What Are Kanban Cards and How Do You Use Them Correctly?

Published by Gavin Donnelly on

If you have heard of the kanban method, or have read our previous posts about the meaning of kanban and the relationship between kanban and the kaizen philosophy, then by now you have at least some understanding of what kanban cards are. Kanban cards are the physical (or digital) cards used to represent work items on a kanban board and track their progress from the “to-do” column, through the “in progress” column, and finally to the “completed” column. Though the basic concept of kanban cards is always the same, there are some different types of kanban cards and ways to use a kanban card correctly.

Different Types of Kanban Cards

Physical Kanban Cards

Kanban cards were developed in the 1940s to track the progress of factory manufacturing work. Because of this, they started out as physical cards that would have manufacturing information on the kanban card such as a part name, number, and description. These physical kanban cards were usually moved from bin to bin (sometimes attached to the actual part they represented) to track the production of each different part made in a factory.

Today, kanban boards are often used in software development, as part of Lean and Agile development principles, and sometimes in conjunction with the Scrum methodology. It is more common to see sticky notes with work items, and important information about the work, used as kanban cards and attached to a kanban board (like a whiteboard with columns drawn on it) somewhere in the office where the whole development team can see it.

Digital Kanban Cards

It is increasingly common for teams to use a digital kanban board and kanban cards, which can be done with project management software. An advantage of a digital kanban board and kanban card system is that it can be easily customized to suit the needs of any team and project as things change. Another advantage of a digital kanban card system is that it doesn’t matter where your team is in the world; everybody can log in and have access to the kanban board, regardless of whether they are in a physical office or working remotely.

Whether you use physical or digital kanban cards, the basic function remains the same. It is to visually represent work tasks, show where they are at a glance, and provide critical information about each task. This helps fulfill the kanban methodology’s main practices of managing workflows, improving processes, limiting work in progress, and improving collaboration.

What Do All Kanban Cards Have in Common?

  • Visually represent the flow of work items.
  • Help give everyone understand work item details at a glance.
  • Provide critical information at a glance.
  • Record work metrics that can be used to improve workflows.

How Do You Use Kanban Cards?

To start using a kanban card system, whether digital or physical, you first need to create the board. With project management software, you can simply select a kanban board template to start from, and then customize it to suit your specific project and team. If you are creating a physical kanban board, then the easiest way is to use a bulletin board or whiteboard with cards made from paper or sticky notes.

Decide how many columns you need and what to call them. The most basic kanban board only needs three columns: “to-do”, “in progress”, and “completed”. For more complex projects, you may want to create several columns that represent various stages of work in progress. After you have created the kanban board, then you need to create a kanban card for each item of work you want to represent.

For recurring work items and similar tasks that always need the same information, you can create a digital or physical kanban card template to use. This way, you can use the same card each time that work item needs to be completed, or easily fill in the information of similar work items. Using standardized kanban cards for repeating work items helps to improve process efficiency and save time.

Once you define the kanban board structure and the information that each kanban card with contain, then you just need to make sure everyone on the team knows how to move the cards through the columns of the board. An important principle of the kanban methodology is that everyone, at all levels of an organization, is responsible for using it and being a part of improving processes. In other words, everyone is responsible for moving their tasks through the columns of the board, identifying bottlenecks, and making suggestions for improving workflows.

Digital vs. Physical Kanban Cards

When it comes to using kanban cards efficiently, digital kanban cards have a clear advantage. With physical kanban cards, you are limited to how much information you can write on each kanban card, and it is harder to compile and analyze work item metrics. With digital kanban card templates, you can add much more information to each kanban card, automatically store work item data, and compile metrics much more easily to analyze in order to improve workflows. For this reason, using project management software to create a digital kanban board is highly recommended.

Categories: Project management


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