Home & Office
Why you can trust ZDNET : ZDNET independently tests and researches products to bring you our best recommendations and advice. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission. Our process

'ZDNET Recommends': What exactly does it mean?

ZDNET's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.

When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNET nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.

ZDNET's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.


What is a Kanban board and why do they matter?

Kanban boards are to productivity what microwaves are to cooking…they make life so much more efficient.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Kanban board concept
Getty Images/NicoElNino

Once upon a time, I scoffed at the idea of Kanban boards, assuming them to be nothing more than tools of the business-minded or project managers. Little did I know just how handy these things really are. 

Also: How project management tools can boost your productivity

Since my revelation about Kanban, I've started using them for all sorts of things -- my fiction writing career, scene breakdowns for theatre and film, classes, and much more. And although Kanban has been adopted by businesses around the globe, they can be used by creatives, parents, students, and just about anyone.

But what are they?

What is a Kanban board?

Instead of repeating the same old explanation of what a Kanban board is, where it came from, and why you should use it, let me explain it in the simplest terms.

Imagine you have a board in front of you that is made up of rows and columns. Let's say there are three columns labeled something like TO DO, DOING, DONE. Now, let's say you have a bunch of tasks you need to take care of, which are:

  • Fold Laundry
  • Write a report on Proust's "In Search of Lost Time"
  • Target run
  • Take cat to groomer
  • Go to record store and buy Rush "Signals: 40th Anniversary"

Before you do any of the above tasks, they would be in the TO DO column. Let's say you then start folding your laundry. That task would be moved to the DOING column. Once you've folded that last piece of laundry, the task then gets moved to the DONE column.

Also: Having trouble getting work done? This technique can help

Effectively, Kanban is a way to visualize the progress of each task as it makes its way from start to finish. With a quick glance, you could see exactly where each task is in its lifecycle, making it an incredibly easy way to manage your day, week, month, or year.

Who created Kanban?

Kanban was originally created by Taiichi Ohno as an inventory control system. Ohno is considered the father of the Toyota production system and his goal was to prevent the buildup of excess inventory at any point on the Toyota production line.

Since its original inception at Toyota, Kanban has been applied to far more than just industrial production systems. 

How big a deal is Kanban?

Consider this: Toyota, Spotify, Pixar, Apple, and plenty of other major companies depend on Kanban to keep projects moving forward. But remember, Kanban isn't just about business. And because Kanban makes visualizing tasks incredibly easy, it can be applied to just about anything. 

For those two reasons alone, Kanban is a very big deal and anyone looking to stay on top of a never-ending collection of tasks would do very well to adopt a Kanban board to ease the stress of dealing with that deluge of things to do.

How can you use Kanban?

There are plenty of services and software that make using Kanban very easy. As for services, there's TrelloKanbanizeAtlassianNextcloud (using the Deck addon), Asana, and monday.com. If you prefer traditionally installed software, there's KanbanierAirtableStackswekanKitestack Boards, and many more (for any operating system). 

Also: How these two Google Docs features can simplify your work life

Some of these services (such as Trello) offer free Kanban boards, which are ideal for just about any kind of tasks. Others (such as Atlassian, Asana, and monday.com) do have an associated cost, so you'd most likely only be using those for larger projects or business purposes.

Either way you go, Kanban is very easy to access and use.

What is the difference between a Kanban board and a spreadsheet?

At first blush, you might think a Kanban board is nothing more than a glorified spreadsheet. It's not. Unlike spreadsheets, Kanban boards allow you to not only drag and drop tasks (called cards) between columns, they also allow you to add a great deal of detail to each card. Depending on the software you use, you can add things like descriptions, bulleted lists, labels, dates, attachments, custom fields, and members to individual cards. 

A sample Trello Kanban board card.

Using Kanban for my fiction writing helps me to stay organized.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

How I've used Kanban

As I said earlier, I've been using Kanban for my creative endeavors for some time. One of the most important aspects of my life that Kanban has helped is my fiction career. I have a Kanban board to keep track of ideas for new novels that also tracks the status of each idea. That board has the following columns:

  • Ideas
  • First Draft
  • Beta
  • Edits
  • Proof
  • To Publisher
  • Published 

As each idea moves through its lifecycle, I know exactly where it is. As well, once a book reaches the Published column, I add links to retail sites, so I don't have to search for them. The one thing I haven't used Kanban for yet is the marketing of my books…but that's only because I'm dreadfully bad at marketing. Maybe one day I'll implement a board just for that purpose.

Also: How to install this project management tool on your home network

I also use a Kanban board for one of my clients, so they can see the article ideas I've proposed and where each idea is in the process. Once that board was created, I shared it with the client, so they could keep track of things. 

I've also used Kanban boards for the following:

  • Scene breakdown for video shoots
  • Household to-do lists
  • Aquarium maintenance
  • Classes I've taught

With the slightest bit of creativity, there's no end to what you can use Kanban for.

A sample Trello Kanban board.

This is just a small representation of the books I've published and organized with Kanban.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

Should you use a Kanban board?

If you have a list of related tasks (such as chores, school assignments, home improvement projects, party planning, and even extensive shopping lists), you should seriously consider adopting Kanban. These simple-to-use tools can take the headache out of managing your tasks, whatever they may be.

My suggestion would be to sign up for a free Trello account (which is my go-to Kanban tool) and build your first board. Trust me when I say, you'll be glad you did.

Editorial standards