and sorting
  • Adding card comments
  • Including card labels or tags

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between a Kanban board and a task board?

The Kanban board includes columns that show the progress of tasks as they move through a process. A task board simply contains a list of tasks that can be checked or crossed off as they are completed.

What’s the difference between Kanban and scrum methodology?

While both Kanban and scrum fall under the umbrella of agile project management, there are some distinct differences between the two.

Scrum uses a team with defined roles, such as scrum master and scrum product owner. The task process uses sprints that are defined time periods, usually a few weeks or a month, and changes take place at the end of a sprint.

Kanban can use a team, but there are no defined roles for team members. For tasks, there are no defined time periods, and changes can be made anytime throughout the process.

How do you manage flow using Kanban?

Somewhat different from other techniques, Kanban concentrates on moving the work through the process rather than focusing on the people doing the work. The ultimate goal is to complete the tasks in a timely fashion.

Image credit: Pixabay. All screenshots by Sandy Writtenhouse.

Sandy Writtenhouse
Sandy Writtenhouse

With her BS in Information Technology, Sandy worked for many years in the IT industry as a Project Manager, Department Manager, and PMO Lead. She wanted to help others learn how technology can enrich business and personal lives and has shared her suggestions and how-tos across thousands of articles.

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