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What is kanban? Everything you need to know

Kanban boards are one of the mainstays of project management, but what are they exactly, and how do they work?

If you’re looking for the best project management software, you may have come across the term “kanban board” and wondered what this particular feature brings. In this article, we’ll explain what it is, why it’s so powerful, and how you can best make use of it. We’ll then point you in the direction of the best project management software with kanban boards (according to our detailed tests) so you can jump straight in.

READ NEXT: Best project management software

What is kanban and how does it work?

The kanban method was originally developed by managers in Toyota’s factories in order to improve efficiency, tracking workers’ tasks and ensuring that everyone was aware of what needed to be done. Like all good systems, it’s straightforward and provides a quick, at-a-glance overview of what’s going on.

Tasks are represented by cards, which can be moved across columns, with each representing a stage in a process – or at least this is the way they’re usually used; we’ll go into some variants later.

A kanban board can also be thought of as a series of lists, through which you can move tasks. However, unlike lists, kanban boards are very easy to scale. Where a list can quickly feel overwhelming – those trying to track a big Christmas shop via a list will know exactly how that feels – kanban boards can easily be tailored to manage dozens, even hundreds, of tasks.

You can use a single board for even complicated projects; you might have to scroll a bit more than you may like, but that’s the worst of it. That said, if you’re running multiple teams then the best way forward would be to have a separate board for each.

READ NEXT: Best free project management software to use

How kanban works

That’s the theory behind a kanban board. Now let’s look at how it works in practice. The best way to get a feel for it is using three columns, which denote tasks: to do, doing and done. We’ve set up a simple board below using Trello, which is one of the better kanban tools out there, which you can read about in our full Trello review.

We add a few cards to the “to-do” column, which shows tasks that have yet to be started.

Then, as we work on these tasks, we move them along the horizontal axis, to the next column. As you can see, the system is super easy to follow, but how effective a kanban board is relies on you moving tasks along as they reach the next stage; forget to do that and chaos ensues.

This becomes even more important as you build up a board and add further columns. Perhaps there are different types of to-do’s, for example, or there’s more than one stage of “doing”. And if tasks run across several team members, then it’s especially important to keep the system up to date – or else nobody will know what’s happening and when.

READ NEXT: Trello pricing

How you can use kanban

Even this brief summary of the most basic of boards probably provides a good idea of the benefits of the kanban system. It delivers a great overview of all tasks that need completing and where they sit in the process, while also allowing you to zone in and manage smaller parts of a project.

However, not all boards are created equal, and with the various project management solutions available, you can get very different kanban experiences. We’ll go over some of the more interesting options here.

First up is Trello, which is probably the best standalone kanban board. Not only is it easy to read, as you saw in our earlier example, it’s also highly flexible, offering the ability to add all kinds of information to cards and have it displayed on the front.

This can include such info as the date a task is due and the person or people working on it. You can also use colour-coding as a means to more easily filter tasks. In addition to this, it comes with some excellent automation options that see cards move when certain conditions are met, potentially saving you from some of the mishaps mentioned earlier.

The upshot is that Trello is a ridiculously versatile tool, which you can use at its most basic to simply track tasks going through various stages, or even as an individual team member’s personal to-do list, moving cards through the process. We’ve even seen Trello used as a wedding planning tool, with each column representing a table of guests.

However, Trello is very much a one-trick pony, and no matter how good that trick is, chances are you’ll need to do more than just track tasks across columns. This is where more fully fledged project management software comes in.

Take Asana, for example, which integrates the kanban into its massive set of features, allowing you to shift your view from the board to a list to a Gantt chart and plenty more besides.

We especially welcome the way in which you can create sublists in the list view, which then reflect as columns in the kanban view. This way, you can move tasks across columns even in the list. This will save you a lot of time micromanaging, and is one of Asana’s greatest strengths. adopts a similar approach, allowing changes to be reflected across multiple views, making the kanban board just one of many ways to track tasks.

You’ll also see kanban used among spreadsheet-based tools, which utilise the board mainly to provide an overview and let you manipulate tasks in their lists or sheets. A good example is Smartsheet, where the kanban board is a secondary tool used only for at-a-glance information.

While relegating the board to second fiddle won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, it can work wonders for certain teams, especially if you subdivide tasks into smaller components, or simply have many small rather than a handful of big tasks to complete.

