Posted in:

Kanban Board or Kanban System? 5 Crucial Differences

© by iStock

Kanban is great for those who wish to visualize their process and track progress while the team is working. However, there is a common misconception out there that Kanban is nothing more than a simple board with a few columns. This leads many of us into thinking that Kanban is quite limited in application and benefits. 

Well, I am here to tell you that this is not completely true. And by implementing a Kanban system, teams are able to visualize, track, and analyze their processes to make positive improvements. Curious to learn more? Let’s dive in.

Kanban Board vs Kanban System

To better understand how all of this can be achieved, let’s first define the difference between a Kanban board and a Kanban system. In both cases, I am talking about a Kanban tool that allows teams to manage their tasks. These can be both – digital and physical tools depending on what the team chooses. The difference between the two is in the possibilities they offer.

In most cases, a Kanban board is limited to visualizing your team’s tasks on a board that is divided into multiple columns. This gives you an overview of what is happening with the tasks at any moment and allows you to identify bottlenecks. 

While this is great for a smaller team or a short project, such boards have a tendency of outrunning their usefulness when more people join the team or when used for larger projects. There are limited possibilities for categorizing tasks, limiting the WIP, identifying commitment points, and analyzing the data. All of which is offered when using a Kanban system.

So, without further ado, lets explore the key elements of a Kanban system.

1 – Swimlanes

One of the most noticeable things that differentiates a Kanban board and a Kanban system is the inclusion of Kanban swimlanes. While it is a small addition of rows onto your Kanban board, they do play a major role in helping to organize and monitor larger projects.

Depending on your process, you may use swimlanes to separate different types of tasks, different teams, or projects. For example, a support team will find it useful to separate their tickets according to the service level. In addition to the create date, this gives a great overview of which work items should be prioritized and completed first.

An addition of Kanban swimlanes allows for easy categorization and navigation within a busy board. Which would be much more burdensome with only columns available.

2 – Commitment Points

Another marker of a Kanban system is the addition of Kanban commitment points to your board. Simply put, this is a grouping of columns. In Kanban, commitment points are used as points of no return. In order to avoid someone starting to work on a task and then moving it back to the backlog when they face an issue. 

Once a task passes a commitment point, it cannot go back. If any issues occur, they must be dealt with immediately or then the whole team needs to agree on postponing the task and moving it back to the backlog. Thus, having the option to use commitment points is a crucial part of a Kanban system.

3 – WIP Limits

One more important element found in the system are the WIP limits. Initially, they were created to limit the number of items that could be added to the ‘In Progress’ column. However, with modern tooling, such limits can be applied to both columns and swimlanes in order to control how much work is being worked on in various stages at all times.

The general rule of thumb is to have such a limit set to the number of people in your team. Thus allowing each team member to work on one task at any given time. Depending on the specifics of the industry, this rule can be broken. However, it is advisable to start with 1 task per teammate and then increase this limit if the need truly arises.

4 – Agile Metrics

Lastly, the final marker of a Kanban system is the ability to analyze your progress with automated reports. These include lead and cycle time reports as well as other Agile metrics designed to identify any issues and help solve them in time.

More advanced tools may also offer something along the lines of performance metrics. Allowing you to see how well your team is doing and compare the previous and current periods of time in one chart.

5 – Inclusion of Other Project Management Methods

One more thing that can differentiate a Kanban system from a Kanban board is the fact that a Kanban board is usually just that – a board to track your progress. While a system can offer additional tools and benefits, some that may not even be native to Kanban.

One example of this could the option to use Gantt charts in your Kanban system. Making it easier to create a hybrid project management environment and bring a useful planning tool to enrich the Kanban process.


Kanban boards and Kanban systems both have their uses and benefits. And it is up to you entirely to choose which is preferable and would prove a better fit. Hopefully, after reading this you will have a better understanding of what a Kanban system can offer and find it easier to make the final decision.