Kanban Project Management Tools for Your Agile Team

By: on November 3, 2015

The project management (PM) software market has seen steady growth in the support and adoption of agile methodologies. Originating in the software development sphere, agile practices have now expanded into other industries, such as marketing and advertising, construction and even architecture.

Agile PM is a value-driven methodology, built on the ideas of continuous improvement and eliminating waste. By increasing visibility and encouraging feedback and communication, agile teams are better able to respond to changing needs and requirements. Agile tools are thus designed to facilitate the rapid iterations and delivery requirements of these teams.

To keep pace with the expanding market, more and more vendors are offering PM products that support agile workflows.

Typically, this refers to products that help facilitate the visibility and collaboration required by agile teams using Kanban boards or Scrum boards (more on these later). Some vendors are even creating products with a buffet-style feature set, allowing users to mix and match between Kanban and Scrum capabilities to create a hybrid of the two, offering support for a wider range of organizational processes.

Whether you’re an established agile team or you’re considering implementing agile practices in your organization for the first time, it’s important to know what features to look for in each of these solutions.

In this two-part article series, you’ll learn about:

  • Software features common in most Kanban and Scrum systems;
  • How this functionality helps support and improve workflows; and,
  • Some example tools that can help drive your agile team.

In this first installment, we’ll focus on software with Kanban functionality. In the following article we’ll review tools to support Scrum workflows.

What Is Kanban Software?

Kanban project management software helps agile teams accomplish their goals of reduced waste and faster time to market. This is accomplished by breaking projects and tasks down into incremental phases and reducing the amount of work allowed in any one phase.

The modern Kanban system evolved from Toyota’s lean manufacturing and production process, developed in the mid-20th century, which sought to reduce waste by better aligning inventory with customer demand and thus maximizing value. Over the years, the Kanban method has been refined and applied to other industries, and recently has been adopted by many followers of the agile project management movement. Learn how to create a kanban board by clicking on the video below:

The purpose of this article is not to create an all-encompassing list of Kanban functionality and software products, nor is it to define strictly what are and are not Kanban software capabilities. Rather, it is intended to highlight some common capabilities found in this genre of PM software products, in order to better guide potential buyers in their search for solutions.

In the following sections, we will discuss:

Common Functionality of Kanban Software

The following capabilities are found in most Kanban software solutions, and help to structure workflows for agile teams:

Kanban Boards

As the name implies, Kanban boards are a cornerstone of Kanban software, acting as visual representations of project requirements, team workflows and productivity. Digital Kanban boards often mimic the whiteboard and sticky-note design of their physical counterparts.

Tool Highlights: The individual tasks, or to-dos, are represented by “cards” (the digital equivalent of sticky notes). Sometimes a project board is called a “Kanban cardwall” as a result of this. These cards, showing the tasks required to complete a project, are added to the board in the “to-do” column and then “grabbed” by or assigned to team members, who move the card to the next lane when finished with the task at hand.

The boards are divided into “lanes” or columns, which separate work by status (for example, “to-do,” “doing” and “complete”). The lanes can represent whatever high-level work processes are required by the team, such as “developing” or “testing,” and can also break down those parent processes into smaller sections (for example, “ready-to-test,” “in-process” and “done”).

Cards include additional “drag-and-drop” and “drill-down” functionality. This allows users to more easily update the boards and tie notes, files and/or comments to individual tasks within a project. Additionally, cloud-based Kanban products grant agile and remote teams the additional benefit of real-time updates, with the ability to respond to changes in a project as they occur.

Key Benefits: Kanban boards can be customized to help structure many different organizational or team processes. This means that boards can be as simple or as advanced as needed. Boards can represent either individual projects, or all the projects, tasks or issues belonging to a specific team (in which case, the projects, tasks or issues are often categorized by color).

Altogether, the cards, lanes and boards help streamline both individual and team workflows. Due to their visual nature, they help users identify risk areas, bottlenecks and resource availability, allowing them to optimize productivity and utilization.

Kanban board in Taiga


Activity Streams

While not exclusively a Kanban tool, activity streams are commonly found in these products, and help facilitate the frequent communication and fast collaboration agile teams strive for.

