Kanban Boards: How to Keep Track of Processes and People

Kanban boards can help you juggle everything that's in progress.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #518

To help illustrate how kanban boards can help mitigate chaos, let's start with a scenario.

It’s delivery day at Green Growing Things plant store! Plants are coming in fast and furious: roses, petunias, Audrey IIs, and daffodils. Intern Xris is running around frantically. The roses arrived, but there was no space in the nursery. So Xris moved several pots to make space. But then the petunias needed space, so Xris had to start shuffling roses. Then the daffodils. And then the Audrey IIs. Everything is chaos, and to make matters worse, there’s no plant food in stock for the carnivorous Audrey IIs. They ended up right in the store’s entrance area. Having a hungry Audrey II greet your scrumptious, scrumptious customers is not a recipe for long-term business success.

Xris needs to find a way to physically untangle everything that happens to get new plants into the store:

  • Plants get ordered
  • Space in the showroom gets reserved
  • Plant food gets ordered
  • Plants arrive at the loading dock
  • Plants are moved into the showroom

In episode 514, Make Your Business Better with the (Physical) Kanban Method, we learned that the Kanban method from lean manufacturing can be used to track physical objects by putting the information about an object on a physical card.

But here, what Xris needs is a way to keep track of which step a given plant is in at any given time, all in one place. For that, we can use a Kanban board.

A Kanban Board Tracks Anything Going Through a Process

Grab a whiteboard and erase everything on it. Then draw several vertical lines, separating it into columns. Label the columns with the steps that something goes through. Here, Xris uses labels To order, Reserve Space, Order plant food, Awaiting Plants, Displaying, and Ready to Sell. Those are the steps that every kind of plant goes through.

When the store decides it’s time to order a variety of plant, Xris just writes the name of the plant on a sticky note and puts it in column To Order. If it’s Pansy time, Xris puts a sticky note reading “Pansies” in the To Order column. 

When the order gets placed, Xris moves the note from To Order to the Reserve Space column. When the space has been set aside, it’s moved to Order plant food, then Awaiting Order, and so on. Ultimately, the note ends up in Ready to Sell and the pansy processing is done until it’s time for the next order.

Columns Tell You What Work to Do Next

The neat thing about Kanban boards is that the columns tell you instantly what work needs to be done. When planning out the showroom, a quick glance at the Reserve Space column tells you all the plants you need to make space for. When placing your monthly orders, the To order column tells you which orders to place. All the information you need is at your fingertips.

If you want to be environmentally conscious, instead of using sticky notes, remember it’s a whiteboard. You can just write the word directly on the whiteboard, and move it to the next column by erasing it and rewriting it. If you want to be really environmentally conscious, stop eating meat and take public transportation. (But that’s a different podcast).

Kanban Boards Are Universal

You can use a Kanban board to track anything through any process. In software project management, Kanban boards are often used to track development of modules.

The columns might be labeled module being defined, code being written, testing, and published. As each major software module is under way, it gets moved to the column that reflects where in the process it could be.

Name each column so it tells you what should be happening to whatever’s in that column. If a column is labeled Code written, it tells you a module is written, but not where it is now. But if it’s labeled Code being written, then you know the code is currently in some programmer’s cubicle, being created by an M&M-fueled uber-geek.

Steps Needn’t Be Sequential

If you’re hunting for a shmoopie and being systematic about it, you could label the columns Schedule first date, Send flowers, Schedule second date, Propose pair-bonding, Plan commitment ceremony and Not viable.

In this case, when you meet a new shmoopie candidate, you put their name under the Schedule first date column. If things go well, you move them to Send Flowers, Schedule second date, and Propose pair-bonding. If they say Yes, we all rejoice, and move them to Plan commitment ceremony. If they say No, they get moved to the Not viable column and we are sad.

In this case, any proto-shmoopie moves through the sequence in order, just like before. But after the Propose step, they might go to the Plan commitment ceremony column or the Not viable column. You don’t need the columns to be a strict, step-by-step sequence.

You may often have several different ending columns. Product return requests tracked by kanban might use columns Request received and Problem investigated. From there, a request might go into a third column, Issue refund, or a fourth column, No refund. Let them down gently.

Kanban Boards Come in Software, Too

Although Kanban boards started as physical boards, they work extremely well in software. Tools like PlutioTrello, and Jira provide Kanban boards where you can also tag the items on a board, collaborate virtually with your team, and so on.

Use Kanban Boards Everywhere

Try out a Kanban board. Learn how they work, and you’ll find many, many places where they come in handy:

  • To track groups. When you have several teams doing a scavenger hunt, track their progress using a kanban board.
  • To track prospects through a sales process, with columns like Obtain customer requirements, Proposal being written, and Proposal out for review.
  • To track freelance clients. If you are working on several client projects at once, your columns might be Project contract needed, Contract out for signature, First draft being created, Awaiting Customer Feedback, and Final project delivered.

Giving Xris a whiteboard was all it took. Each new plant now goes through its steps in order, so by the time it arrives in the store, there’s a clear path from loading dock to display case. The Audrey IIs are happily munching on seitan-based imitation steak, and everything is under control. Now if only we knew whose control…

I’m Stever Robbins. Follow GetItDoneGuy on Twitter and Facebook. If you have projects that are stalled or taking too long, check out my “Get-it-Done Groups” accountability groups. Learn more at http://SteverRobbins.com. Image of kanban board © Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.