Kanban – Visualize your workflow

Kanban – Visualize your workflow

The importance of visual elements

Let’s start with the importance of visual elements in our lives. People are visual beings. There is more information for our brain to capture in a one single picture than on dozens of pages of text; in addition we can process pictures much faster than words. Brain neurons for our visual perception account for 30 % of brain’s grey matter, compared to only 8 % for hearing neurons and 3 % for touch comprehension.

In reality, our brains find it quite complicated to read a text. They first have to decode it letter by letter, matching them to the shapes stored in our memory; in the second step, the brain must process how all the letters fit together to form a word. Afterwards, the brain must connect words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. Reading a text is a long and complicated process for us.

However when we look at pictures, our brain can process several pieces of information simultaneously, which means it is processing that around 60,000 times faster than when reading a text. Visual information (pictures, graphics, drawings, infographics…) is therefore a big relief for our brain in today’s information overload. The reason behind much faster picture processing is probably pretty simple –threats in the prehistoric world were visual things, not a bunch of text.

It’s also easier for our brain to process text information if there are pictures added. Graphic elements included in the text increase our comprehension, recollection and retention, since they help our brain decode the text. Pictures also add more intense emotional processing, which engages our imagination and creative thinking.

Here you can find nice infographics on the importance of visual elements.

Picture Processing Infographics

The sign versus the text.

In the future, we will talk a lot about why visualization is so important for increasing personal productivity as well as about other visual techniques we can use to improve our everyday life. One very important visualization technique from agile software development is called Kanban.


Kanban is a Japanese word meaning billboard or signboard. Kanban is also a very important part of the Toyota Production System (TPS), with the main goal of supporting just-in-time (JIT) production. Kanban is beneficial to lean manufacturing, because it helps avoid overloading the manufacturing system and producing too much inventory, which is one of the seven wastes in the lean production theory.

The inspiration for the Kanban system were retail stores or, more exactly, store clerks in supermarkets who restocked the items to the shelves every time that the item was being sold to the customer. The inventory was not restocked directly by their vendor’s on their own estimates, but when an item was nearly sold out, the clerks were allowed to order new supplies. The restocking of the inventory was therefore completely demand driven. That much about the inspiration for the Kanban system.

The key components of the Kanban system are Kanban cards. To put it very simply: in lean production, the Kanban cards show that an item was sold and start a new task in the production process. The inventory needs to be restocked and a new product needs to be produced. The whole production process is supported by the Kanban card visualization. In this way, the Kanban system encourages a demand-driven system, JIT production and constant improvement, especially in eliminating the waste.

Nowadays in business, either electronic Kanban systems are being used (eKanban) or the Kanban system is integrated directly into ERP (enterprise resource planning) platforms.

The use of the Kanban system in manufacturing was an inspiration for using the same system in agile software development, with the main goal of delivering the software just-in-time and not overloading the team members. Kanban in software development is all about process management visualization that tells what, when and how much to develop.

The main principle of the Kanban system is better communication by visualization and visual management.

The four key principles of Kanban are:

  1. Visualize work: Make work visible for better management as well as to identify queues and bottlenecks (or personal procrastination on specific tasks).
  2. Limit Work in Progress (WIP): Increase focus and set priorities, manage overload (keep enough margin). With the right amount of work in progress, the team can be in the flow instead of facing anxiety or boredom.
  3. Focus on the Flow: Analyze the workflow to increase productivity and constantly try to improve the smoothness of the flow.
  4. Continuous Improvement: Continuously improve the effectiveness of the team with focus on the flow and improving your system.

Kanban board and Kanban cards

In order to use Kanban in agile software development, we need:

Kanban board example

Example of a Kanban board

A Kanban board: Usually it’s a big white magnetic dry wipe board. You can use any other surface on which you are prepared to draw and stick some notes. It’s good to have a big board, so you have enough room for all the sticky notes.

