Kanban is simply the Japanese word for signboard. But also one of the most popular and effective methods for organising work. It has enabled people in lots of different industries to manage complexity, make more effective decisions on what to do and when (and what not to do), and get through long lists of tasks in a way that seems more comfortable and reassuring.
At its simplest level, a Kanban board is just a set of lists, laid out from left to right on a noticeboard or some kind of digital media (more on the possible systems below).
In the first list on the left we put things that we might work on. That can be things we are told to do, or ideas that we have come up with independently. These tasks are evaluated in order of importance, urgency, difficulty, complexity, riskiness, and fun (it’s OK to choose to work on tasks that you enjoy, so long as you keep a balance and don’t forget the essentials).
To the furthest right of the board we list tasks that have been completed. The idea is that we move tasks from the list on the left (choosing which tasks to tackle next) through to the completed list at the far end. However, in some cases you might decide not to tackle a task. You could even take it off your main board and park it in a separate list in case you want to come back to it later.
What happens between these two lists depends very much on what kind of work you are doing. There will be a series of lists through which the tasks proceed, from left to right. The intermediate lists used by a car factory will be different to those used in software development. Academics and students are increasingly using a Kanban approach, with lists designed to fit their needs. Here’s a demonstration of using a Kanban board for academic work (created using the Trello app, but the same can be done using the Planner app built into Microsoft Teams):