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What is a kanban board?

If you’re a team leader or project manager, setting up a kanban board is one of the highest value things you can do for your team. You’ll see a huge payoff once your team starts using a kanban board, and you’ll even get value out of the process of organizing your work in the first place. Going from an ill defined process to the structure of a kanban board really is a game changer. In this post, we’ll discuss the benefits of the kanban system and some common ways to use a kanban board.

A gestural drawing of a kanban board

Kanban boards are a visual representation of work. A kanban board makes it easy to understand at a glance what needs to be done, what’s most important to work on next, and the current status of your project. The key concept is that work items are represented by cards that exist inside kanban columns. The kanban columns themselves represent the workflow state of the cards. Cards are only moved between columns when work has been done on the cards and they are ready to move to the next step in the workflow. Typically, the kanban columns are arranged on the board so that cards start off in the column farthest on the left and move from column to column, across the board from left to right, as work is done on the card.

The main benefit of using a kanban board over other ways of organizing your work is that the kanban layout makes it very easy to drag cards from one kanban column to the next. If you’re wondering if a kanban board is the correct choice for your team, you just need to ask yourself the question “is having a well defined and interactive workflow going to lead to the success of my project?” If the answer is yes, then a kanban board is the way to go. This is often the case in software development, quality assurance, and industrial processing, for example.

The specific workflow you choose to implement on your kanban board is inherently very customizable since you get to choose as many kanban columns as you wish. Consequently, the workflow you implement can be as simple or complex as you like. And while there are no truly wrong ways to set up a kanban board, we present the three most useful ways to structure your kanban board below.

The classic kanban board, a continuous process

The kanban system originally comes from the vehicle manufacturing process. Vehicle manufacturing is a continuous process in the sense that the product is the same every time and the goal is to produce it over and over again. If you’re making cars, for example, the cars roll off the assembly line one after another. As one car is being assembled, there’s another car being assembled just behind it.

You can set up your kanban board as a continuous process as well, where you steadily work on your work items (cards) one after another. You’ll most likely have a much greater variation in each work item than what one would have on a factory floor where they just produce the same thing over and over again. In your case, every work item may be completely different from anything to come before it. But that’s OK. You don’t need each task to be the same as the one before it in order to set up a repeatable workflow.

The most simple workflow consists of only three columns: To Do, In Progress, and Done. All of your work items are created as cards in the To Do column. The intent of the To Do column is to store and organize the work items that you intend to work on some time in the near future. It is your work backlog. It is not advisable to put non-essential cards in the To Do column because it can become bloated and unruly very quickly. As you add cards to the To Do column, you should also take the time to move more important work items to the top of the list, where they will be more recognizable as needing to be done ahead of other less important tasks.

When your team is ready to actively work on a particular card, it is moved from the To Do column to the In Progress column. How work is done in the In Progress column is where the kanban system really takes form. The idea is that there is a work in progress (WIP) limit for the number of cards that are allowed to be in the In Progress column at any given time. Thus, before you are allowed to move more cards from the To Do column to the In Progress column, you need to make space for those new cards by first completing cards in the In Progress column. In order to encourage your team to work together, work in progress limits can apply to your team as a whole, or the other common way to use work in progress limits is to apply them to each individual team member. It is up to you. Also, depending on your specific team, you can choose whether the work in progress limits are hard and fast rules or just guiding principles. In either case, it is a good idea to make sure that you ensure that cards are not building up in the In Progress column since that is a clear sign that your team is struggling to accomplish their work and is in need of help.

The final column, the Done column, is where you move a card once it is completed. It’s nice to leave cards in the Done column for at least a short period of time after the work has been completed so it is easy to see what’s been accomplished recently. Also, you may need to move a card back to the In Progress column if an issue arises with it and it turns out that it wasn’t done to specification the first time. You can just leave all of your completed cards in the Done column forever, but what many teams do is clear old cards from the Done column by periodically archiving them when they are no longer relevant.

The goal specific kanban board

Instead of having your kanban board represent a continuous workflow, you can set up your kanban board so that it is focused on completing a single objective. This is called the goal specific kanban board, a one off, where once you finish all your cards your board’s goal has been completed. After your board has been completed, there’s no longer any need for it so you would archive it and just make a brand new board for your next goal.

