Kanban 101: How to Use Kanban Boards to Manage Your Next Project

By Danny Schreiber

You are reading: Chapter 4 of 8

Project management apps turn ambitious ideas into workable plans. They put lists, tasks, and files into a centralized hub, so your team can collaborate. They're intricate, all-encompassing solutions.

And that power can make them feel, well, complicated.

Every project has tasks. Then every task includes its own micro-tasks—the nitty-gritty details that help your goals move forward. It's like each task is a project of its own, begging for its own project management system.

Sometimes those individual sub-tasks are as important as the overall project—especially when the project is an ongoing project like "Make more car parts" or "Write blog posts". When the job's never done, the system for completing each task is most important.

That's why Toyota invented the "kanban" system, and introduced it to their factory teams more than 60 years ago: to help make sure each part was made with the same level of care at every step. For that, kanban focuses on status instead of due dates. Each task moves through standardized project stages so teams can track what's in-progress at a glance and identify show-stopping bottlenecks.

It helped Toyota make parts that were consistently great, and ensured the parts were finished exactly when they were most needed in their factories. And today, kanban helps teams manage editorial workflows, push code through development sprints, streamline hiring processes, and much more.

Kanban is the project management system you need to visualize your work. Here are 8 of the best ways you can implement kanban into your workflow, along with 8 great kanban apps to pick from.


Kanban 101 Index


Kanban: A Short History

Toyota factory kanban card
A kanban card on parts in a Toyota factory in the UK

Supermarket shelves. Car factory floors. Software development schedules. These unrelated places played a role in the creation of kanban, and for our purposes, kanban boards.

  • Supermarket shelves: Think of the last time you went to a grocery store to buy peanut butter. When you arrived—no matter what time of day—it's likely there were jars stocked on the shelves. Inventory in a grocery store isn't controlled by some strict schedule—it's ordered and stocked to fill customer demand. Jars of peanut butter are moved from stockroom boxes to shelves as they're emptied, and then new orders are placed as the stockroom runs out of inventory. It's a visual process, one that can be managed just by looking at store shelves.
  • Car factory floors: If supermarkets can effectively rely on one action (customers buying peanut butter) triggering another action (stocking peanut butter on supermarket shelves), how could a car company do the same for its parts inventory? That was the question managers at Toyota were asking in the 1950s, when they sought to better manage their parts inventory. They put in place the kanban (かんばん, which translates to "visual card") approach, which, like a shelf of empty peanut butter, relied on visual signals as products passed from one worker to the next. You'd know exactly where to pick up work on a part, thanks to the product's attached kanban card that detailed exactly what had been done to the part already.
  • Software development schedules: Fast-forward to the 2000s, and Microsoft's software development team is looking for a more efficient way to fix bugs in their Team Server product. After starting out with a more complicated project management system, management consultant David Anderson helped create an early kanban system for software development that put tasks into a buffer (or list of things to be done), and let developers pick something to work on and then send it to the next stage of the development process by adding it to the next list.

As it turns out, almost every job has a process, steps that each task must go through. Peanut butter jars go from a supplier to a stockroom to shelves; parts go from raw metal to finished product on a factory floor; software bugs go from feature request to raw code to finished addition to the product. Kanban fits them all.

With that, kanban cards are:

"Kanban (かんばん): Visual cards that list details about an item, organized into lists on a board to manage workflow stages."

So then, what exactly is a kanban board, and how would you use one to visualize your projects and get tasks done more efficiently?


Kanban Board Basics

kanban board, list and card
Kanban boards include lists that organize kanban cards into workflows

Whether offline in a 1950's Toyota factory or online in today's latest apps, kanban has three basic elements: Board, list and card.

  • Kanban Board: A board that encapsulates a project or workflow; a traditional project management tool calls this a "project" or "workspace".
  • Kanban List or Lane: A list or lane contains a set of related cards—typically those in the same stage of a process—in a titled column on a kanban board; a traditional project management tool calls this a "to-do list" or "task list".
  • Kanban Card: As defined above, a card houses an item related to your board and list, such as a task to be completed or a product to be made, and lives in a list on a board; a traditional project management tool calls this a "to-do" or "task".

