Kanban basics

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To maximize a team's ability to consistently deliver high quality software, Kanban emphasize two main practices. The first, visualize the flow of work, requires you to map your team's workflow stages and configure your Kanban board to match. The second, constrain the amount of work in progress, requires you to set work-in-progress (WIP) limits. You're then ready to track progress on your Kanban board and monitor key metrics to reduce lead or cycle time.

Your Kanban board turns your backlog into an interactive signboard, providing a visual flow of work. As work progresses from idea to completion, you update the items on the board. Each column represents a work stage, and each card represents a user story (blue cards) or a bug (red cards) at that stage of work.

Review this topic to gain an understanding of how to configure and start working with your Kanban boards:

  • View your Kanban board
  • Customize the columns shown on your Kanban board to support how your team works
  • Set WIP limits to constrain work in progress
  • Update the status of work via drag-and-drop
  • View the Cumulative flow chart
  • How to turn live updates on or off

To view your Kanban board, click the Board link from the Work>Backlogs page.

Kanban board, Agile template

User stories and bugs correspond to types of work items. You use work items to share information, assign work to team members, update status, track dependencies, and more.


  • You must be a member of a team project. If you don't have a team project yet, create one in VSTS. If you haven't been added as a team member, get added now.
  • You must be a member of a team project. If you don't have a team project yet, create one in an on-premises TFS. If you haven't been added as a team member, get added now.

Open your Kanban board

You open your Kanban board using one of these URLs that connects you to your team project:

VSTS: http://AccountName/DefaultCollection/TeamProjectName/_backlogs/board/

On-premises TFS: http://ServerName:8080/tfs/DefaultCollection/TeamProjectName/_backlogs/board/

1. Map the flow of how your team works

Kanban literally means signboard or billboard. As a first step, you customize your board to map to how your team works.

When you first open your Kanban board, you'll see one column for each workflow state. Your actual columns vary based on the process used to create your team project.

For user stories, the New, Active, Resolved, and Closed states track progress from idea to completion.

User story workflow states

Default kanboard boward, Agile template

However, your team's workflow stages most likely don't map to these default states. For your team to have a functional board they must identify the stages of their workflow process and then configure the board to match.

For example, you can change your Kanban columns to map to the following five workflow stages.

Kanban board, Columns customized

Once you've identified your stages, simply add and rename columns to map to them. Keep the number of columns to a minimum while still representing the key handoffs that occur for your team.

2. Set WIP limits to constrain work in progress

In this next step, your team sets WIP limits for each workflow stage. While setting WIP limits is easy, adhering to them takes a team commitment. Teams new to Kanban may find WIP limits counterintuitive and uncomfortable. However, this single practice has helped teams identify bottlenecks, improve their process, and increase the quality of software they ship.

What limits should you set? Start with numbers that don't exceed 2 or 3 items per team member working within a stage. Respecting WIP limits means teams don't pull items into a column if doing so causes the number of items in the column to exceed the WIP limit.

When they do exceed the limit, the column count displays red. Teams can use this as a signal to focus immediately on activities to bring the number of items in the column down.

Exceeded WIP Limits

Set WIP limits based on team discussions and revisit as your team identifies ways to improve their processes. Use WIP limits to identify bottlenecks and eliminate waste from your work flow processes.

3. Track work in progress

Once you've configured your Kanban board to match how your team works, you're ready to use it.

Here are a few things you can do. See at a glance the estimated size of work for each item which displays at the bottom right of each card. Add items to your backlog in the first column. When priorities change, move items up and down within a column. And, as work completes in one stage, update the status of an item by moving it to a downstream stage.

Kanban board, move a card to update status


You can reorder items within a column from TFS 2015.1 and later versions.

Also, you can quickly update a field or reassign ownership directly from the board.

Kanban, assign items

Updating your Kanban board as work progresses helps keep you and your team in sync. Also, you'll be able to see and share the value stream your team is delivering to customers.

4. Monitor metrics and fine tune

As with most Agile practices, Kanban encourages monitoring key metrics to fine tune your processes. After your team has used the Kanban board for several weeks, check out your Cumulative Flow Diagram (CFD).

Open the cumulative flow diagram

The CFD shows the count of items in each Kanban column for the past 30 weeks or less. From this chart you can gain an idea of the amount of work in progress and lead time. Work in progress counts unfinished requirements. Lead time indicates the amount of time it takes to complete a requirement once work has started.

Kanban board, cumulative flow diagram

By monitoring these metrics, you can gain insight into how to optimize your processes and minimize lead time. For additional guidance, see Cumulative Flow

In addition to the above chart, you can add Analytics widgets to your dashboard. The Analytics Service is in preview and provides access to several widgets. To learn more, see these topics:

Try this next

Here are some useful tips when working with the Kanban board:

  • To focus on select work items, filter your Kanban board
  • To quickly assign items to a team member, add the Assign To field to display on the cards, see Customize cards
  • Add a swimlane to track high-priority work or track work which falls into different service level agreements, see Swimlanes
  • Highlight specific work items by color coding cards based on a field value or tag, (see Customize cards)
  • If you use Scrumban, drag-and-drop cards onto a sprint to quickly assign them to a sprint.


Your Kanban board is one of two types of boards available to you. For an overview of the features supported on each backlog and board, see Backlogs, boards, and plans. To switch to the product backlog, click Backlog. And, to switch to the Task board, click on the current iteration or other sprint of interest. If no sprints appear, see Schedule sprints.

Each team can manage their backlog and customize their Kanban board. Add teams when you assign specific feature areas to different teams for development. Each team can then manage their backlog and focus on how they will develop their deliverables.

If you're new to tracking work with Agile tools and want to understand what you can customize, see Customize your work tracking experience.

Enable live updates

Enable live updates to automatically refresh your Kanban board when changes occur. With live updates enabled, you no longer have to press F5 to see the latest changes.


Feature availability: This feature is supported from TFS 2017 and later versions.

Kanban board, live updates icon

As one team member updates the status of a work item, other team members will see those updates in real time as they occur.

Live update