The workflow state of the kanban columns are similar to the continuous process columns described above with the simplest workflow being To Do, In Progress, and Done. The main difference isn’t so much in how the work gets done, but more so in how efficiently the goal is accomplished.

This first thing to do is to create cards in the To Do column for all of the tasks needed to complete the board’s goal in its entirety. The next thing to do is to order your cards in the To Do column so that the cards your team should work on first are found at the top of the column. Then all your team needs to do is move cards from the top of the To Do column to the In Progress column and get to work.

There’s actually been a lot of scientific research on the topic workflow efficiency, and it can be shown that you should work on your cards with the following precedence:

  1. Blockers - the cards that must be completed before other cards can be worked on.
  2. Highest priority - the cards that contribute most greatly toward fulfilling the goal’s requirements.
  3. Lowest complexity - the cards that take the least amount of time and resources to accomplish.

Procedurally, you order the To Do column by first examining the cards one by one. Each card is marked as a blocker (if applicable), and then given a priority score and a complexity score. To do that, you’ll need a standalone label to indicate if a card is blocker, another label for priority (e.g. Critical, Major, Minor, Trivial), and a third label for the numeric value of the complexity, which you can determine using Planning Poker. Once the cards are all labeled appropriately, put all the blockers at the top, sub-ordered by the highest priority then lowest complexity. The remaining cards (non-blockers) are then ordered by highest priority and sub-ordered by putting the least complex first.

The iterative kanban board using sprints

The final approach to the kanban process is basically a hybrid of the previous two approaches. The most simple iterative kanban board consists of the following columns: Backlog, Ready, In Progress, Done. The way it works is similar to the continuous process in that you add cards to the Backlog column as they arise. However, the next part is more similar to the goal specific kanban board, because you then move as many cards to the Ready column as you think your team can accomplish in a fixed period of time. This fixed period of time is called a sprint. Sprints are usually one or two weeks long but can be as long as you like. The important thing about a sprint is that you fill the Ready column with all of the cards you’d like to accomplish during a fixed period of time and then have your team try to accomplish as many of them as they can.

There’s an art to figuring out how many cards your team can handle in a single sprint. I say art instead of science because it is incredibly difficult to get it spot on. It’s best to not obsess about getting it perfect and instead focus on motivating your team around accomplishing as many cards as they can during the sprint.

That said, the process of choosing the number of cards shouldn’t be done haphazardly, and as a manager you should strive to do the best you can do. To accomplish this, what you’ll want to do is to assign a complexity score to every card in your Backlog column that you’re considering working on during the upcoming sprint. Then, using previous data (like the velocity of previous sprints), attempt to figure out how many hours it takes for your team to accomplish a given number of points. You’ll then know roughly how many total points your team should be able to accomplish in your next sprint and thus the total number of points you should put in your Ready column.

Once your Ready column is filled with all the cards for the sprint, you then order it in the same as described above: by blockers, then highest priority, and finally by lowest complexity. On the start date of the sprint, your team begins work by moving cards from the top of the Ready column to the In Progress column, and then eventually to the Done column as they complete the cards. When the duration of the sprint is over, you start a new sprint by once again filling the Ready column with as many cards as you think your team can accomplish during the next sprint.

The iterative kanban board approach is a good choice when you have large projects that will take many months to complete or when your process is more or less ongoing and you want to break up the monotony. A nice benefit of using a sprint based approach is that it exposes productivity metrics to your team, which you can use to help focus your team around output goals. Additionally, the process of periodically repopulating and prioritizing the Ready column ensures that your team is always working on what’s important.

Wrapping up

Which one of the three kanban board processes you choose depends primarily on how your team likes to work. I’d suggest starting as simple as possible and adding complexity to your workflow only when necessary. Once you start using your kanban board it should become obvious if you’re missing a column or two. For example, you’ll be sitting there thinking that it would be really nice to have a place to review your work before it is moved to the Done column, so you’ll naturally make a new column called In Review. In my opinion, being flexible and adaptive ends up winning in the end over rigid and highly structured workflows. So I suppose what I’m saying is that it is better to just get started instead of worrying over the minutiae of the kanban processes, and don’t be afraid to change it up as you uncover what works best for your team.

Easily organize your epics with the new kanban view!