With these elements as a foundation, the possibilities for how you employ a kanban board are as limitless as the ways you could use a spreadsheet. Create two boards, for example, to manage your company's next product launch. On the first board, your development team tracks launch progress by moving cards from list to list—To-Do, Doing and Done. On the second board, your marketing team categorizes planned launch activities with columns like Co-Marketing Ideas, Press Pitches and Internal Promotion.

engineering and marketing boards

That's only two of the many ways you could use a kanban board to organize your processes. We'll get to more. But first, let's look at the core kanban ideas and features to help you go from cards and lists to an organized workflow.

The 8 Most Important Kanban Board Features

In a typical project management app, you'd list tasks, add comments or notes with more info, and check tasks off as they're completed. Things work a bit different in a kanban board app.

Here are the eight most common features you'll find in kanban board apps—from the basics that are similar to paper-on-a-board physical kanban boards, to those that could only be possible in an app. The names and specifics of these features vary across apps—as you'll notice in the screenshots which come from a variety of apps—but their core functionality remains the same.

1. Move Kanban Cards Between Lists and Boards

moving a Kanban card

Moving cards between columns is vital to making the most of a kanban board. It's the one feature you'll use most—you'll likely move existing cards more than you make new ones. In most kanban board apps, you can change the placement of a card at any time—moving it within a list (up or down) or from list to list. To do so, put your cursor over the card, then click, hold, and move the card to the new location.

If you want to move or copy the card from one board to another, you'll typically find that option within the card's settings. And in some kanban board apps like LeanKit, you can change the layout of your columns, so you might be moving a card to a lower or higher column. Experiment and see where you can drag a card—you can't break anything.

move kanban card to list

With all this movement, you'll sometimes need to look back at the path the card took. To do this, locate the card's activity stream, likely on the card "back" which you'll find by clicking on the card.

2. Invite Individuals to Kanban Boards, then Assign and Subscribe to Kanban Cards

kanban card and board members
Left: Members of a Trello Board. Right: Members of a Trello Card

Like you'd expect from a traditional project management tool, kanban board apps let you invite teammates, clients, and others to collaborate on a project. This happens on two levels: board and card.

Each board has its own settings, including the ability to invite members. In Trello, for instance, you can invite any Trello user to a board. Or, if you're part of an organization (such as our Zapier organization), there's a quick-list of fellow organization members that you can choose from to add to your board. Otherwise, you can typically enter someone's email address to invite them to join a kanban board for the first time.

When you add people to a board, they'll be able to add cards, move cards, leave comments on cards, edit cards, and more. They'll also see the activity stream related to that board, so they can keep up with the project even if they're not a direct part of it.

Cards have members or assigned users, too, but with a different purpose: you'll add members to the card (including yourself) to take or split ownership of the task. When you do so, you'll start to get notifications for activities related to that card. For example, if someone leaves a comment on the card, the kanban board app notifies everyone who's assigned to the card about that comment.

add member to kanban card in trello

If you're not directly responsible for the activity described on a card, but you want to keep tabs on it, another option many kanban board apps offer is to "subscribe" to the card. Subscribing to a card ensures you're notified of new card activity, just as if you were assigned to it. And in the same vein, if one of your cards are too noisy, you can unsubscribe from notifications to keep your inbox clear.

3. Add Notes and Hold Discussions on Kanban Card Backs

leankit kanban card back
Using the card back functionality in LeanKit

Here's where a virtual kanban board is exponentially more valuable than a physical one: endless comments. Offline, if you're using a Post-it Note to track tasks, you'll quickly run out of space to scribble things you need to remember. Online, kanban cards give you limitless space to make note of what's needed.

Most kanban tools include a description field on each card where you can add notes and attach related files. There's also usually an area to hold discussions with your teammates. And when you're writing up a description or leaving a comment, you can mention other members by @-mentioning their user name, like you would on Twitter.

trello mention

To access these two features, you'll need to tap into what some apps call the "card back"—look for a link to this additional set of features on the card itself, or just click the card and it'll likely open the card back automatically.