Tool Highlights: Activity streams show real-time project status updates. Similar to the notification centers on social media channels, users will be updated of any changes, comments or files added to their peers’ tasks. Typically, team members will automatically be notified with updates to projects and/or tasks they are involved with.

They can also subscribe to feeds on other project boards to receive updates on that project’s tasks (though board facilitators specify user permissions and grant access), and can tag or mention another individual to send an alert or feed invitation directly to that person. Alerts can be sent in-app or via email (users can normally specify their preference).

Key Benefits: Activity streams can be especially useful in increasing team efficiency: Individuals can be notified of impending due dates, and team members can be notified if a task is completed ahead of or behind schedule, so they can move on to the next project phase as quickly as possible. What’s more, the ability for team members to stay up-to-date on their peers’ activity can be particularly useful for remote workers and teams.

Activity stream in Podio


Work-In-Progress (WIP) Limits

The ability to set WIP limits is a defining feature of Kanban tools, and helps to regulate the flow of tasks from one lane to the next. WIP limits can be placed on any one lane (or several), or on the number of open tasks permitted for a team member.

Tool Highlights: WIP limits are meant to streamline workflows and eliminate bottlenecks by limiting the amount of open, but not yet completed, items allowed on a board. Managers set a “cap” on the number of open items, so that
teams can work at their ideal capacity, but not be overextended.

Key Benefits: When team members are working on too many tasks at once, productivity is often hindered, causing deadlines to be extended for all items. The WIP limits allow users to prioritize tasks and complete them more efficiently. This, in turn, increases the frequency and rate at which completed items can be delivered to the customer, which is a driving factor for agile teams.

WIP resource limits in SwiftKanban


Cumulative Flow Diagrams (CFDs)

Kanban tools are innately visual. However, in addition to the project boards, Kanban users can visualize project status through two types of reports: cumulative flow diagrams, and lead and cycle time diagrams. These help measure key metrics that influence project (and business) decisions, such as WIP limits or bandwidth to take on new projects.

Tool Highlights: CFDs show the status of different work items over time. The horizontal x-axis represents an interval of time, and the vertical y-axis the number of tasks within a project. Different colors are used to represent the stages or lanes on the project board, as well as the tasks within those lanes.

Key Benefits: CFDs can be useful in identifying bottlenecks, changes in scope or other problem areas that could delay project completion. This is shown by the colored lane increasing or growing wider over time. The curve should be smooth—so if there is a plateau or a sharp spike, this represents that either no tasks were completed in that time or that there was a sudden increase in tasks, both of which could be problematic.

Cumulative Flow Diagram in Eylean Board


Lead and Cycle Diagrams

Lead and cycle time diagrams measure the time between project and/or task initiation and completion. The goal is to improve the lead time and/or the cycle time, and to ensure delivery of customer requirements in the shortest possible increments.

Tool Highlights: “Lead time” begins when the customer request is processed and placed on the Kanban board as a task (in software development, this typically refers to a feature or product request), and ends when the task is completed. This includes the time the item spent in the queue before work is started.

“Cycle time” refers to the time spent actually working on an open item until completion. For example: A task is placed on the board; work is started on that item one week later; and it takes an additional five days to complete. This results in a lead time of one week and five days, and a cycle time of just five days.

Key Benefits: Lead and cycle time diagrams help teams increase performance by showing which tasks or areas have room for improvement (that is, which took longer to complete than others). The lead and cycle times should be as small as possible, so the diagrams identify areas in which those times can be reduced.

Lead and cycle time histogram in Eylean Board

Lead and cycle time control chart in Eylean Board


Using Kanban tools is an excellent way for agile teams to increase efficiency and transparency. By utilizing the above-mentioned Kanban software functionality, agile teams can:

  • Increase project visibility;
  • Optimize team performance by setting WIP limits and maintaining optimal capacity; and
  • Measure and reduce lead and cycle times.

For help selecting the right Kanban tool, speak to a Software Advice advisor. In just 15 minutes, our advisors can provide you with a shortlist of products to help support and streamline your agile team’s unique workflows.

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