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Kanban Board Swimlanes – How to Use Them?

Overview: Kanban board swimlanes are rows used to classify work items on a Kanban board. In early Kanban, most teams used only one additional Kanban swimlane for expediting work items. Teams use Swimlanes to organize work items and separate initiatives, projects, or products.

There is a variety of Kanban board applications on the market. Teams from accounting to engineering have adopted the Kanban board to their processes, which shows its versatility.

One of the attributes that allow such applications is the Kanban swimlanes. This simple addition lets companies create boards that are just right. So keep on reading to see how you can do it too.

kanban swimlanes

What are Kanban Swimlanes?

Kanban board swimlanes are rows on a Kanban board. Those rows allow us to define the classes of service by visual separation. This increases documentation power for a Kanban board and tidily groups tasks according to specific classification criteria.

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This idea was first used as a way for Kanban teams to go around the WIP rule. It was a way to hurry an urgent task without completing the current work. To help identify such tasks, teams added an expedite swimlane to the top of their Kanban board.

Then, if an unplanned urgent task appeared, it would go to the expedited lane. The team could start working on it immediately, disregarding the WIP limit. This allowed Kanban teams to have a faster reaction time and manage tasks based on the potential cost of delay (CoD).

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What is the relationship between the Kanban board and Swimlanes?

A Kanban board is a visual representation of work in progress using cards or sticky notes on a board, typically divided into columns representing different stages of the workflow. Each card represents a task or work item, and its movement across the columns indicates its progress.

On the other hand, Swimlanes are horizontal divisions within the Kanban board.

They provide additional categorization or segmentation of tasks based on specific criteria, such as departments, priorities, features, or workflows.

Swimlanes run across the columns of the Kanban board, dividing it into distinct sections.

The relationship between the Kanban board and swimlanes is that swimlanes are used to further organize and structure the tasks within the board. They provide a visual separation and grouping of tasks based on specific dimensions, allowing teams to understand the work distribution and progress better.

Swimlanes enhance the Kanban board by offering a way to segment and prioritize tasks, identify bottlenecks or areas of focus, and provide context to the work being done.

Types of Kanban Swimlanes

As more teams started using this Agile framework, the usage of swimlanes expanded. Kanban practitioners separated tasks by urgency, teams, time, and other criteria. Thus creating Kanban boards with swimlanes that were better suited to their processes.

Today, the most popular use of Kanban swimlanes are as follows:

  1. Task type or urgency
  2. Products, projects, or clients.
  3. Teams or company levels.
  4. Iterations and project phases.

Let’s see each one in action.

1. Kanban board swimlanes by task type/urgency

Task type

One of the most popular ways to use Kanban swimlanes is to help separate tasks by their type. In most teams, there are several types of tasks to be completed, and it helps to see the Kanban board divided by them.

kanban board swimlanes


In this example, you can see a Kanban board used by an accounting department. The task division is based on their type – suppliers, clients, and employees.

This makes the task board easier to navigate and focus on the work that the team is doing. It also gives immediate insight into what type of work the team is concentrating on.

Depending on your processes, such division could mean anything from 2 to 20 swimlanes. To keep the task board readable, you should try to stick to around 10 swimlanes (at most).

Task urgency

Teams working with clients often like to take a different approach. They divide Kanban board swimlanes by service plan or urgency. This is similar to the expedite swimlane concept but with more options. Instead of a single expedited Kanban swimlane, rows show several urgency levels or service plans.

kanban task urgency

In this example, a helpdesk team finds it most helpful to divide the task board into urgent, high-priority, moderate-priority, and low-priority tasks. This allows them to identify and solve the most critical issues before moving on to other requests.

You may have noticed that some of the swimlanes in this example are collapsed. This is done to minimize distraction and focus on the most critical work.

Another option would be to classify tasks based on the service plans. In this case, the Kanban swimlanes show the expected response time for that group of tasks. For example – respond in 24 hours, reply in 48 hours, and respond in 5 business days.

Watch this short video to learn more about the difference between the Kanban board and the Kanban system.

Like what you see? Register for a free Teamhood account and start creating your own swimlanes.

