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Kanban Flow: How to Structure it Effectively

Kanban is a project management methodology that helps visualize your workflow, control the process, and maximize results. A Kanban board comprises columns, swimlanes, cards, and limits. This helps manage the work processes, eliminates waste, and delivers results faster.

This article will provide you with a thorough understanding of Kanban flow, including its definition, benefits, and best practices for successful implementation.

What is Kanban flow?

In project management, flow describes how an item or piece of work moves through a business process. Kanban is used to visualize workflow and therefore show how an item moves through a process.

Kanban also limits work in progress because limiting the amount of work in progress makes it easier to identify bottlenecks in a team’s delivery pipeline.

This means team members are not slowing the process or interrupting the flow. Managing and measuring flow is the act of analyzing how smooth your workflow is and how you could improve it. 

Explore the fundamentals of Kanban, its principles, and crucial tools such as project visualization, WIP limits, and feedback loops within the Ultimate Kanban Project Management Guide.

A simple Kanban flow

The simplest way to measure Kanban flow is to rely on the most basic 3-column structure common to most Kanban board tools:

  • Backlog. All new ideas and work items that are waiting to be worked on. 
  • Work In Progress. All tasks are currently being worked on. 
  • Done. All completed tasks. 
Simple Kanban board example

Of course, this is just the start – a primer for how Kanban works. In practice, most Kanban boards end up containing a lot more detail than this. Let’s now look at the three key metrics most often used to measure workflow in Kanban.

Interactive Kanban board

See how a live Kanban board can be set up

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kanban board tool

Kanban flow metrics

The best way to measure workflow using Kanban is to focus on these three key metrics:

  1. Cycle time
  2. Throughput
  3. Work in progress

Cycle time – This is the average actual time it takes for the team to complete an item from the time they started working on it, measured from the start of the first task to the end of the last task. The key word here is “actual,” which is different from the expected time spent working on the item. 

engineering productivity

Throughput – Throughput refers to the rate at which a company produces or processes its products or services. Regarding projects, it is typically used to reference the number of units passing through a process in a specific period, usually hours, days, or weeks.

You would typically measure this in terms of the number of cards that pass through your Kanban board during a specific timeframe, the life of a project, or over the course of a week. 

time to complete

Work in progress – This section on the Kanban board lists all work currently undertaken by the team but not yet completed. It is important to limit work in progress to avoid multi-tasking, duplication, error, and lack of focus, all of which can impede productivity. 

You can read more on these and other key metrics in this post – Kanban Estimation – Tools and Best Practices

However, you can measure your Kanban flow efficiency by combining the three metrics above into a cumulative flow diagram (CFD) – also known as a Kanban flow diagram or Kanban flow chart. 

How to read a cumulative flow diagram

The CFD tracks the number of work items in your Kanban board’s ‘In Progress’ columns each day. The horizontal axis represents the period for which the chart is visualizing data. The vertical axis shows the total number of cards in the workflow at various points in time.

A Kanban process flow chart typically includes the following stages:

  • Defined: The process begins with identifying and defining work items or tasks. This stage involves capturing and clarifying the requirements and scope of the work.
  • Accepted: Once a work item has been defined and approved, it moves to the “Accepted” column. This indicates that the team or relevant stakeholders have acknowledged it and is ready to be worked on.
  • In Progress: The work items that are actively being worked on are moved to the “In Progress” column. This stage represents tasks that are currently being executed or developed.
  • Completed: When a work item is finished, it is moved to the “Completed” column. This signifies that the task has been fully executed or developed according to the defined requirements.
  • Deployed: A work item may progress to the “Deployed” column if applicable. This stage indicates that the completed task has been released or deployed to its intended environment or system.

The differently colored bands on the chart show the various stages of your workflow as they appear on the Kanban board. These bands will go up or sideways depending on the number of tasks in your process.

cumulative flow diagram
Source: broadcom.com

Using this Kanban process flow chart, you can see at a glance how long your tasks’ approximate cycle time is. The distance between the lines on the chart will show you where your problems lie. 

If your colored bands are progressing in parallel, this means that your throughput is stable. New tasks are entering at a good rate – the same rate that tasks are being completed. 

If one of the colored bands is rapidly narrowing, this shows that your throughput is higher than the rate at which new tasks are entering your process. You might have overcapacity and need to reassign resources to optimize them. 

If one or more of your colored bands are widening rapidly, new cards are entering your process faster than you can work on them effectively. Your efficiency is lower than possible, and you may need to review your WIP limits. 

Similarly, you could use the ‘New vs Completed tasks’ diagram in the Teamhood Agile metrics report.

team productivity

Structuring Kanban board flow effectively 

You now know that you can measure your Kanban board flow by keeping it on top of your cumulative flow diagram. You know when your flow is ineffective, so what can you do when that happens?

It’s important to remember that this will depend slightly on the type of project you’re using Kanban boards for.

Using Kanban to structure marketing content

For content marketing, use your To-Do column for upcoming content pieces you’re planning to work on. To make it more accurate, split it into two sections – new and committed ideas.

Take the In-Progress column and split it into sub-columns to effectively track child items like Research, Writing, Reviewing, Editing, Design, and Final Review.

Then add a column for what items are currently In the Campaign. And one last section for completed initiatives.

flow metrics layers

Looking for the best tool to implement this? Check out the comparison of KanbanFlow vs Trello vs Teamhood.

Using Kanban to structure software development

Here it makes sense to make each product feature a separate card. As well as the usual To-Do, In-Progress, and Done columns add a Backlog column ahead of To-Do. That way, you’ll also be able to track your backlog tasks. 

This is just a taste of using Kanban boards to structure your workflow effectively. For more practical Kanban board examples, check out this post.

Ready to start using the Kanban flow methodology?

Knowing how best to use Kanban to improve your workflow is vital for success. Hopefully, this blog has given you a useful introduction to how to start thinking about Kanban flow and Kanban efficiency. That way, you should now be able to visualize how Kanban could be useful in helping to manage your workflow effectively.

Find out more about how Teamhood’s flexible Kanban system works, or book a demo to see how it could work for you:

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