Everyday Kanban

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Make your visualization about the work, not the workers

Visualize the work, not the worker

Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, said “the purpose of Kanban is to bring troubles to the surface.” We bring these troubles to the surface by visualizing the work and the process it moves through, constraining how much work we handle at a time to see what problems get in our way, and continuously improving that flow to get more and more things of better quality completed faster and faster.  But, did you know that how you design your Kanban board can shape the information you are able to see and how you process that information?

The Framing Effect

You can thank the framing effect for this phenomenon.

The framing effect is the idea that manipulating the way information is presented can influence and alter decision making and judgement about that information. Through the use of images, words, and by presenting a general context around the information presented we can influence how people think about that information. Source:


Seeing lanes named for people on Kanban board is a huge red flag for me because of the framing effect. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking vertical lanes or horizontal lanes. My red flags are flying high. But, before I get too concerned, there is a litmus test that we can perform and that is to validate is whether or not the board represents the work of a disconnected group of individuals or if it represents the work of people who need to function as a team. If they want to work as a team, a board design with lanes named after people can work against them. Why? When we visualize work by person, we give the signal to those individuals to stay in their lane and focus on their work.

How we structure our board design is usually highly correlated to what we want to measure.  Eli Goldratt said “Tell me how you’ll measure me and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave. If you measure me in an illogical way… don’t complain about illogical behavior…” In other words,  first look to see how the system you created and/or are working in might be pushing people towards undesirable behavior.  If you want a group of people to perform as a team, work to provide a visual frame that’s focused on the team as a whole. If you want people want to perform as awesome individuals, then – and only then – make a visualization that focuses on individuals.

Board Design: Vertical Lanes

Vertical lanes (columns) are best, and most commonly, used to represent activities in a workflow and should be named after the actual activities. I’ve had many people tell me that there’s usually only one person working on a step like testing so there’s no difference in naming the lane Jane instead of naming it Test.  I understand that sentiment. But, to be pragmatic about it, naming it after the activity means you don’t have to alter the board when you have changes in staffing – be they in volume or churn. The bigger issue, though, is what’s going on subliminally. My opinion is that when people see their name on a section of a board, they are going to focus on that section of the board. It sets up the concept of “my work” and “their work.” If they have to stop their own work to help with someone else’s work they might look bad. Working as a team means we need to think about “our work” not “my work” or “their work.” We may need to step out of our normal activities and swarm to a bottleneck to help move the overall body of work forward.  Working as a team can already be so difficult, why even take the chance of introducing something that might make it harder… especially when its so easy to avoid?

Board Design: Horizontal Lanes and Card Colors

Once you’ve got the board’s vertical lanes sorted out and showing the actual workflow steps, you can start to focus on showing as much information about the work itself as you can with the other aspects of your board. The next major pieces you have at your disposal are horizontal lanes, often called swimlanes, and the color of the cards themselves. Using these two pieces together can make it very simple to show a significant amount of information for a piece of work at a single glance. For instance, you can have swimlanes that visualize classes of service (expedite, standard, fixed date, intangible) working together card colors that show what type of work the card represents (project work, day-to-day work, research, etc.). Only after sorting out these two things do you need to start thinking about other bits you can add to cards to get more detailed.


Visualizing work is a great step forward! Remember though, how you structure your board, has an impact on how we process the information on it. Thinking that through can prevent unnecessary drama in the future. Also, keep in mind that a team’s Kanban board is there to help them process work, not manage individuals. The board should tell us as much about the work as possible, leaving the people able to freely move to work wherever they are needed instead of concentrated on staying in their lane to look as good as possible in the board metrics. A good rule of thumb: never make a person choose between themselves or the team!



  1. Douglas A Davis

    October 31, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    The root cause for Japan’s success and Toyota was the teachings of an American, Edward Deming.

    • Yes. However, Ohno is credited for founding the Toyota Production System. Toyota was able to apply their learning in ways hardly any companies have been able to replicate. They adjusted their whole way of thinking and operating, most companies focus on the practices only.

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