4. Attach Checklists or Tasks to Cards

trello kanban checklist

Your work is rarely a simple process, which is why tasks need checklists of their own. That's what you get with a kanban tool, where each card can have one or more checklists or task lists. For example, a card on your "Press Outreach" kanban board might be titled "TechCrunch," and contain the following checklist:

[ ] Initial pitch email
[ ] Follow up with more information
[ ] Media assets delivered
[ ] Coverage confirmed
[ ] Coverage published

Depending on your kanban board tool, the card cover might show a completed checklist percentage that goes up as you check off tasks, making it easy to see where you are in a process.

checklist completion trello

Like descriptions and comments, you can @-mention fellow board members in a checklist, too. At Zapier, we use checklists with mentions to assign roles in our editorial workflow. Every card has an "Editing" checklist with three tasks—micro edits, macro edits and newsletter copy—each assigned with an @-mention.

5. Include Work in Progress Limits

work in progress limits in LeanKit

Processes can get overwhelming when there's too many tasks in a list at once. That's why some kanban apps let you restrict the amount of tasks you can include in a list with work in progress limits, or WIP (pronounced whip) limits for short. These constraints are applied to a column, limiting the number of cards you can add to that column.

For example, if I know that our editorial team at Zapier can only handle writing three posts per week, I would add a WIP limit of three cards to the column titled "Writing." You'll usually find WIP limit tools in the layout editor for your kanban board, and will just enter a number for the top number of cards you want in a list. If you add too many, the kanban tool will warn you there's already too many things to do—a quick way to know when you should work on other tasks.

6. Label or Tag Kanban Cards

custom kanban card labels in trello

Let's get back to full-picture—the board view—and focus on another must-know feature: labels. Labels, also called tags depending on your app, add another level of organization to cards in a kanban list or board. If a card has a specific state that isn't covered by its position in a list, a label can be handy.

Returning to our editorial calendar setup, for example, we use labels at Zapier to denote if a post is written in-house, by a freelancer, or as a guest post. You could also use labels to note tasks that need your design or development team's help, perhaps, or to mark tasks' difficulty. You could even add multiple tags, to note when tasks need both development and design help, say.

Labels or tags aren't applied across all of your boards. Instead, they're specific to each board. You can customize each board's label colors and names so they fit that board's workflow perfectly.

7. Put Due Dates on Kanban Cards

Due Date in Kanbanery

Tasks without due dates often don't get done. So don't forget to set deadlines for your kanban cards. Just click the due date button—typically on a card's back or under a clock icon—and select the date when the task should be finished.

Most apps offer due date notifications, too. To get a reminder, you'll either need to be a member of the card or "subscribe" to the card—a feature available in most kanban tool apps. Then, your kanban tool will remind you when a task is coming up or overdue.

8. View Kanban Cards on a Calendar

Calendar view in a Trello kanban board

Beyond the default "board" view of a kanban board tool, many kanban apps let you toggle a calendar view. This quick switch—in Trello, for example, it's at the click of the Calendar button in the top right—makes it easy to visualize upcoming development deadlines, publishing schedules, or product delivery dates.

And just like the board view, the calendar view lets you add, move, and edit cards, too. Need to reschedule an overdue task? Just drag it to the new due date on your calendar.


8 of the Best Kanban Board Apps

Need a tool to make your kanban boards? Here are eight of the best, each of which are easy to use but also include unique features to help your team be productive:

App Icon:  Best for: Price
Trello Trello The app that helped make kanban so popular today, Trello is an easy-to-use kanban board that lets you turn on only the features you need. With customizable backgrounds and emoji, along with built-in Power-up integrations, it can handle all of your kanban boards—from work to personal projects.

See Trello integrations on Zapier
Free; from $9.99/user/mo. Business Class plan for premium power-ups and team features
LeanKit LeanKit Every project's unique, so LeanKit lets you customize your kanban boards with different sized columns for the workflows you need. With detailed cards and reports, it's a kanban tool designed for collaboration on large projects.

