Kanban Board: 10 basic rules how to use it in an effective way


According to the „State of Agile“ report – an international survey conducted in 2018 by VersionOne the Kanban Board (aka Scrum Board aka Agile Board) is the most popular tool used by agile teams all over the world to tackle their projects.
No matter which agile framework is used – Scrum, LeSS or SAFe or other the Kanban Board always helps to make the work progress and impediments of teams visible to everyone and so supports the core agile values – transparency, commitment to do the right things and courage to achieve common goals.

Even though the look, structure and usability of the Kanban Board is well known the rules how to apply it effectively in order to unfold its full potential is something left for teams to find out.

The purpose of this post it to share our top 10 Kanban effectiveness rules we have collected as Lessons Learned from different big-scale SW development and implementation projects.

Rule #1: keep it simple

If you use the Kanban Board for the first time start with the basic structure with columns To Do, Doing, Done which everyone understands and is able to intuitively assign tasks to. Once you get acquainted with this basic structure you may thing of extending it by additional categories given that these categories add a real value – help the team to remove impediments faster and perform tasks more effectively.
Use simple plain language without abbreviations and “team jargon“ when you define tasks. This will make the Kanban Board to a universal tool for reports and communication across across teams and hierarchy levels.

Rule #2: common structure and level of details across all teams

Use the same Kanban Board structure (column definition) agreed at the rule #1 across all teams.If a team suggests to introduce a new category (column) align with all teams if this category makes sense for everyone. If it is accepted as a common value-adding category adjust the common Kanban Board structure accordingly. Otherwise commonly refrain from it.

Rule #3: agree on a time box

Even though the original Kanban methodology does not apply time-boxing to the work visualization but rather see is as a continuous flow, we recommend to do so. A common agreement on a certain time box with duration from one to four weeks – applied to the categories To-Do, Doing, Done and valid for all teams helps to achieve the same level of details in task definition across multiple teams. „Speaking the same language“ simplifies integration and synchronizes the deliverables of teams. Keep the time box duration fixed unless all agree to change it for an important value-driven reason.
You should avoid a wide-spread mistake of applying different time boxes to the categories „To-Do“ vs. „Doing and Done“. If you want to visualize tasks which are not planned for the current timeframe but rather flagged for later introduce an additional category „Backlog“ on the Kanban Board. In this category you can park any task considered as relevant for the overall deliverable of the team.

Rule #4: revise it regularly

Revise the Kanban Bard on a regular basis:

Plan the „To-Do“ list for the next time at the end of the current time box by moving the parked tasks from the „Backlog“ column and not-completed tasks of the current time box from the „Doing“ column to the „To-Do“ column
Always keep the status of all tasks up to date at so that the Kanban Board can serve as a tool of transparency and work synchronization. Move a planed task from the „To-Do“ column to the „Doing“ column when you started the task and from the column „Doing“ to the „Done“ column when you completed the task on a daily basis.
Keeping the Kanban Board up to date is not a responsibility of a single person such as Scrum Master, Team Lead or similar. It is a responsibility of each team member who execute tasks.

Rule #5: accessible to everyone

The Kanban Board should be placed so that everyone who is involved in task execution, planning and revision as well as all stakeholders can easily see it anytime they like. This helps to avoid status requests from stakeholder and saves the team’s time for productive work.

When you work with an analog Kanban Board it should be placed in a room where everyone has access to and the most people have the shortest way to reach it. A digital Kanban Board should be stored in a shared folder (e.g. Sharepoint) with the write access for the team working and a read access for stakeholders.

Rule #6: purpose over tools

When you use the Kanban Board for the first time, start with an analog board on a wall. The reason for this lies in the rule of simplicity. All tasks are posted as post-its on the wall. This gives you a good overview and helps to draw your attention to relevant tasks. The joint viewing and discussing in front of the wall also helps to build up interpersonal relationships within a team.An analog board is the best choice when you have few teams – all working onsite and close to each other. Once there are teams who contribute remotely to the overall project delivery and there are dependencies between onsite and remote teams we recommend to setup a common digital Kanban Board which can be shared and updated together in a conference call session.
There are several good tools on the market such as Jira Agile Board, Trello etc. which not only provide basic Kanban Board features but also allow to track the progress with fancy customizable reports, e.g. Burn-Down charts, Average task duration, Number of tasks in status „Doing“ and „Done“ by team assignment, Number of tests planed vs. completed within a time box.

Rule #7: single south of truth

Avoid creating several Kanban Boards when you can achieve your goal with just one. Duplicating Boards and tasks leads to either extra effort for the team of keeping the boards in sync or to a disconnection of the tasks between two boards. The impact of the disconnection may be huge – from misinformation and misunderstandings to confusions and delays.

Rule #8: team achievement over personnel achievement

Do not assign and track a task to a person, rather assign it to a team. The team should be able to complete the task independently from other teams or managers.

Doing it on a team level encourages the team spirit and mutual support and establishes psychological security which is inevitable for the success of a project.

Rule #9: continuous improvement

Brainstorm with all teams at least once in a quarter what can be improved about your Kanban board and implement improvement measures which are value-adding for the team.

Rule #10: make these rules be known and agreed by everyone

A great rule which nobody knows, the reason for which nobody understands makes it just а deadweight. A rule which is known and understood by everyone moves mountains.

Assure that everyone who starts working with a Kanban Board understands the commonly agreed rules and is given a possibility to contribute to their further improvement.


Author: Agilon GmbH, https://agil-on.com