Kanban Boards: Physical or Electronic?

by on July 27, 2012 · 7 comments

This is a story about merging two teams. One was using a physical Kanban board and the other was using an electronic one. Of course we were discussing the pros and cons of electronic versus physical boards. My role in the discussion was pretty funny: I used to be a very strong fan of physical Kanban boards but found myself arguing for the electronic version. Below, you’ll find some of the more convincing arguments from both sides.

Advantages of electronic Kanban Boards

Using an online version of a Kanban tool has advantages over a physical board:

  • accessible from anywhere: if any members of your team work remotely it’s great for everybody to be able to collaborate online. A physical Kanban board can’t be updated by the remote guys and they can’t see anyone else’s updates. Workaround with webcams are cumbersome and unreliable.
  • working links to artifacts: if you’re using a bug tracking tool it’s nice to have links from Kanban cards to associated tickets in your tracking tool. If you use a physical board it’s tedious (and unrealistic) to keep those relations up to date.
  • automatic calculation of important metrics: an electronic tool shows immediate metrics. For example, knowing the average cycle time of cards helps measure how fast you can deliver and how flexible you are in adapting your work to upcoming requirements.

Disadvantages of electronic Kanban boards

Of course, there are disadvantages, too.

  • smaller: daily standups in front of a monitor has the majority of people squinting at those tiny images of cards. It’s hard to read card titles and hinders involvement (touch screens to the rescue?).
  • hard to make visible all the time: the electronic board as a passive information radiator requires a PC with an attached monitor running all day. And then the dreaded “Login” screen, hunting down a keyboard and typing the username, password for the tenth time this week. Not only is this annoying, but the danger of “meh – I can’t be bothered with this right now” creeps into the team.
  • easy to misuse as an idea dump: electronic tools are built to manage large amounts of data. Unfortunately, our brains aren’t. When we use such tools we tend to track each and every half-cocked idea that’s ever been mentioned instead of taking the hard decisions which ideas are actually worth pursuing. This creates a lot of waste in our product development flow.
  • people stay rooted to their desk: when working in an office it’s so much easier to keep your seat and pull up a tool for a quick comment instead of walking over to your colleague to discuss the current status. This minimizes communication instead of maximizing it.

Right now, as our team is working from different locations, I’m ready to accept all the cons of an electronic Kanban board to leverage its biggest advantage: universal accessibility. We’re careful to avoid any pitfalls the electronic tools lure you into like tracking too much stuff. But the daily standups just aren’t working as we’d like. How are you managing your product development flow? Please let us know in the comments.

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Comments

  1. says

    I agree with you. For me the two biggest advantages of an electronic kanban board are distributed access and automated metrics. I think even teams who use online boards should experience physical boards.

    I invented Kanbanery because I work with distributed teams and we needed some kind of online board we could share (this was back in 2009 when there wasn’t any), but I added a feature that would let people export tasks to PDF so that they could handle cards. I’ve even duplicated an online board on the wall for the benefit of a colocated portion of a non-colocated team.

    Most mature online boards have something like Kanbanery’s “icebox” which is a way to keep the “idea dump” out of site and out of mind so you can get work done.

    If the whole team sits together, definitely at least start with a physical board. There are even easy ways to create visual metrics with a physical board, such as dotting every card on the board daily so you can see lead time at a glance. If you use different colored dots for work in progress, you can even visualize lead and cycle time. If you use yet a third color for items in buffer columns, you can see waste per item.

  2. Cris says

    I’m a great enthusiast of physical boards. They are easy to manage. However, virtual board allow you to collaborate with distributed teams and this is the biggest advantage. The one I’m using is kanbantool.

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