See LeanKit integrations on Zapier
from $19/user/mo. Select plan for unlimited boards, templates, and more
Kanban Tool Kanban Tool Manage larger projects and still quickly find the most important tasks with Kanban Tool's customizable columns and colors. Make columns the size you need, group similar columns together for sub-workflows, choose a color for each card to make important tasks stand out, then track your progress with time tracking and reports.

See Kanban Tool integrations on Zapier
Free for 2 users and boards; from $5/user/mo. Team plan for unlimited boards and file attachments
Kanbanery Kanbanery Start new projects quickly with Kanbanery's template boards which you can customize for your projects. Then, upload tasks with a `.csv` file, track changes in projects from GitHub, and keep track of everything with customizable email and RSS notifications.

See Kanbanery integrations on Zapier
Free for 2 users; from $22/mo. Freelancer plan for 5 users and unlimited boards
KanbanFlow KanbanFlow Make sure your team doesn't burn out, with KanbanFlow's built-in Pomodoro timer to help pace your work. You'll also never miss any part of a task, with detailed sub-tasks visible on your cards in your dashboard.

See KanbanFlow integrations on Zapier
Free; $5/user/mo. Premium plan for dashboard and calendar views, file attachments, and reports
MeisterTask MeisterTask Rely on mind maps to help your team brainstorm new ideas? Turn those into actionable tasks with MeisterTask, a Kanban app from the team behind MindMeister. It helps you do more, with automated actions to send emails and more when you move a task, and task relationships so you'll know if a former task needs done first.

See MeisterTask integrations on Zapier
Free; from $8.33/user/mo. Pro plan for unlimited integrations and workflow automation
Blossom Blossom Want more visuals than just your kanban boards themselves? Blossom shows task stats with large rubber stamp-style tags. It also gives you detailed analytics and sends beautiful email reports about your projects. And if you're working on code projects, its GitHub integration can simplify your development workflow. from $22/mo. Startup plan for unlimited projects and 5 users
PivotalTracker Pivotal Tracker If kanban itself isn't enough for your team, PivotalTracker mixes scrum development cycles with kanban-style boards to help you ship tasks in sprints. There's an icebox to store tasks you're not ready to do yet, and a customizable layout to see just the lists and projects you need at once. Free for 3 users and 2 projects; from $12.50/mo. Startup plan for 5 users and projects

There's more, too. You'll find kanban board tools inside many apps today—or as companion add-ons you can easily install. Visual Studio Online includes a kanban view for your work items, and GitHub Projects turns your code issues into a kanban board automatically. Productivity tools, including task managers like Flow and Asana, project managers like Zoho Project, or databases like Airtable, also often include kanban views as an extra way to sort your tasks.

Or, for simpler projects, you might not even need an app. Instead, you could repurpose a whiteboard as a makeshift kanban board. Draw your own columns and use post-it notes for your cards for a quick way to visualize your projects and push each task towards the last column for completion.


6 Ways to Test Drive a Kanban Board

Kanban boards were popularized first by factories and later by software development teams. Thanks to their flexibility, kanban apps can now be found everywhere—from the boardroom to your home office. Here are six of the many unique ways kanban boards can be used to get more done.

1. Manage Personal Tasks in a Kanban Board

Collaborating in a kanban board seems like a given, but it's not a requirement. A kanban tool can be used all on your own to manage your personal tasks. The simplest way to get started is to create the standard lists: To-Do, Doing and Done. Or add a backlog list, for when a task or work item doesn't fit into one of the three categories. That's how Pocket founder Nate Weiner uses Trello.

"I have a board that I call The Hopper, (with lists for) Today, Tomorrow and This Week," Weiner says. Before using the personal kanban method, the Pocket CEO relied on his email inbox as a checklist. Finding that a "terrible place to put tasks," he tried several to-do apps, but none of them stuck.

That is, until he made a kanban board. "Anytime I come up with something, I just hop into the app, drop it in The Hopper and then at the beginning and end of the day, I can recycle these things and move them around as need be," says Weiner.