Finally, we couldn’t mention kanban without mentioning Agile and its scrum boards, a specialised methodology popular among software developers. In this project management system, kanban takes centre stage to track the so-called sprints, a limited number of tasks to be undertaken in a specific time span. Jira is a great application, as is Hive.

Though scrum boards aren’t for everybody, they do highlight another way in which kanban boards can be adopted. This is probably the reason they’re so popular, and the reason we love them, too: they are what you make of them.

If you’re only just starting out with project management, we recommend you check out some of the tools mentioned. Chances are, after some experimentation, you’ll find that a tool incorporating a kanban is just what you need.

READ NEXT: review

The best project management software with Kanban

Now that you have a better grasp of what kanban is, what it can do, and at least some of the variation there is in its use, below you’ll find five project management tools that feature particularly good boards.

1. Trello

Price when reviewed: From £0/mth (per user) | Check prices at Trello

The best kanban board out there is probably Trello – which explains the reason we used it in our examples above. As boards go, Trello is a wonderful option simply because it handles super smoothly: cards are easily moved between columns; labels for both cards and columns are easy to read; and you can have all kinds of information on the front of cards, from the person to which the task is assigned, its due date, and a host of other, custom data.

It’s a great way to manage tasks. Trello’s best version is the free version; we pretty much recommend against paying for it since its secondary abilities aren’t that great.

Key features – Kanban board: Yes; List view: Yes; Gantt chart: No; Allows integrations: Yes

Check prices at Trello

2. Wrike

Price when reviewed: From £0/mth (per user) | Check prices at Wrike

In second place is Wrike, which we recommend for any team that places the kanban board at the centre of its strategy yet also needs secondary functionality, such as lists or charts. As you can read in our Wrike review, you can move cards around quickly on the kanban board here and they can feature plenty of information on the front of them. That means you get the at-a-glance information that we like so much about Trello. Wrike has a fantastic list function, letting you see tasks in sequence, as well as a spreadsheet view. To top it off, Wrike also has a great Gantt chart – it’s one of the best in the business, beaten only by standalone tools such as TeamGantt.

Check price at Wrike

3. Asana

Price when reviewed: From £0/mth (per user) | Check prices at Asana

It might be our overall winner of our project management awards, but Asana takes third place when it comes to the kanban can-can. This is mainly because its board plays second fiddle to all its other functions, which are integrated into the board better than any other tool on this list. Add to that some of the best advanced functions we’ve seen on the market, and Asana becomes a sure-fire winner. Still, if kanban is only part of a larger strategy, Asana is worth a look, especially since it’s also the best free project management software on the market.

If you have fewer than 15 people in your team, you can use its many features without spending a penny. As we mention in our Asana review, colour is the name of the game with this tool and the kanban board is no different. We like how you can easily assign different tags to tasks, colour them and get fantastic at-a-glance information. 

Key features – Kanban board: Yes; List view: Yes; Gantt chart: Yes; Allows integrations: Yes

Check prices at Asana

4. ClickUp

Price when reviewed: From £0/mth (per user) | Check prices at ClickUp

Another great option for kanban users is ClickUp, which at first glance is an odd choice for this list: in our ClickUp review, we praise it as a list-based tool first and foremost. First time users may just stick to ClickUp’s list, however, the kanban board also offers some amazing functionality.

ClickUp’s serivce offers much of the at-a-glance information that Trello features, with the colourfulness of Asana, and the integration with other functions as Wrike does. The result is a smooth experience, where you can easily switch between views and garner lots of information without needing to look for it too hard. However, not everything ClickUp offers works as it’s supposed to, and you’ll need to come up with workarounds.

Key features – Kanban board: Yes; List view: Yes; Gantt chart: Yes; Allows integrations: Yes

Check prices at ClickUp


Price when reviewed: From £0/mth (per user) | Check prices at

We finish up the list with Like Asana, it does a great job of integrating its board with its other functions, although to a slightly lesser extent, thus making it come in just behind its big rival. Its approach heavily includes the kanban board – despite the list being’s default, the way it’s set up requires the kanban view to get an overview of where a project stands.

We welcome how easy it is to customise lists, boards and its many other functions besides. As a result, you need to use the list and board in tandem to get the most out of; so, for pure kanban lovers, it might not be the best choice.

Key features – Kanban board: Yes; List view: Yes; Gantt chart: Yes; Allows integrations: Yes

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