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Kanban Cards Introduction and Best Practices

12 Nov 2019

Kanban was first introduced in lean manufacturing as a scheduling system that will help employees achieve the so-called just-in-time manufacturing (JIT). Created by Taiichi Ohno who was an industrial engineer at Toyota, Kanban eventually became a part of the Agile ecosystem thanks to its suitability for developing software. 

A staple since the early days, Kanban cards stand at the very core of the Kanban system, regardless of whether they are actual physical cards on a physical board or digital ones, on a virtual Kanban board.

Today, we’ll investigate what Kanban cards are, how they came to be and how to best put them to use to help your team improve its workflow.

Kanban Cards - The Origin

Introduced back in the 1940s, Kanban was designed as a system for applying the shelf-stocking techniques to the factories operated by Toyota, thus using the rate of demand for controlling the rate of production. 

Kanban cards played a vital role here as they were a signal that marked depletion of materials that need to be replaced. 

About 60 years later, David J. Anderson took the original concept from lean manufacturing and established the groundwork for Kanban we see today in software development. Kanban cards have also evolved and they now play a role of visualizing the workflow, among other things. 

The purpose of Kanban Cards

As mentioned before, both Kanban cards and the Kanban system as a whole are designed to help visualize the workflow. However, that's not the sole purpose of Kanban cards. The original purpose is to make work a lot more seamless and easier so that people can achieve their full potential, as well as optimal productivity. 

So how does that work exactly? Simply put, Kanban means a visual card roughly translated from Japanese. Kanban cards, therefore, represent a visual form of a work item. They are placed on the Kanban board to help increase work transparency, reduce the need for meetings and serve as information hubs, in general. 

These cards contain valuable information regarding tasks that are on the to-do list, in progress or completed. The main purpose is to help eliminate the waste and limit the work-in-progress (WIP) so that greater efficiency and quality control can be achieved. 

Information on Kanban Cards

The information present on Kanban cards differs from organization to organization. In other words, what you put on the cards is up to you. 

However, a simple rule that binds everything together is that information needs to be relevant, concise and clear. That way, you avoid any misunderstandings or inconveniences. As an example, here are a few things that should be present on a kanban card.

  • A name or a very short description of what the card is about.
  • The project name or ID, especially if there are multiple projects ongoing.
  • Workflow dates, such as start, finish, stages, etc.
  • Due date.
  • Priority.
  • People working on the task.

The information, although flexible, should represent the task at hand and its status. 

The best practices for Kanban Cards

When it comes to using Kanban cards, the only limit is the people's creativity and innovation. Some use color-coded cards on physical boards while others prefer a digital approach. 

In any event, how you choose to use them is up to you. However, there are some general practices that serve as a guideline for using Kanban cards and here are a few of them.

General principles

  • Start with what you know - There are no specific processes in the Kanban system. 
  • Pursue incremental changes - Kanban supports and actually encourages continuous small changes to whatever system is in place.
  • Respect the process - This goes for processes, roles, titles and responsibilities. Kanban recognizes small incremental changes as more feasible than large modifications in the entire processes.
  • Leadership at all levels - Great ideas can come from anyone within the team, not just managers and executives.

General practices

Visualizing the workflow - Kanban cards are vital here as they help you see the work that's in front of you. Once you're able to see requests, deadlines, requirements, risks and other factors, both the teams and individuals can take a more efficient and proactive approach. Cards are then placed on the boards so that everyone can follow the workflow. 

  • Limiting the WIP - The number of tasks that are marked as WIP should be limited as much as possible to avoid work obstruction and critical issues. 
  • Workflow management - Kanban cards on the board can help track and manage tasks, in order to maximize value by gathering data and metrics from the state of the work currently displayed on the board.
  • Feedback loops - Team members should do daily meetings in front of the board, in order to discuss what waste can be eliminated, how to improve task delivery and overall improvement of the process itself. 
  • Collaboration - Anything can be improved it there's room for it. Team members should, therefore, highlight any possible improvements and experiment with various ideas. 
  • Improving and adapting - By observing the workflow, the teams can obtain valuable information and use metrics to measure their efficiency. They can use the data gathered to improve the workflow for maximum productivity and efficiency. 

Closing word

The Kanban system proved to be effective in not just lean manufacturing but also in software development. That's why Kanban has become one of the leading Agile approaches, especially for mature teams. 

In the middle of it all are Kanban cards that help visualize the workflow, as well as boost productivity, efficiency and overall performance of Kanban teams.