We’re super excited to announce the new epic kanban view! Now, your project’s epics view has a tab at the top of the page that lets you choose between “list view” and “kanban view”. The kanban view is populated with three standard columns called “To Do”, “In Progress”, and “Done”, but you can freely change the columns to create whatever workflow will work best for your team. Once your columns are set up to your liking, you can start managing your epics by simply dragging them around.

A kanban board view of epics in various stages of a simple workflow

Epic kanban view tips

There are few things worth pointing out about how the epic kanban board functions. First off, it’s good to know that all of your epics will appear on the kanban board unless they are “archived”. Currently, epics are not automatically archived, so if you would like an epic to be removed from your epic kanban view then you’ll want to open up an epic and click the Archive button. If, for some reason, you also want to see your archived epics on the kanban board, then that’s easy to accomplish by selecting the option at the bottom of the left filter bar that says “Include Archived”.

Another good thing to know is that the column that an epic is in on the kanban board is not related to the “status” of an epic. Since epics are intended to be linked to a bunch of cards that need to be completed in order for the epic to be completed, the status of an epic is used to reflect the aggregate status of its cards, and not necessarily the workflow state of the epic itself. So, we haven’t included any automation for moving epics around on the kanban board when the epics status changes.

The final epic kanban view tip is that newly created epics will be added to the end of the leftmost column on the kanban view if you create an epic using the “New epic” button, or if you create an epic through the API. So if you’re having trouble finding newly created epics on the kanban view, now you know where to look.

We hope that the new epic kanban view will allow you more easily manage your epics and get a clearer picture of where they are in your workflow. If you’re so inclined, please let us know via email, team@zube.io, how the epic kanban view is working for you, or if you have any suggestions of how it can be improved for your team!

Custom Fields are Here!

There’s a world of new possibilities now that Zube allows you to add custom fields to your cards. Custom fields come in a few different flavors: Date, Number, Text, and Single Select from a dropdown list. A custom field will automatically show up on all of your project cards after you create one, so if you’ve ever wished Zube had just a bit more, then this is the feature for you!

A card with custom fields

How Custom Fields Work

Custom fields work just like the stock fields that come out of the box on cards like priority, points, etc.. The one difference is that you have to create a custom field first, before it will show up on a card. Fortunately, that’s really easy to do by clicking the “Custom Fields” link on the left sidebar of any project view. That new “Custom Fields” link will take you to a page where you can view all of your custom fields and create new ones.

A project's custom fields with new custom field form

There are four different types of custom fields, so we’ll just go through each one in order. First up is the Date custom field. This custom field only accepts a single valid date. This would be a good choice if you wanted to store something like a due date, start date, or estimated completion date, for example.

The next option is the Number custom field. Number custom fields will store numeric values like 1, 5, 324, 0.236, 2.719, etc.. They are useful when you want to store, well… numbers. Something like number of hours; value of a task; or the cost of a feature, would all be good choices for a Number custom field.

The Text custom field is next. You can type anything you want into it, which makes it very flexible. You’d want to go with a Text custom field when you want quick access to the information in the future. For example, if your card has an associated contact name, phone number, email address, or physical address, then those would all be good candidates. Pretty much anything that isn’t a number or a date belongs in a Text custom field.

The final custom field is the Single Select. A Single Select is just a fancy name for a custom dropdown that lets you choose from one of its options. That means that in order to use the Single Select custom field you first need to make the possible options. Each dropdown option is a text field so you can make it pretty much anything you like. After you’ve created a Single Select custom field it will show up as a dropdown on all of your project cards. A good use case for the Single Select custom field is when you know what all the possible options are. As an example you might want to indicate who the main stakeholder is for a card. Assuming your company only works with a small number of stakeholders then you would just enter all of their names as Single Select options. That way you could easily see all of them on the card and choose the correct one.

We hope the new custom fields feature will make Zube work even better for you and your team! We’ll be adding some new features to custom fields in the coming weeks, but please feel free to reach out to team@zube.io at any time to let us know how custom fields are working for you!

Many enhancements

We thought we’d share some of the recent improvements we’ve made to Zube. All of these enhancements were inspired by customer requests, so we’d like to thank you for the suggestions! As always, we’d love to hear any ideas you have for features or enhancements that would make your time on Zube more enjoyable.