You should draw several columns on the whiteboard, visualizing the stage a specific task is in. In software development the columns are usually:

  • To Do
  • Plan
  • Develop (In process / Done)
  • Test
  • Deploy
  • Done

The simpler version uses only three columns:

  • To Do
  • In process
  • Done

Sticky notes (Kanban Cards): Every sticky note represents a task that a team or an individual has to perform. You simply write what has to be done on the sticky note (name the task). Sticky notes can be of different colors for different types of tasks (User story, feature, defect …). On every note, you can also write additional data, like the estimated scope of the task in hours, a unique task ID, task owners and other information.

After you have the board and sticky notes, you simply stick the notes in one of the columns, depending on the phase the task is in. Now you have a nice visual representation of what needs to be done, the works in progress and tasks that are being completed.

Kanban for personal productivity

The biggest value added of the Kanban system is definitely for teams with complex projects and for businesses with a complicated supply chain and sales channels. But it can also be used for small teams, as well as to increase personal productivity.

The main reasons for using Kanban as a personal task management system:

  • It’s more fun than just having a list of tasks with text only
  • You have a nice visual overview of things that need to be done
  • You can set the priorities and focus yourself more easily
  • You can very quickly see the tasks you are procrastinating on
  • It’s easier to enforce workflow in everyday life. You move a sticky note with a task to the column In process, put some music on and start working.
  • You can manage anxiety better if you limit the amount of work in process
Practical examples

How to use Kanban in your personal life

The best way to use Kanban in your personal life is to have a personal Kanban board at home and in the office to visualize workflow. As an alternative, you can use online software. Real boards are much better, especially since you can’t just not notice a big board with sticky notes in different colors. They are also much more fun. But if for some reason that’s not an option for you, software will also do. I myself use the software option, since I am constantly on the road and cannot take the whiteboard with me. :)

Below is the description of how I use the Kanban software and how my Kanban system looks like. It’s easy to use the same system on real life whiteboards. Just to add: you can find many different software solutions (the short list is at the end of this article). I have tested a few solutions and decided to go for Kanbanery.

This is how I use it:

  • I visualize the work that needs to be done every week. Therefore I keep tasks under Work in Progress (To Do/In Process/Done) for one week. I reset the boards every Sunday.
  • I keep my Master task list in the Icebox for all the tasks I know will have to be performed in the future. That helps me keep my mind as clear as possible and not feel overwhelmed. If you are using a whiteboard, you can have the Master task list on your computer or in a notebook, or you can simply have a stack of sticky notes stored somewhere near the board.
  • I have two boards: one for personal tasks (Personal Life) and one for work (Business Life)
  • I use two different Post-it notes colors. Green for tasks and blue for meetings.
  • I apply estimated time of completion and the priority level for every task/meeting.
  • Sometimes if a task is really colossal, I also add subtasks. Subtasks help me start work on bigger tasks and not procrastinate.
  • For every task that I enter in the To Do column from the Master task list, I ask myself: Is that really something that I need to do? Can I delegate it or just delete it? Will that bring the best value to me, to others and to the World?
  • Every day I try to get myself into the workflow one to three times. It’s that feeling when you start working on something, and just forget about time and the World around you. Distractions are lethal to workflow, so I try to avoid all distractions if possible (by muting the phone, closing the e-mail app etc.).
  • I move the task from the To Do column to In process, and start working, if possible without interruptions, until the task is completed. I can stay in the flow for 60 to 120 minutes, and then I need a short break.
  • When I manage to complete the task, I move it from the In process to the Done Sometimes when I don’t feel like working, I look at the Done column, start feeling proud of myself and my mood promptly changes to better.
  • Every Sunday, I archive the completed tasks.
  • I particularly analyze the tasks that stay in the In process or the To Do column for a long time, and ask myself why I am procrastinating. I rethink the reasons for why I have to perform the task and if there is a more productive way to do it.
  • I don’t use the Kanban system to manage my team at the moment, but I am seriously considering it.

Here is the example of my Business Life Kanban Board for a week.

The list of Kanbanery alternatives:

Visualize your work. Definitely worth a shot.