2. Kanban board swimlanes by products, projects, or clients

Products

Another common path many teams take is using Kanban swimlanes to separate products, projects, or clients. When working towards various goals, it becomes pretty important to see work items separated from one another in this way.

kanban swimlanes

For example, a furniture manufacturer could set up their task board with separate Kanban swimlanes for every product line. They allow us to understand the entire operation’s waiting periods and each specific product line. As you can see in the board below, such separation is also great for storing information on each product line.

You will be able to find all the current and past designs of a specific line in one place.

Projects or clients

Similarly, you can use Kanban swimlanes to separate different projects. For the more client-oriented services, each swimlane can represent a particular client.

Such division becomes very useful when the team wants to track and understand the effort required by each client and allocate resources accordingly.

kanban board swimlanes

In this Kanban board, you can see the team has used Kanban swimlanes to represent clients and added product tags to tasks to track what type of product they are making for each client. Thus, creating a double tracking system in this online Kanban board with swimlanes.

3. Kanban board swimlanes by teams or departments

Things might get quite confusing if you have several teams or departments working from a single task board. To eliminate the mess, you can use Kanban swimlanes to separate their tasks and create more clarity in each team’s operations.

kanban board swimlanes

By dividing the board by teams, you can include teams from several locations and ease their collaboration while keeping tasks separate and manageable for each team. As a manager, you can also track and compare each team’s progress more efficiently.

Departments

On the other hand, if your company is more department-based, you may prefer to see different departments represented by Kanban Swimlanes.

department-based kanban swimlanes

For example, an engineering company could have design, manufacturing, and sales tasks represented by different Kanban swimlanes on one board. This way is creating an easier way to collaborate and track progress. By seeing the design progress, manufacturing could plan out their tasks, and by seeing what is produced, sales could relay live information to clients.

4. Kanban board swimlanes by iterations or project phases

Lastly, for some teams, tracking iterations or phases on their task board is essential. In Teamhood, similarly to Jira swimlanes, you can set start and end dates for each swimlane to ensure the team keeps to the set deadlines and plans for only a specific period. Learn about other Kanban planning techniques.

You can also rename the Kanban swimlanes any way you like, creating a clear plan for your team to follow.

kanban board swimlanes

Setting up Kanban swimlanes with start and due dates will also activate an additional feature in the Teamhood Timeline. In this view, you can only add tasks between the set dates. Thus, allowing you to plan with more certainty.

What is the process of swimlane?

Now, let’s clarify the process of creating a swimlane within a Kanban board:

Define the Swimlane Categories: Identify the categories or divisions you want to create with your swimlane. These categories could be based on departments, teams, projects, stages of a workflow, or any other relevant factors that help organize your tasks effectively.

Visualize the Swimlanes: Create horizontal sections on your Kanban board representing the swimlanes. These sections should run across the columns of your board. You can use lines, borders, or different-colored backgrounds to separate the swimlanes visually.

Assign Tasks to Swimlanes: Assign or place the individual tasks or work items within the appropriate swimlanes based on their corresponding category or criteria. This ensures that tasks are grouped together in a logical and organized manner.

Customize Swimlane Headers: Optionally, you can add headers or labels to each swimlane to indicate the category it represents clearly. These headers provide context and make it easier for team members to understand which tasks belong to which swim lane.

Track and Manage Tasks: As work progresses, team members move tasks within their respective swimlanes across the columns of the Kanban board to reflect their current status. This visual tracking helps monitor progress, identify bottlenecks, and maintain a smooth workflow.

teamhood time tracker

Adapt as Needed: Over time, you may need to adjust or modify your swimlanes based on changing requirements or evolving project needs. Stay flexible and adapt the swimlane structure to accommodate new categories or reorganize existing ones as necessary.

Teamhood Swimlane Best Practices

When it comes to creating swimlanes and effectively managing processes, Teamhood offers distinct advantages over tools like Microsoft Planner or Trello. Both do not have native swimlane functionality built into their platform.

Teamhood, on the other hand, provides a comprehensive project management solution with built-in swimlane functionality. 