You can add automation to Weiner's process by relying on app automation tool Zapier to create a Trello card when you star or label a Gmail email, or file away an Office 365 email.

Moreover, if you have a routine task you need to complete, rather than re-adding it daily, weekly or month, rely on Zapier to add recurring tasks to your Kanban board.

2. Build a Kanban Editorial Calendar

There are apps to help manage your editorial calendar, but rather than adding more software to your workflow, consider using a kanban board to manage content. At Zapier, for example, we've used both Trello and Airtable kanban boards to keep our publishing pipeline flowing.

Our "Editorial Calendar" board has six lists—To Write/Assign, Writing, Editing, Ready, Publishing and Promoting—and each card represents a piece of content. The member of the card is the content's author, unless the post has been assigned to a freelance writer, in which case the member is the freelancer's contact and the card is given a green label to note it's a "freelancer" post. When a card moves to the "Editing" list, we add a checklist with three tasks—Macro Edits, Micro Edits and Newsletter Copy—@-mentioning a team member beside each.

Before implementing the kanban workflow at Zapier, we didn't plan posts more than a week out, and were always scrambling to get content published on time. The Trello board, with its checklist, card members and due dates, has helped changed the way we work at Zapier.

And once an article has been published and moved into our Promoting list, we use a Zapier-powered Trello to Slack integration to let the team know there's a new post on our blog automatically.

Or, if you're using another kanban board app, here are some Zapier automations to help your team know as things move through your editorial calendar or other projects.

3. Gather Content or Project Ideas in a Kanban Board

Similarly, Robby Macdonell, vice president of product development at productivity tool RescueTime, relies on a kanban board to keep a repository of future blog post ideas. He employs just two list: "Possibilities" and "Done."

"I'm constantly seeing articles or blog posts about working smarter or happier, and many of them have ideas that I'd like for us to explore further on the RescueTime blog," Macdonell says.

"I usually see these articles in passing, don't have enough time to fully digest them, and when it comes time to meet with our content team, I've completely forgotten about them," he says. "Now, I just save the article with Pocket, give it a tag, and it automatically ends up in the 'Ideas for Future Posts' board."

You could use Zapier integrations to create kanban cards from your company mentions, RSS feed posts, emailed-in idea suggestions, and much more, so you'll always have ideas to start with—and then, you could get them published with your Kanban-powered editorial calendar.

4. Share a Public Road Map in a Kanban Board

Customer support apps often include forum tools where users can suggest and vote on new features, functionality or add-ons. The team behind Front, a shared inbox app, knew the importance of that customer interaction and wanted to offer their users something similar. Rather than fiddling with a new tool, though, they made a modification to the Trello board where they were privately storing user requests—they made it public.

"It was a big decision to make and we put a lot of thought into it," Mathilde Collin, Front CEO, writes on the company blog, "but once we opted for it, it literally took us 2 minutes to launch it."

On top of giving visibility to all, they added a Trello feature to allow for public votes on individual cards to gather input from users.

"The public roadmap has already helped us collect valuable feedback," Collin writes. "For example, the native iPhone app was far more urgent than we anticipated, and 4 times more requested than the Android app: we instantly added it to our next product cycle."

Front's not alone in using a kanban board for a public roadmap. Trello itself does the same, and they offer a guide to taking your company's plans public, too: "Going Public! Roadmapping With A Public Trello Board."

When it comes to filling up your own roadmap with potential ideas, Zapier can help by creating cards in your kanban app from starred Slack messages, new Evernote notes in a specific notebook, new Asana projects and more.

5. Track Your Sales Pipeline in a Kanban Board

At some point, you'll find you need a CRM app, a customer relationship management system that keeps you and your team on top of your sales pipeline. Until that time comes, though, you can get many of the same features with a spreadsheet CRM or a contact-centric kanban board. It's the latter that entrepreneur Grégoire Gilbert found to work best early on for his team.

"There's a lot of CRM and sales pipeline solutions out there. From platforms aiming at freelancers, to SaaS targeting sales teams. Most of them look good and could have probably worked for our tiny team," say Gilbert. "Although, being a pretty convinced Trello user already, I decided to give it a try for managing my sales pipeline."

