Chances are, you’ve been a project manager all your life. Whenever you’re accomplishing something that requires more than one step, you’re managing a project. As an entrepreneur, you are the project manager for both your business and your life. What tools are you using to help yourself succeed?

One of the tools that has had the greatest impact on my success has been a Kanban board. Here’s why it can help your business, what it is, and the basics of creating one.

To begin with, think of attention like a commodity. Whether you’re selling your business to clients, investors, potential employees, or yourself, you want to deliver your strongest message right away. Making it visual is a powerful way to tell your story. Would you rather read a lengthy post or a professional image? Think of a Kanban board like creating a professional visualization of your business processes. You’ll grab people’s attentions (including your own), and you’ll keep it, because you’re getting to the core of your business without inundating with details.

Prior to launching my own businesses in writing and the music industry, I spent a decade working in IT departments where I learned and certified in Agile methodologies. When I left that career, I launched into solo project work as an entrepreneur. I worked with and for others, but it wasn’t in the same context. As a former Certified Scrum Master, I considered myself an expert in Agile methodologies and they worked very well for software development teams. As much as I wanted Scrum to organize everything in my new career, it wasn’t the best match.

That was when this Scrum Master dabbled in another Agile methodology and grabbed onto Kanban.

Kanban is a Japanese term that means “visual signal” or “card”. Is roots come from the way Toyota managed production lines. Their process was merged with ideas from varying thought leaders, creating today’s project management methodology. It’s often referred to as a “just in time” method. For an entrepreneur, its values are its visual organization, its resource limitations, and its flexibility.

One of its tools is the task board, or ‘Kanban’ board.

  1. What it isn’t: it’s not complex; it’s not minute in detail; it’s not a one-size-fits-all template; and it’s not set in stone.
  2. What it is: it’s a visual representation of work as it progresses, from left to right; it’s organized by columns, representing a stage of the process; in its simplest form, it’s a set of cards, representing tasks, and it displays what state they are in.

An example of the most basic board would be made up of three columns: to do; doing; and done. The “doing” column would be narrow, a visual representation of limiting that column. You are only allowed to have a specific number of cards/tasks in progress at once. This limitation rule is a big deal for me. My personality is a “starter.” I get really excited about new ideas and jump in with a lot of energy. Then, when things get messy and I’m in the middle of the hard stuff, I am easily distracted by other shiny, new things. The requirement of completing my work before moving on keeps me focused and on-task better.

Once you have your basic board setup, you can add complexity to it as needed. For my board, I added swim lanes to further organize my cards into “weekly,” “monthly,” and “project.” There are a number of tasks that I always do each week as well as each month. Then, there are bigger tasks that are a one-time effort and those get dropped into “project.” For example, every week I send out an invoice for hours worked on a current project, which is (obviously) billed hourly. Monthly, I send an invoice to a different client for the content writing I’ve completed for them. Under “projects” are the jobs we hire in the local music industry. This is what works for me.

When Agile methodologies were widely adopted, it would have been a good time to buy stock in 3M. Project teams managed their work using post-it notes. Many teams continue that today, using the tangible paper and pen to organize and communicate their projects.

There are also many software tools available now. For me, I use a cork board hanging on my office wall for my high level task board. For more specific details, I create Trello boards. It’s a good tool that’s free to start. Other alternatives include Wrike, Taskworld, Monday, Asana, Basecamp, even Microsoft Project or Team Foundation Server.

My final advice is to revisit your board frequently.

Continual improvement is big with agile, but it doesn’t happen simply because you set up your board. It happens because you use it as a communication tool and you check in. When I was a Scrum Master with an effective team, our retrospective meetings became my favorite meetings. I mean come on; who likes any meeting?! I enjoyed them because they were effective. We created serious change, which led to real improvement. I wish every other team could have been privy to our meetings. They worked so well because we found the format that fit our team the best. I could write an entire book on how we got there, but there are already great books on retrospectives. Why did ours work so well? Everyone gave input, everyone voted on our biggest wins and hardest challenges, we then focused on only the hardest challenge to create a focused plan to improve in that area, and we finished with specific recognition, thanking team members.

Retrospect your board. Whether you’re using it with others or yourself, take the time to check in and ask these questions.

  1. What’s working well?
  2. What’s not effective?
  3. How can I fix the things that aren’t working?

I’ve revisited my board and changed it. I used to have a “daily” swim lane. A daily review was a must-have with large teams, but I found that it was overkill for my solo work. I moved those tasks from cards on the board to scheduled items on my calendar. That’s what works for me.

One bonus bit of advice: if you need to add a little spunk, pizzaz, and enjoyment… give yourself some stickers when you move a card to done. It works in preschool and guess what? That kid is still inside of you! Give yourself some motivation.

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