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The Software Developer’s Guide to Choosing the Right Kanban Board Software

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Erika Carter

What do 1960s Toyota cars have in common with agile software development? What do physical pieces of paper have in common with modern digital workflows? What does an industrial plant in Japan have to do with working in your pajamas?

A lot, as it turns out.

The concept of kanban boards - or you might know them as khhaan-bhaann boards, or just plain conbon boards - was developed by Toyota industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno in the 1960s to streamline Toyota’s car manufacturing process.

Roughly translated from the Japanese as ‘visual board’, Toyota’s kanban system focused on task status instead of deadlines, ensuring that each department worked well within a schedule. This “Just-in-Time” system streamlined their production process and reduced surplus because they only produced what was needed.

Decades later, the kanban system found its way to Microsoft’s software development teams, who were looking for an efficient way to fix bugs in one of their products. It was then-management consultant David J. Anderson who helped create the earliest iteration of kanban in software development.

Today, the kanban methodology helps teams streamline workflows, identify and address bugs, and follow through development sprints. Now, kanban boards are synonymous with modern agile software development.

If you’re not already using kanban, by the end of this article, you will be. Or, at least, you’ll understand the methodology, the pros and cons, and how to choose the right kanban software for your cross-functional teams.

Kanban Boards for Agile Software Development Teams

True to its manufacturing origins, today’s kanban system uses an assembly-line approach. Work moves along a queue of tasks, according to priority. This way, various teams and key persons can work on high-priority tasks, address issues, and reduce backlogs using everyone’s time wisely according to the highest priorities. Kanban board users can drag and drop tasks and and synergise their to-do lists to ensure efficient workflow management. Like so:

Kanban project management systems allow you to:

  • Visualize, organize, and manage tasks easily
  • Track teams’ workflow without needing to do constant follow-ups and meetings
  • Track projects in real-time
  • Save time by eliminating unnecessary tasks
  • Assist with time tracking for agile teams
  • Automate certain tasks and workflow
  • Come up with reliable forecasts based on past data on workflow

Who is Kanban for?

In a word, everyone. Kanban is a powerful tool with various applications in various fields such as software, marketing, product development, product management, manufacturing, and even hospital inventories. Kanban may also be of use to small teams, software development companies, large organizations, and even single individuals looking to allocate tasks with a project management tool.

Depending on your management style and expectations, the Kanban system is a good fit if you want to organize your current tasks and customize workflows. It’s a good fit if you want to use it to improve key metrics - anything from managing lead times to launch or reducing backlogs. It’s a good fit for supporting agile development, where efficiency and adaptability are key.

On the other hand, the kanban method may not be a good fit if:

  • You’re just looking for a basic task management tool. If you find that straightforward to-do lists work better for you, you can stick with simpler interfaces such as Tasks in Gmail/Outlook.
  • You’re looking to micro-manage your team’s tasks. If you want to watch your team closely down to their hourly tasks, Kanban may not be for you as it focuses on task completion and operates under the assumption that teams are mature and self-organizing, the core of most ‘Agile teams.’
  • You want a more traditional project management tool. If you’re more comfortable with traditional project planning and execution where you can define tasks, dependencies, and articulate resources, there are still tools like Microsoft Project that can work for you.

To see how software teams are using kanban board software, check out this customer story from Glitch.

The Pros and Cons of Kanban Methodology

Pros

  • A virtual kanban board is accessible from virtually anywhere.
  • It’s easy to share attachments and links.
  • Task and status updates are more immediate. No need to schedule meetings or wait for email responses. 
  • It’s effective in tracking deliverables and workflow across teams.
  • Remote teams can work and collaborate efficiently.
  • Kanban boards can easily be integrated with Gantt charts and other visual project management tools for synergistic workflow operations.

Cons

  • Learning curve. Some kanban tools may not be too easy to use, especially for non-technical team members.
  • The board has to be constantly updated. An outdated board might cause misunderstandings and delays.

How To Choose the Right Kanban Project Management Software

There are a lot of Kanban project management tools, but how do you find one that’s right for you and your team?

Here are some questions to ask to help you define your needs:

  • Is the software fully capable of managing my team’s workflow? Am I happy with how it’s able to help us visualize tasks, deadlines, and dependencies?
  • Is my team able to use it easily and effectively?
  • Does it offer various ways to limit the work in progress (WIP)?
  • Does it support communication and feedback loops through comments, emails, and @ mentions?
  • Does it provide insightful analytics on lead time, revenue, time spent, etc.?

A Breakdown of the Top 3 Virtual Kanban Boards

JIRA

Jira is a popular choice among agile teams and developers because of its project management and bug tracking capabilities. One of its core functionalities is bug tracking, which remains a central component of the software today. It facilitates easy reporting of bugs and follow-through until an issue is fixed.

Jira is also designed for technical users, so it may not have the best user interface for team members who are outside the development team. It also has limited options for collaboration, as its main focus is really on development and bug-finding.

Does it offer a free trial? Yes. It’s free for up to ten users.

How much is a Basic/Standard Plan? Jira’ Standard plan is priced at $7 per user per month.

TRELLO

Trello is another popular choice among project managers who want to use the kanban system. It adopts a simple to-do list format, making it user-friendly even among non-technical users. It allows users to share boards across different teams, so it’s easy to collaborate.

It also has features like task automation, custom fields, and a mobile app. Although it’s not specifically designed for bug tracking, Trello is capable of facilitating bug reporting by creating a board.

Does it offer a free trial? Yes. It’s free for individuals and teams.

How much is a Basic/Standard Plan? Trello’s Business-class is $12.50 per user per month.

SHORTCUT

Shortcut is a cloud-based collaborative tool for modern software teams. Focused on software development, it allows users to plan and visualize work in a much more enjoyable way. It enables users to create stories where they can add tasks, bugs, or chores. It’s a powerful multi-tool that seeks to make Kanban boards more dynamic and intuitive, with mobile applications that allow users to add comments and track tasks in real-time.

Vs. Jira: Shortcut is a great alternative to Jira while remaining intuitive enough even for non-technical users. It’s also flexible enough to support larger organizations in need of a powerful tool. It has Markdown support, integration with GitHub, keyboard shortcuts, and a great API to help you improve your software development workflow.

Vs. Trello: Shortcut supports managing workflows across multiple teams. It has all the features you’ll need for serious software development, without unnecessary features that add bloat. One of its unique features is the ability to gain full visibility of your development efforts, identify status updates per project, and filter across teams to see an overview.

Do we offer a free trial? Yes. There is a free plan for individuals and smaller software teams.

How much is Basic / Standard Plan? Clubhouse’s Team plan is $10.00 per user per month. Find other plans here.

Tip: Shortcut has an easy import option for you to transfer your boards and projects from Trello or Jira, allowing a smooth transition at any time you want to start using Shortcut.

Ready, Set, Kanban

From cars to software development, a great project management tool can spell the difference between failure and success when trying to launch projects on time. The sheer volume of tasks, issues, and files alone can be overwhelming for software teams both small and large. Kanban makes work much more organized and enjoyable. To test Shortcut’s kanban software for free, sign up here.