He set up his company's kanban board with a list for each stage, from "Contacted Us" to "Won," "Contact again later" or "Lost." He then used labels to mark if a prospect needed to be contacted or there was another action that needed to take place. When the contact reached the list called "Meeting arranged," Gilbert employed the card's checklist to note the tasks he needed to complete in order to prepare for the in-person sale, and added the in-person meeting's date as the card's due date.

Gilbert's system wasn't set in stone. That was part of the plus of using a kanban board tool: it was customizable to his team's evolving workflow. And he's not only one he's used Trello as a simple CRM—EntreLeverage, an administrative support agency, for example, has heralded the system, too.

If you're considering setting up a kanban board app for a sales pipeline, rely on Zapier when the time comes to start pulling in leads. Zapier can turn your emails, contacts, proposals and more into kanban cards, or it could notify you when cards—ahem, contacts—reach a certain stage.

6. Hire Faster with Kanban

You're hiring for one position, then two, then four. Sorting through applicants in your inbox is manageable when you're just starting to hire, but before long you'll need an applicant tracking system—an app that organizes candidates, allows you to assign team members to hiring tasks and keeps applicant information easily accessible. There's well-built software for this task, such as Workable or Breezy, but a kanban board with some Zapier automations can also be a great solution.

To get started, set up a hiring inbox with your Google Apps account, and then use Zapier to create cards from each new email received. You can set up the integration to use the email subject as the card's title, include the attached resume as a card attachment, and pull out the email body, contact info and any other details and add it as the card's description. Then, you can use columns to note each part of the hiring process. It's not a full-fledged applicant tracking system, but it's bounds better than an overflowing inbox.

Trello Gmail Zapier workflow
A Zapier integration to add hiring data from a Gmail email to a Trello kanban card

It's also how a number of teams are already processing their applicants. "Back in the day we found it very stressful to keep track of our inbound applications," says Michael Börner of digital agency Edenspiekermann. "Making decisions on applications is decentralized at Edenspiekermann, and we needed a way to send the applications to our colleagues to get proper feedback."

"Now, we generate a Trello board for each job posting, and define a Zap that way," says Börner. "We are sending the inbound application message to an email address that splits the mail with its attachments and adds it as a card on the corresponding board. Further, the Zap assigns the right people to the cards, and from there, we take it in Trello. This way we save time and get a well-handled process."


Create Your Own Kanban Boards

Emma Leankit kanban board
Emma reviews its Leankit board during a team meeting

The team behind email marketing app Emma relies on Leankit to monitor progress of its team's biggest goals. Jessica Crabb, a product designer at Pivotal Labs, turns to Trello to schedule and record user research. Brian Cervino, a Trello team member, uses his company's product to plan his meals—one of dozens of kanban board uses highlighted by the Trello team.

Kanban board apps can be called on for projects big and small, individual and team efforts, one-time or ongoing work. These tools offer much of the same functionality of a traditional project management app—or a CRM, applicant tracking system or editorial calendar tool. You'll just need time to make it your own.

Create boards for your next projects, add lists and labels that fit your workflow, bring in all of your tasks, and give it a try. Customize until everything feels just right. It might take a bit of time, but once you have your board title, list names and card formats in place, you'll be ready to tackle your first task. And before you know it, you'll be making more kanban boards for your next tasks.


Kanban boards aren't the only way to manage projects. There's a world of project management software, with tools of all shapes and sizes that can help you plan projects, assign tasks, schedule release dates, and keep track of everything in one place. Some are simple, with just team-focused to-dos. Others do everything, merging chat and invoicing with projects and documentation, for a one-stop-project-shop.

In the next chapter, we'll look at the 50 best project management apps, with enough different tools to fit almost every possible project need—and then some. They're the tools to use if Kanban's not enough.

Go to Chapter 5!

Written by Zapier Marketer Danny Schreiber.

Image Credits: Toyota factory photo by Toyota UK via Flickr.

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