Here’s how you can use Teamhood for creating swimlanes:

  • Clarify your goal: Determine the objective of using swimlane diagrams in your project management process. Identify the specific processes you want to explore and the level of detail required for effective visualization.
  • Break the work into manageable pieces: Divide your project or process into manageable tasks or steps. Clearly define the boundaries of the process you want to study and optimize.
  • Utilize Kanban project swimlanes: In Teamhood, create swimlanes based on your project’s needs. Swimlanes can represent employees, work groups, departments, or other relevant divisions that help organize and structure your tasks effectively.
Swimlane Kanban WIP limits
  • Research the process steps: For existing processes, document the process steps within each swimlane, including interconnections, communications, and handoffs between lanes. Identify gaps, redundancies, bottlenecks, and other inefficiencies to improve the process.
  • Optimize new processes: If you’re modeling a new process in Teamhood, outline the steps required to increase efficiency, reduce delays, and minimize costs. By visualizing the process in swimlanes, you can easily identify areas for improvement and streamline workflows.

Teamhood’s swimlane functionality lets you easily map out, optimize your processes, and categorize your Kanban items on the board. With its intuitive interface and collaborative features, Teamhood provides a robust platform for managing projects and visualizing work across swimlanes. 

Summary

When visualizing your process on a Kanban board, using all the tools available to get the best results is essential. Kanban board swimlanes are a great way to add a new layer of structure and clarity to your operations, making the process much more enjoyable.

As it is clear from the examples above, Kanban board swimlanes can be used for various things, and surely you can think of a couple more to add to the list.

Get more inspiration for your team’s process with these Kanban board examples, start working immediately with Teamhood Kanban board templates, or learn more about Kanban project management.

Swimlanes are important, but only one element of Kanban Methodology. Teamhood has published an Ultimate Kanban Guide, a compact but complete e-book for Kanban principles, terminology, and practices. Download our Ultimate Kanban Guide and become a Kanban Expert!

Kanban software with swimlanes

Using a physical Kanban board, you draw horizontal lines to implement swimlanes. If you want a digital solution, many software tools are missing swimlanes and cannot be treated as accurate Kanban systems.

Teamhood’s main power comes from the complete Kanban System, and thus Teamhood offers even two levels of swimlanes to match any process or need. If you want to see Teamhood swimlanes in action, register for a free Teamhood account. You can also leverage other powerful Kanban features such as Actionable metrics, WIP limits, blockers, and many more.

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Kanban swimlanes FAQ

  • What can I use Kanban swimlanes for?

    Anything you want. Kanban swimlanes is an additional tool for your Kanban board that allows you to separate and classify items for easier navigation. Thus, there are no limits on how you can use the Kanban swimlanes.

  • How many swimlanes can I add to a Kanban board?

    As many as you want. Depending on how you decide to classify your work items, there can be 2 or 20 swimlanes on your task board. There is no limit. You should simply ensure that the classification is effective for your team and that the board is still visual instead of being hard to read.

  • What are Kanban swimlane examples?

    Teams can use swimlanes to separate work items by type – urgent, regular, non-urgent, by department – sales, marketing, design, by projects – project A, project B.

    The primary purpose of swimlanes is to provide clarity and structure by grouping related tasks together, enabling teams to identify bottlenecks, track progress, and prioritize work effectively. Several examples of swimlanes in Kanban boards include:

    Department-Based Swimlanes: A software development team can create swimlanes for different departments like design or developers. This allows team members from each department to have their own section where they can track and manage their tasks.

    Priority-Based Swimlanes: Swimlanes can be divided based on task priority levels, such as high, medium, and low. This lets teams focus on high-priority tasks first and ensures that important work isn’t overlooked.

    Feature-Based Swimlanes: If you’re working on a product with multiple features or components, you can create swimlanes to represent each feature. For example, in an e-commerce platform, swimlanes can be dedicated to product catalog, shopping cart, payment processing, and user accounts.

    Workflow-Based Swimlanes: Swimlanes can be organized to reflect the different stages of a workflow. For instance, swimlanes can be created for tasks in the backlog, tasks being worked on, tasks awaiting review, and tasks completed.
    These swimlane examples aligns teams with their unique needs and objectives.

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