How to Build a Kanban Board from Scratch

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This is the basic Kanban board.

It’s a pull system. You populate everything that you can possibly think of (as of now) of what you or your team want to do in the Backlog. From the Backlog you pull items that you want to take care of in the near term (e.g. this week) into the To Do column. Anything that you are currently working on goes into the WIP (work-in-progress) column. Finished worked is moved into the Done column.

You can build a Kanban board for just yourself, or for your team. If it’s for your team, build it together.

You can build a Kanban board anywhere you want. You can build it on a physical wall with post-its, on PowerPoint, on digital whiteboards such as Mural and Miro, and on dedicated software such as Trello, Asana and Jira.

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First, let’s build the Backlog.

Start with your goal. What is your personal or team goal? Or product/service development goal?

Articulate it and write it down.

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Next, “brain spill” everything that you or your team want to do (or build, develop) as of now.

Don’t worry about order or size. We’ll sort that out later.

From small things to big things, write down as many things as you can think of. Don’t worry about being perfect or thorough. The Backlog will be continuously updated so you can add more things anytime in the future as they come to your mind.

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Now let’s “chunk” things; i.e. group things together.

In Agile Scrum, a common practice is to call the smallest unit of work as “tasks.” Collections of tasks are “stories.” Collection of stories are “epics.”

Move around the post-its, use larger post-its and extra paper for creating story and epic containers (or similarly if you are creating a Kanban board electronically).

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The final step of Backlog building is prioritization.

Complex product development typically have dependencies; i.e. things that you need to do first and use them as building blocks for later steps. Label those epic, story, task items as priority and move them around so they come up towards the top of the list.

Things that are easy to do and create most value can be priority items too. Bump them up.

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Now back to the whole Kanban. The Backlog that you just made will sit on the far left-hand side.

From your Backlog, “pull” the priority items into the To Do column. This is what you’re going to work on the short term.

The columns next to Backlog and To Do, customize as you wish. In this example we have a modified WIP box compartmentalized by team member, a Testing column to check work before it’s deemed Done, and a Triage, Bumped, Killed system for handling ad-hoc things that were not originally planned in the Backlog. Create a Kanban flow that follows your team’s daily routine and reality.

Your Kanban is a living, breathing artifact. Use it daily and update it frequently. Keep it live and fresh.

Why Kanban?

Separating Thinking Doing Time Blue Red Work

Kanban is a powerful “Blue and Red Work” management tool.

Blue work is “thinking” time. Red work is “doing” time.

Teams that are red (do) work oriented, often don’t plan and design their work well enough. Kanban forces these teams to engage in blue (think) work before jumping into red work.

Teams that are blue (thinking) work oriented, sometimes lack follow-through power in execution and delivery. The To Do, WIP, Done sequence naturally instigates the discipline of follow-through and completion of work.

Read more about blue and red work here:

Synchronous Asynchronous Communication

Kanban is a powerful “Asynchronous Communication” tool.

Teams that communicate predominantly synchronously, i.e. in real time over calls, meetings and face-to-face, tend to spend significant amount of time in status updates.

Kanban is a persistent, visualized form of communication, which allows team members see each team members’ and the whole team’s work status in one glance, anytime.

Unlike a verbal update, with a Kanban board facts are not omitted and priorities are visualized, which help the team share more relevant information, thoroughly at any given time.

Consequently, teams that use Kanban boards tend to have more context rich, action oriented conversations when they meet (better quality of synchronous communication).

Read more about Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication here:

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