Physical vs Virtual Kanban Boards

02Mar12

In previous posts I covered an introduction to Kanban and a review of a trial Kanban project. In this, my third in a series of Kanban posts, I’ll cover physical versus software Kanban boards.  For some this is an almost religious debate, and many would not question their decision for one other another. Whilst the answer for which is best will, of course, always be ‘it depends’, there are some fundamental differences that exist. I generally find that there is an expectation within IT that you virtualise everything, because well that’s what we do. Whilst this is often true I would add that a physical board should not be underestimated as out-dated and indeed should be considered equal for its significant merits in many areas.

Due to recent growth of Kanban there are now many software Kanban tools providing varying levels of functionality but all offering at the very least a virtual multi-user Kanban task-board. For a comprehensive list of these tools check out this AgileScout post. If you don’t like these tools then could always create your own in MS Access, Excel or even Word if you like. These might be enough to get you started for a Kanban proof of concept project but will of course lack the features built into specialist software such as MI, history tracking, cadence monitoring and reporting. Similarly physical boards can start out as being lines drawn on a whiteboard or string pinned out on a pin-board, then littered with post-it-notes. Either way the barrier to entry is low, although the Software As A Service (SaaS) model used by the many web based Kanban board providers will mean there will be a long term cost associated with utilizing a 3rd party tool. An alternative to a SaaS model would be to use on-premise Kanban software. For teams using Team Foundation Server you can easily build on your existing infrastructure by adding a Kanban viewer for your TFS work items. Telerik Work Item Manager for TFS has a taskboard view that can be customised and there are other Kanban based offerings that integrate with TFS (e.g. http://visualwip.codeplex.com). Microsoft can obviously see the power of this approach considering it’s now built into Team Foundation Server 11 which will have a web based taskboard view via the Web Access application, complete with workflow rules and drag & drop updates. Check out the screenshot below.

TFS11_candeleteThe first real difference between a physical and virtual board is the sheer presence that a physical board gives. On my project documented in part 2 of this Kanban series the move from a virtual software taskboard (albeit a very simple one) to a physical board made the whole method much more tangible and "real" to the team. It moved from being another software tracker to update to something different, something big and bold and in the room! You’re not going to miss a physical board on your way to the coffee machine forcing them to become a talking point in the office. Project stakeholders pay attention to it as it stands out when they’re in the team’s work area. The fact that we have hundreds of existing software based processes makes the introduction of a physical one slightly alien to the team and therefore grabs attention. Size is important here too, as teams can gather around the board for stand-ups ensuring a shared vision. Teams struggle to gather around a PC screen or print out. This ‘presence’ feature can be replicated for a virtual Kanban board by utilizing a large LCD screen and I would recommend that if you can do it. 

Of course the presence of a physical board is only good if your team is co-located. Remote teams are a challenge with Kanban as they are with any method or methodology and therefore a virtual board may be the only viable solution. In my recent project I utilised the on-site coordinator to act as a remote team proxy for the board which can work but is by no means ideal. A virtual tool allows everyone in the team to contribute regardless of their location.

A key aspect of the Kanban method is its simplicity and flexibility. Any board whether physical or virtual must be easily accessed, read, updated and changed. Continuous improvements to your processes are key and changing the board to reflect those changes should not offer any resistance. Complicated physical boards can be difficult to change as can some of the virtual tools. There’s no clear winner here but I would keep this in mind when reviewing Kanban software tools or when building a complex physical board.

The Kanban BoardVirtual boards provide the ability to easily produce MI and reporting information from your workflow, something just not possible with a physical board without manual work which could slow down the process. The ability for a team to track underlying trends and have up to date cadence figures is a huge benefit for an experienced Kanban team. I would suggest it may have less benefit for a team new to the process however as the Kanban method suggests that the board alone should be able to provide the data you need, but of course its not prescriptive and is open to adaption as a team sees fit.

One hurdle that some organisations struggle with is data security and privacy. Whether you class the data on your board as sensitive or not may influence your decision on the type of board to use. On one hand Virtual boards provide the ability to restrict access to verified users therefore maintain data security but on the other hand, many Kanban tools are externally hosted and therefore you are trusting your data to a third party. It’s not just security of course but also reliability of the vendor, e.g I’d hate to be mid project when my Kanban board disappears because the vendor has ceased trading. A physical board has its own challenges. Anyone in your office can see the board with no restriction on user roles. Without an automated change history it is also open to malicious changes from disgruntled colleagues. Backing up a virtual board is second nature but its harder to backup/restore a physical board, however taking regular photos is the best way I have found to date.

When I consider what would be my ideal board it would have to be easy, flexible, big and as integrated as possible with our existing systems. My ideal would be a virtual board with all the benefits that brings (especially remote teams) but it would have to have real presence in the office such as a large LCD on the wall constantly displaying the work in progress. In addition the screen would be a touch screen or alternatively put a terminal under display that was always logged in and used solely for the purpose of team members to update the board, thus removing the barrier for people to update the board. Of course the team could log on from their machines and update board but I see real benefit in walking up to the board to make changes, especially if required during a stand-up. This replicates the ability for you to physically move that post it note on the physical board. This setup should provide the majority of benefits of both approaches.

In summary, the choice is a personal one for your team and your circumstances, but for teams new to Kanban I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of having something bold that stands out and demands attention from the team and this is usually easier to implement with a physical board. Once the process is embedded and the board becomes a key part of the teams day then this would become less important and the power of virtual boards can be maximized.

For an excellent list of Kanban tools check out: http://agilescout.com/best-kanban-tools/.

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5 Responses to “Physical vs Virtual Kanban Boards”

  1. One of the key things to remember is keeping it simple, particularly when starting out. Kanban boards can become extremely complex with many columns, queues and types of activities. Someone should be able to look at the board for only a few seconds and get a quick sense of status. If you have to think about it too much, the board is likely to be too complex.

    Start simple. You can always add complexity as the team matures,

    • 2 Rich Hewlett

      Vin,

      Thanks for your comment. I totally agree. It’s surprising how many complex Kanban boards you see out there. We found real benefit in keeping it as simple as possible initially and now the team are comfortable with the method they are making suggestions and some improvements are being applied. A complex board would have been much harder to implement.

  2. 3 Dovile

    The tool that meets your definition of “ideal” is Eylean Board – a virtual task board that can be fully configured to meet your current needs, the whole tool is multi-touch optimized and can be used as a replacement of a regular white board. What is more, it has TFS integration, so TFS users can also apply Kanban process and manage their projects visually.

  3. 4 Jasper

    My vote goes to virtual boards. They are accessible from anywhere and at any time. They allow you to achieve tasks so you can always search and go back to them. They offer easy and fast customization,
    automatically-generated metrics like breakdown chart, lead and cycle time. Furthermore, they are convenient for large and distributed teams and they have no space constrains. I use a virtual board to collaborate with my team, but also I use it to organize my private life (a mobile app is very helpful in this case). I recommend you my favorite online: http://kanbantool.com/.

    • 5 Rich Hewlett

      Good points Jasper. I think virtual boards offer significant benefits although a physical board is a good starting point if your team is located together. Thanks for your comment.
      Rich


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