Be Aware of the Three Columns

You most probably have seen the simplest Kanban board with three columns: New, Ongoing and Done. This setup is great for learning most of the basics of the Kanban method. I overheard someone saying that this setup was also great for teams to start their transformation using the Kanban method. Personally, I see this approach as a mistake. Although I believe that “learning on the job” is one of the best ways to learn more about a domain, I see the Kanban board as an exception.

Contrary to the popular belief, the Kanban board is for identifying areas of improvement and not for reporting status. In this context, the three columns can tell you only two things: the amount of work remaining, and the amount of work the team is doing at the moment. The first one holds some information, but the second doesn’t, so if you would like to know more - for example where the hidden inventories are -, you’ll eventually break down the Ongoing column into more columns, but by then you’ll have wasted a lot of time with the three columns and didn’t learn too much about the Kanban method, or your process.

There are two ways to figure out what kind of columns your organisation needs. The first one starts with value stream mapping in order to have a proper understanding of the flow:

The image above shows the result of the value stream mapping, and how it is turned into columns. Using those columns will show you precisely where your problems are, there is no need for further breakdown. By using this method you’ll also know more about your process. Not like with the three columns.

The second way puts emphasis on the wanted position. When you draw your columns you don’t care much about where you are, but where you want to be. For example, you want to introduce testing in your organisation: you add a Testing column to your Kanban board to the place where you want it to be, and try to figure out a way to get your work items there. The risk here is quite obvious: you must be 100% sure about your wanted position. Otherwise, you are wasting money, time and resources. However, if you are sure, the change and learning happen faster than with the first approach.

When you are about to use only the three mentioned columns - and you are not about to start with Personal Kanban -, I’m asking you to stop and consider my arguments from above. The whole point of the Kanban method is to improve your process and in order to do so you have to know it from the beginning. The three columns don’t provide too much information about it. They are excellent for learning, something like the training wheels on a bicycle. They are important to learn how to ride a bicycle, but no one enters the traffic with them, because it is hard and unsafe to use them there. Think about it and share your view in the comment section.

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