Kanban for Project Management

Kanban is derived from the Japanese for “sign card” or “billboard” and finds it roots in the 1940’s Toyota car manufacturing environment.  Its originator, Engineer Taiichi Ohno, was inspired by the systems for grocery store restocking and repurposed these replenishment systems to create a “just-in-time” inventory framework for car manufacturing.  The idea centers around a “pull” system of workflow, where the availability of in-process goods is matched to their downstream consumption. The model of continuous workflow and visual cues aims to balance the right level of inventory.  The product of the improved workflow is reduction in operations cost and minimized bottlenecks in production. Through some general principles, the leap from manufacturing to project management tool was not far away.

The Kanban Principles are as follows:

  • Visualize workflow with Kanban board
  • Limit Work in Progress (WIP)
  • Manage flow
  • Make policies explicit
  • Implement feedback loops
  • Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally based on scientific methods

From Car Manufacturing to Software Development

The principles of inventory management were later generalized to control of any work product such that optimal efficiency in any industry is visualized, planned and managed, whether in hospital, electronics manufacturing, small business or medical devices. [1]

The Kanban approach has broad application within the Agile software development community and is a powerful method to incrementally improve productivity.  The team at Atlassian recently published a useful introduction to Kanban as an Agile approach [2]. The author, Agile coach Max Rehkopf, suggests customizing the Kanban columns to suit your project work.  Mr. Rehkopf recounts “My team ships content, so our columns(simplified) go from Backlog, to Prioritized, to Outlines Ready, to Writing, Designing, Technical Review, and Shipped.”

 Kanban Used in Software Development

Figure 1 details an adaptation where User Stories (new software features) are detailed on the leftmost column. In our general example, breakdown of features to a task list is accomplished in the second column.

And herein is the beauty of the system: rendering the work products in visual format removes the abstractness of mental lists and verbal dialogue.  It also removes ambiguity of expectations: putting the task in a short visual card forces clear articulation of the task.  The task is expressed, with defined responsibility and physically moved from the “To Do” to the “In Progress” column when work begins.  This physical transfer is key for two reasons.

  • Visual workflow immediately gives a sense of progress. If a huge backlog of tasks piles up and nothing is moving toward the “Testing” or “Completed” fields, the bottleneck is visually unmistakable. We turn toward the usual levers offers by the Project Management Triangle: we can adjust the scope, timeline or budget of the project to address the bottleneck observed in the Kanban chart. [4]
  • Physically moving a task through the workflow provides a tactile association with the task. Much of the work products in the software and tech industries may not be physical in nature and the action of physically pushing a task toward completion provides a sense of accomplishment and deeper connection to the work.  The “In Progress” field indicates any task which has moved from concept or task to action.  Testing may be appropriate for software development and can be modified to “hold” or “review” for tasks related to document creation. The final column is reserved for “completed” or “shipped” product.

Figure 1: Example of Kanban in a Software Development Framework

Kanban for Multiple Projects

Kanban is remarkably well-suited for a broad spectrum of projects and even for personal use, as demonstrated in the book Personal Kanban: Mapping Work, Navigating Life [4]. Figure 2 illustrates a slightly different approach which I use to manage the day-to-day tasks of juggling multiple projects.

Through a slight modification to the template, the Kanban board is now capable of handling separate projects or groups of tasks. I’ve settled on Kanban as my chief tool to manage workflow. Alongside a stack of Post-It® Notes and markers, I maintain two Kanban boards: one for business and one for personal tasks. Mind-mapping, Rico Clustering [5] or other methods may help deliver the work breakdown needed to define tasks. Defined tasks then move to the “In Queue” field.  This becomes the repository for all requests and tasks.  As new tasks are initiated, I physically move the task to “In Process”.  When collaboration is required, then sometimes moving a task to “Hold” is necessary when a document is under review by another party.

Figure 2: Use of Kanban for Task Management of Multiple Projects

Summary of Advantages and Disadvantages

The simplicity of the Kanban system necessarily carries some drawbacks as a project management tool.  The Kanban chart does not easily characterize dependent relationships between tasks.  Additionally, Kanban is more difficult for matrix organizations where resources are shared among different projects and may shift in and out of a given project based on priority.

Kanban offers many advantages, which we have highlighted.  It is visual and therefore easy to understand and communicate across language barriers. Increased focus among learning experts points to the fact that approximately 65% of the population are so-called “visual learners” [6].  Therefore, statistically speaking, visual learners compose most of your team and may derive huge benefit from its use.  It is fully adaptable to a paper or whiteboard system, which is technically simpler, cheaper and may foster personal collaboration in a way that electronic management does not.  Finally, the guiding principle of reducing waste and increasing productivity is at its core and perhaps the greatest advantage.

Advantages Disadvantages
Simplicity – all work is presented visually and easy to spot imbalance. Visual Well suited to multi-lingual teams. Less optimal for workflow which is not continuous
Visual presentation easy to grasp and understand across language barriers. Difficult to see dependencies
Easy tool to implement whether electronic or physical copy More difficult to manage for tasks with shared resources
Prioritization / sequencing is optional
Physical connection to work through movement of cards
Work can be added at any time if capacity is free
Decreased waste and increased efficiency

About Our Template

Kanban is just one more powerful weapon in your project management arsenal and we are pleased to provide you this free template available for download at: https://freeprojectmanagementtemplates.com/all-templates/. Our Kanban template was prepared by an expert graphic designer and is suitable for both large format, high resolution printer or use on a personal computer. We invite you to download with a small donation and add to your arsenal of powerful project management tools. Wishing you great project success!


  1. https://www.smartsheet.com/understanding-kanban-inventory-management-and-its-uses-across-multiple-industries
  2. https://www.atlassian.com/agile/kanban/kanban-vs-scrum
  3. Personal Kanban: Mapping Work, Navigating Life, Bensen, J., DeMaria Barry, T., 2011.; CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform;
  4. https://www.projectmanager.com/blog/triple-constraint-project-management-time-scope-cost
  5. https://www.lifehack.org/articles/featured/rico-clusters-an-alternative-to-mind-mapping.html
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6513874/#B56
  7. https://freeprojectmanagementtemplates.com/all-templates/


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