Kanban cards: What is a Kanban card? All you need to know

Learn everything you need to know about Kanban cards in this blog. Find out what they are, their history, uses and how it looks.

What is a Kanban card?

In the simplest terms, Kanban cards are a visual representation of a work item, moving through different stages of completion on a Kanban board. It is the basic element of the Kanban visual system as it shows the work that is already completed, in progress or yet to be started.  

Before diving into the specifics, let’s understand the very basics of Kanban. Kanban is a work management framework, it makes it easy to visualize the work to be done, limit the work that’s in progress and maximize efficiency of the process. The Kanban boards are task boards used for this purpose. 

Going back to Kanban cards, to understand what they are, consider a whiteboard as the Kanban board. On this, the software development team uses sticky notes with tasks written on them. These are placed under columns named depending on the stages the tasks belong to, such as ‘To be done’, ‘under development’ and ‘done’. The sticky notes are then shifted between columns depending on the status of the task.

These cards contain important information about the task at hand as well as its status. The information consists of things like an overview of the task, the person responsible for it, deadline for it, comments among others. All the team members can view these cards at any time and gain info about the project. In this way, the Kanban cards act like information hubs. They are also effective in reducing actual meetings and bringing about transparency in the process.

Kanban cards can be both physical and digital. 

History of Kanban cards

Kanban is a Japanese word that literally means ‘visual sign’ or ‘visual card’ or ‘signboard.’ It was conceived towards the end of the 1940s by Taiichi Ohno. He was an industrial engineer in the Japanese car manufacturing company, Toyota, and had been looking for ways to optimize the manufacturing process.

During his research, Ohno observed an American supermarket and saw that unlike usual stores, they didn’t keep the inventory fully stocked at all times. Instead, they only stocked shelves that were visibly short of stock, or nearly empty. This shelf was then stocked with just sufficient supply to suit the needs of the customers. Ohno believed that this type of just-in-time delivery could have positive effects on the manufacturing supply chain. 

To visualize the manufacturing process, he used Kanban cards. These were used to indicate quantities and signal workers if the quantities drop below a minimum required value. The drop would trigger the replenishment process that will notify the supplier to fill the required items.

The card also contains information about the requirement specifics, making it easy for the supplier to fulfill demands. This system of production was used exclusively at Toyota for a long while and resulted in significant gains.

Around the 1990s, Toyota revealed this system publicly and it was eventually made a part of the Lean manufacturing processes. After this, the Kanban method was adopted widely to optimize processes.

What is the purpose of Kanban cards?

As stated earlier, Kanban cards act as information hubs and bring about transparency in the manufacturing process. The cards also serve some other purposes as follows:

  1. Provide complete details about work items
    All the important information about the work items are clearly stated in Kanban cards. Team members can easily see the task overview, the person responsible for a task, its status, due date, links, points about the task, and other relevant data in brief.
  2. Facilitate smooth and efficient handoffs
    As work progresses through different stages of the process, Kanban cards prove to be very useful. Expectations are stated clearly and consistently in cards and make it easier for everyone to refer to them. This way, when tasks are handed over from one owner to another, there is no loss of data and all info is available.
  3. More efficient processes
    The amount of time a task takes from start to end, known as lead time, is documented in Kanban cards. Using the data available, teams can identify various bottlenecks and find ways to optimize the processes.
  4. Remove the need for meetings to an extent
    Since all the information about tasks and processes is easily available on the Kanban cards, the need for team members to physically have meetings is reduced. This way, less time is wasted in unnecessary meetings and it can be directed toward getting work done.

Sides of a Kanban card

All Kanban cards, digital and physical, have a front and back side, each representing different things. Let’s understand this here.

Face of a Kanban card

The front side of the Kanban card which you’d be looking at when you look at a Kanban board is used to quickly communicate the most important aspects of the task.

Some of the information you can find on the face of the Kanban cards is:

  • Title/Identifier - each card has a specific, unique name that shows what is to be done. A number may also be present to help with the identification.
  • Task owner/manager - The person responsible for the task.
  • Due date - The deadline or the end date of the task.
  • Description of the task - what exactly needs to be done under a particular task is briefly described in this field.
  • Type of work - it shows whether the task is a feature to be developed, a question to be researched, etc. The color of the card usually represents this.
  • Estimate of time or complexity - each task has a rough estimate of how long it will take to complete, or how much effort it will take.

Back of a Kanban card

The back of a Kanban card is used to display other information which may not be that important at first glance. It gives additional details about the task and is more relevant to only the person doing it.

Information on the back of Kanban board cards is:

  • Scope of the project - when a task can be considered as done is represented here.
  • Links, attachments - more relevant to virtual Kanban cards, this gives directions to any other relevant information about the task.
  • Comments - again suitable for virtual cards, it allows team members to share their thoughts on the process
  • Subtasks - tasks involved under a main task, if any.
  • Start and end date
  • Lead time - this shows how long the work takes and how much time one has to wait for new tasks to enter the process

Note that the two sides of the Kanban board cards do not always have the same data across industries. 

All about Digital Kanban board cards

kanban cards
Source: Trello

Although Kanban cards, when created, were physical in nature, you can now see both physical and digital Kanban cards. They provide the same basic functionality. Software such as Trello and Jira are used to create Kanban boards digitally and include Kanban cards in these boards. Digital Kanban board cards prove to be quite useful for teams that are not colocated, and aid in effective collaboration.

These virtual Kanban cards can be customized with ease, so if you want to show/ hide certain fields, you can do so with a few clicks. Content like comments, links and attachments can also be added to digital Kanban cards. 

The present day software is also highly advanced and optimized based on user needs. You can get notifications whenever a card is updated, reassigned or moved to a different stage. Creation of templates that can be duplicated without any extra effort is possible. 

Use of digital Kanban cards also makes it easier to track various metrics. This way, you can analyze processes on the go and work on improvements. 

Take a small scale example of a project, organizing an event. You’d have to arrange for a caterer, decorator, seating, etc. Each of these becomes a task and you’d make Kanban cards for each and move them across stages. Your friends working with you can also add their thoughts as comments. Links and attachments to various sources can be added with ease when using digital cards.


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