Card, Epic, and Ticket previews

One thing you may have already noticed are the popups that appear whenever you hover over a link to a Card, Epic, or Ticket. These previews let you quickly see what’s behind the links and they’re super useful for getting the information you need without having to leave the current page.

An example of a card preview popup

New dropdown menus

We reworked all of our dropdown menus so they are easier to use. They now display more consistently and utilize more of the available screen space so it’s easier to find and select items. And even though we think using the new dropdowns is a much improved experience, we have some additional dropdown improvements in our pipeline as well. So, be on the lookout for those.

Workspace Timezones

Workspaces now have timezones so you can track your work relative to a team’s primary location. Specifically, a Workspace timezone is used to determine when your Sprint stats should be collected. Sprint stats are what are displayed in the burndown and burnup charts, so the dates there will now be aligned with whatever timezone you have selected. You can select your timezone in the Workspace Settings.

A setting to hide Pull Requests from your Boards

Another Workspace Setting is the ability to choose if you want Pull Requests to be displayed on your Kanban and Sprint Boards. We conducted a survey and found out that many teams do not manage their Pull Requests on their boards. While you are able to hide Pull Requests using the Card Type filter, that filter only hides Pull Requests for the current viewer, which is not ideal. The new Workspace Setting allows you to remove Pull Requests from your Boards entirely so they won’t be there for all Workspace users. If you do happen to want to see your Pull Requests, you can either turn the setting back on, or alternatively head over to the Issue Manager, where Pull Requests are always visible.

Zube has the world’s best integration with GitHub Issues. Usually this is great! Almost all of the things you do on Zube are synced with GitHub in real time and vice versa. The one potential downside is managing duplicate notifications. If you already have GitHub set up to notify you of actions that happen to GitHub Issues on GitHub, then perhaps you do not want Zube to also notify you of those same events. The best way to accomplish this is to go through every possible event type and disable Zube notifications for the events that are already being sent to you by GitHub. However, this can be tedious and perhaps all you want is for Zube to notify you of things that happen to Zube-only cards, and have GitHub notify you of things that happen to GitHub issues. If that’s how you’d like to work, then you’ll love our new notification setting that does just that! You can find the setting at the top of Workspace Settings -> Workspace notifications and also in your Project Settings -> Triage Notifications (if you have Triage enabled).

Performance improvements

Zube is already super fast, so most of these enhancements are just to make things work even faster. We’ve improved notification time so @mentions and other user notifications are sent out in as close to real time as possible. We’ve also reduced the lag that you may have noticed when dragging cards between long columns. So, dragging cards around your boards should be smoother and more predictable now. And just so you’re aware, we pride ourselves in Zube being super fast and responsive, so if there’s anything you ever come across that seems slow, please let us know and we’ll find a way to speed it up for you.

We hope these improvements have made Zube more enjoyable to use, and we’ll keep them coming! Feel free to let us know if there’s something that you’d like to see improved or any new features you’d love to see. We’re easy to reach via email team@zube.io.

Introducing Workspace Card Templates

We’re happy to announce a new feature on Zube that lets you easily add templated information to your new Cards. Card Templates can be created for any Workspace on Zube by visiting the Workspace Settings and choosing the Card Templates tab. From there, it’s simple to create a Card Template for your Workspace, so go ahead and make as many templates as your heart desires!

Card Templates as a guide

The purpose of Card Templates is to help your teammates know what information is most useful to include in a new card. Zube allows you to create multiple Card Templates so your teammates can choose the type they need. For example, one useful template could be a Bug Report template. When creating a bug report, it is often difficult to know what information the developers would find most useful, especially if many of your teammates are non-technical. Card Templates solve this problem by allowing your teammates to choose the Bug Report template when they’re making a new card. When they choose the Bug Report template, a description of the information they should include will be automatically added to the body of their new card.

A new card highlighting the template selector

We’ve included a couple of example templates (a Bug Report template and a Feature Request template) for you to choose from when you’re creating a new Workspace card template. However, you’re free to change the content of the Template however you like. The Template’s content is in markdown syntax, so it will look good on the new cards.

We hope the new Card Templates feature helps your team create new cards more quickly and consistently. As always, we appreciate your suggestions for features that you’d find useful, so please shoot us an email team@zube.io.