January 19, 2019

What is a Kanban board

Inefficiency is a widespread problem in healthcare processes. Inefficiencies can cause low productivity and interfere with the workflow. However, the major problem is that most times, hospitals do not know the actual cause of inefficiencies in their processes. Hence, adopting a Kanban board can help managers identify areas of defects in their processes. By doing so, they can become more efficient. What is a Kanban board

So, what is Kanban board? It is a management tool that helps healthcare systems visualize work and workflow. This tool helps limit work-in-progress and maximize efficiency. A physical Kanban board uses cards/ sticky notes on columns of a board to illustrate the status of work, progress or problems.

Kanban is a Japanese word that means ‘visual signal’ or ‘card’. In the late 1940s, Toyota applied the Kanban technique in their manufacturing and engineering processes. Line workers used Kanbans (cards) to indicate steps in their manufacturing process. This system allowed for easy communication among teams because of its highly visual nature. Teams could easily communicate what is needed to be done and when.

As such, if a Kanban board is applied properly, it will help refine healthcare processes, standardize cues, reduce wastes and maximize productivity. However, for the purpose of this article, we will focus on:

  • What is a Kanban?
  • What is a Kanban board?
  • Kanban board examples.
  • How to use a Kanban board.

What is a Kanban?

In the recent decade, Kanban has gained popularity. However, it is often misinterpreted. It is important that people responsible for health systems understand what Kanban is before applying this method to their systems. So, what is a Kanban?

Kanban literally means ‘visual sign’ or ‘signboard’. It is a management principle that originated from the Toyota Production System (TPS). In the late 1940s, Toyota incorporated ‘Just In Time’ manufacturing into their work processes. ‘Just In Time’ is an approach based on the customer’s demands. The goal of this approach is to create more value for the customer without incurring any extra cost.

However, in the early 21st Century, major stakeholders in the software industry realised that adopting Kanban methodology can positively change the delivery of goods and services. Therefore, they applied Kanban to other complex industrial and commercial sectors. With a focus on efficiency, these stakeholders leveraged on technological advancements to achieve their aim.

Kanban is very flexible. It can easily overlay existing workflows without disrupting already existing systems. Nevertheless, Kanban will naturally identify problems in the process and fix them.

In addition, Kanban is versatile and easy to implement. It can be adopted by any type of healthcare system without friction. Also, Kanban can be introduced incrementally without fear of ‘culture shock’. Hence, with Kanban, there is no need to make drastic changes.

The Kanban methodology is designed to meet with minimal resistance and fear of uncertainty. It recognizes the value of already existing roles, responsibilities and systems. Therefore, it is designed in a way that promotes rational, incremental changes, without causing fear of change in itself.

Furthermore, Kanban is based on the principle that the best leaders are those on the front-line of their teams. As such, continuous improvement is not a function of management alone. this Kanban principle ensures that everyone involved in the process develops a mindset of improvement. With this mindset, the hospital will be able to reach optimal performance on a general level.

What is a Kanban Board?

Adopting a Kanban board can help hospitals to be more efficient. It will reveal areas in their processes that need improvements. First, what is a Kanban board?

It is one of the key components of the Kanban methodology and is used for workflow visualization. However, there are two types of Kanban board: the physical board and the digital board.

Types of Kanban boards

Physical Kanban boards are the simplest of the two types. They are easy to set up and communicate with team members. physical boards are either white or black boards divided into vertical columns. With physical boards, the Kanban team makes use of sticky notes as visual signals to move through the workflow. Nevertheless, a physical board is fixed and cannot be used remotely. A digital board allows the team to make use of the tool at any time and anywhere.

David Anderson acknowledged that Kanban boards can be divided into five components. They are visual signals, columns, work in progress limits, commitment point and delivery point.

Visual signals are one of the first things you will notice on a Kanban board. They are usually in the form of form of visual cards, sticky notes or tickets. The Kanban team makes use of visual cards to write their projects. Every project is written on a card and placed on the board. Visual card sensible team members to easily understand what project the team is working on.

On the other hand, columns represent workflows. For example, ‘to do’, ‘work in progress’ or ‘complete’. Every column of the board represents a specific flow of work.

Furthermore, work in progress (WIP) limits are the maximum number of cards that can be in one column at a time. These limits are set to expose bottlenecks and inefficiencies in the workflow. Also, a work in progress limit triggers a signal when the team has committed to more work than they can handle.

The commitment point is the moment an idea is picked up by the Kanban team and they commence work. Meanwhile, the delivery point is the end of the workflow. The time lag between these two points is known as Lead Time. Therefore, the goal of the team is to reduce their lead time as much as possible.

Any Kanban board, whether physical or digital, with these five elements will help the team succeed in their project.

Kanban Board Examples

There is no doubt that the Kanban board makes healthcare processes more transparent. It is a great management tool for enhancing management efficiency. This board enables project teams to have a broad view of all the items they need at different levels of the workflow.

Depending on the work process and focus of work, Kanban board examples may vary. Hence, the design for one team may differ from another depending on the scope of their work. Some boards are simple while others are complex. Nevertheless, the nature of the board will largely depend on the needs of the team. For the purpose of this article, we will be focusing on three examples.

Basic Kanban board example

The first example is the basic Kanban board. This board is ideal for beginners and teams who are not familiar with the Kanban concept. Usually, it consists of about 3-4 columns and is easy to understand. This easy-to-use tool helps beginners visualize their work and set a foundation for efficiency without any complications.

