Kanban cards represent work items as they progress through various stages of the workflow. This work is tracked on a Kanban board. The use of a Kanban board and Kanban cards help to visualize workflow, which is one of the four Kanban principles.
Kanban cards work well because they look consistent, are easy to handle, and hold just the right amount of information for people to quickly understand the task at hand. There is no single format for Kanban cards. They can be designed and adapted for any process.
Removing barriers and resistance to a process is another of Kanban’s principles: to agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change. So, the answer to the question ‘what is a Kanban card?’ is open-ended. While its role and function on a Kanban board needs to be strictly defined and governed by a set of policies, the format can be anything that works for your team or project.
Using Kanban cards on boards
Kanban boards are effective because they communicate key pieces of information. They provide a 10,000ft view of task status quickly and at-a-glance. As a task progresses toward completion, it is moved from a “To Do” column to “In Progress”/”Doing” and then, finally to a “Completed” column.
Kanban cards and their placement can also provide critical insight into your process, highlighting potential bottlenecks or process breakdowns.
For example, if there aren’t many cards in the Doing column there may be a problem with resourcing. If there are too many cards in the Doing column, there may be bottlenecks or roadblocks in the process.
How Kanban cards add value to a process
Kanban can present a number of process advantages for delivery, support, and operations teams. Let’s look at some of these Kanban benefits in more detail.
Ease-of-use - Teams can get going in minutes whether they’re setting up a physical or online board. What takes more time is figuring out what stages you need and what information cards should display. This is quicker if you’re following an existing framework with set processes and card templates. Ease-of-use is a major selling point for Kanban and the reason it has become a popular methodology since it was first conceived. It literally takes minutes for someone new to a process to learn how it works.
Collaboration - One of the six Kanban practices covers this point specifically: to improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally. The context is continuous improvement, which is a core principle in Agile. A card-based system to track processes helps collaboration by making it crystal clear where things stand. Teams can come together around a board and quickly understand the ‘current state,’ instead of having to look through documentation or complex charts. Similarly, remote teams can refer to an online Kanban board or share links to individual cards in their digital project management tool of choice.
Useful information “at-a-glance” - Teams can learn a lot about the state of a project or operation by looking at a Kanban board and seeing how many cards are there in each stage. Each can card carries a limited amount of key information — just the amount you need to understand what needs to be done.
You can also use color to differentiate between cards, add stickers, labels, or mark them in any meaningful way.
The same ideas apply to online versions of Kanban cards. While you can’t change their sizes and shapes, project management platforms like Wrike allow you to customize the content of Kanban cards, add custom fields, change color or add an image as a ‘cover.’
Workflow control - Workflow control was one of the main goals when Kanban was originally developed. To gain efficiencies via “just-in-time” methodology, optimize resources, and controlling capacity via work-in-progress limit. Cards enable this by making processes visible and easy to understand.
Kanban card examples
Kanban cards display essential information about a task. The name of the task will be included, but details like priority level, due date, bug or error type, and other critical context should also appear.
Let’s take a look at two Kanban card examples — one on a physical Kanban board, and the digital equivalent.
Physical Kanban cards
The board is pinned to a wall in a place where all team members can see it. Kanban cards often take the form of sticky notes that are moved into different columns as work on them progresses.
Here is an example of what to put on a Kanban card that is on a physical board:
- Work item name/job number/title: "Repair 'failed to load page' error on website resources section"
- Priority level: High
- Due date: Nov. 8
The back of the card may also include additional context like:
- A more detailed description of the task/job
- Comments or observations from team member
Digital Kanban cards
Project management tools like Wrike offer Kanban boards that enable you to drag cards across stages, categorizing them into their appropriate column. Once you click to open a card you access all of the associated information including full task descriptions, assignees, and due dates.
Another big advantage digital Kanban cards have over physical ones is that you can use powerful search and filtering functions to manage your cards. For example, you can set filters to only show cards of a particular priority level or ones that are assigned to a specific team member.
Types of Kanban cards
There are many other types of Kanban cards and systems used across many industries and processes. Here are three examples that are more commonly used in manufacturing:
- Production Kanban cards - Used to track components needed for production as well as indicating when production should start. They can also detail quantities and the quality of work required.`
- Withdrawal Kanban cards - Used to signal that work is completed in an area and needs to move on to the next and that a team is ready to work on the next item.
- Supplier Kanban cards - These are not used as part of a process but simply to keep track of suppliers, their contact details, and the type of communications they need to receive.
There are many more types and you can always create your own to next service your process and ensure they respect Kanban’s principles and practices.