Day-to-day Kanban board example

Another great Kanban board example is the day-to-day Kanban board. This tool is suitable for teams whose work are time-sensitive. For example, technical support teams or customer support teams. This day-to-day tool is helpful when the project involves so many small tasks. Especially those tasks that do not require so much effort to go through the workflow. Also, this Kanban board is an ideal solution for a workflow that involves speedy tasks with short cycle times.

Portfolio Kanban board example

The third Kanban board example is portfolio Kanban board. This tool is perfect for planning long-term activities and general strategies. For example, this board helps the team to visualize the strategic development of a department. Portfolio Kanban board helps project teams to focus on day-to-day operational tasks. Therefore, when the workflow begins to move faster, it is difficult for them to strategically see the larger picture.

However, portfolio Kanban board vary, depending on the size of the health facility or scope of work. Some examples of portfolio Kanban board are product development portfolio board, strategic portfolio board and master project portfolio board.

Generally, these board examples could help health facilities to understand how to achieve a high level of transparency. As long as it makes use of data-driven forecasting, it helps to acquire accurate status reports delivered in real-time. In addition, portfolio Kanban board helps health systems organize and monitor all initiatives and projects.

How to Use a Kanban Board

A Kanban board enhances a culture of continuous improvement. It helps hospitals to optimize workflow, reduce wastes and modify their processes. Notwithstanding, there are various methods of using a Kanban board.

1)      To visualize and spot weaknesses in the workflow

You can use a Kanban board to visualize and spot weaknesses in the workflow. In order to do this, you have to understand the process of getting a product from request to delivery. You can begin with a simple 3-column board. For example, ‘to do’, ‘in progress’ and ‘completed’. Visualizing the workflow will help you detect bottlenecks and inefficiencies. Once you identify any problem, resolve it immediately to prevent it from occurring again.

2)      To limit work in progress

Another way of using a Kanban board is to limit work in progress and focus on the work at hand. One of the functions of the Kanban system is to ensure that too many items are not in progress at the same time. The tool helps to achieve this by setting work-in-progress limits. The work-in-progress limit is a maximum limit set to the number of items that can be in a column at a time.

In addition, it is important to keep every member of the team focused on a few tasks. This will help to increase the value delivered to customers. It is better the team focuses on the work at hand than to start a new work and lose focus. Furthermore, the transparent nature of the Kanban system is a motivator, in itself, to drive performance.

3)      To managing workflow

Managing workflow is another method using a Kanban board. The focus of Kanban is to create a healthy workflow. Thus, managing workflow involves managing the work, not the workers. Rather than ensuring that workers are always busy, it is essential to determine if the work is done efficiently. The idea is to create a fast and smooth flow of work. By so doing, hospitals can eliminate wastes caused by delays and minimize average cycle time for production.

4)      To save time

Time is the most precious resource in any health system. Kanban boards are useful tools in saving time. They help to save time spent on progress reports, meetings and other unnecessary interruptions. The board, in itself, serves as a communication tool for the team. It tells them who is doing what at any time. It keeps team members in the loop of how the work is progressing. As such, the team may not need to schedule frequent meetings.

Moreover, it is important to visualize work blockers on the Kanban board. A work blocker is a problem that prevents the team from completing a task. Labels usually indicate work blockers. However, depending on the type of board, red pin, red magnet or stop sign could also indicate work blockers. Hence, when the team experiences a work blocker, they can label it and go on to another assignment.

5)      To collect workflow metrics

The final method on how to use the Kanban method is to collect workflow metrics and implement improvements. If the team is making use of a digital Kanban board, they can automatically gather information about cycle time, lead time and other key performance indicators. However, if they are making use of a physical board, they may have to collect this information by hand. The information will enable the health facility to make accurate decisions about any change they wish to implement.

It is important for facilities to know how to use a Kanban board. This will enable them to prioritize their tasks properly.


Most health facilities experience inefficiencies and bottlenecks in their processes. However, they are unable to determine the cause. A Kanban board will help to give them a visual illustration of workflow in their processes. As such, it will expose bottlenecks and inefficiencies. Also, the tool helps to boost productivity and efficiency.

So, what is a Kanban? Kanban is a Japanese term meaning ‘visual signal’. It is a flexible and versatile concept that can be applied to any type of health facility. In addition, Kanban does not interfere with already existing systems. Instead, it encourages incremental changes. This takes away the fear of uncertainty and resistance to change.

We’ve also attempted to answer the question, “what is a Kanban board?” It is one of the major components of the Kanban method. It is a board used to visualize workflow in a process. The board can either be digital or physical. Whatever the case, it must have certain components. These components are visual signals, columns, work-in-progress limits, commitment point and delivery point.

Furthermore, we’ve cited different Kanban board examples. Depending on the process in question or healthcare system, their designs may vary. Some examples are basic Kanban board, day-to-day Kanban board and portfolio Kanban board.


It is important that healthcare facilities to learn how to use a Kanban board. This knowledge will help them measure the quality of their work, lead times and throughput.

We hope this article answers your question on ‘what is a Kanban board?’ and helps you to implement Kanban better

For more about quality improvement methods, feel free to explore the following articles:

Six Sigma in Healthcare: Concept, Benefits and Examples

Lean in Healthcare – History, Tools & Examples

Total Quality Management Principles, Concept and Importance

FMEA In Six Sigma: RPN, Tools and FMEA Examples

Kaizen Event – Types, Examples, Agenda and Checklist


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