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Overview: Kanban Swimlanes are rows used to classify work items on a Kanban board. In early Kanban, most teams used only one Kanban swimlane for expediting work items. Today, teams use Swimlanes to classify work items, and separate teams, 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 are 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 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 as well as tidily groups tasks according to certain classification criteria.
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 expedite lane. Meaning 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).
As more teams started using this Agile framework, the usage of swimlanes expanded. Kanban practitioners started separating 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:
Let’s see each one in action.
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.
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 at the moment.
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).
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 having a single expedite Kanban swimlane, rows show several urgency levels or service plans.
In this example, a helpdesk team finds it most useful to divide the task board into urgent, high-priority, moderate-priority, and low-priority tasks. This allows them to identify the most important issues and solve them 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 important 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, respond in 48 hours, and respond in 5 business days.
Watch this short video to learn more about the difference between Kanban board and Kanban system
Like what you see? Register for a free Teamhood account and start creating your own swimlanes.
Another common path many teams take is using Kanban swimlanes to separate products, projects, or clients. When working towards various goals it becomes quite important to see work items separated from one another in this way.
For example, a furniture manufacturer could set up their task board with separate Kanban swimlanes for every different product line they make. Allowing to understand the waiting periods for the whole operation as well as for 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.
Similarly, you can use Kanban swimlanes to separate different projects. And for the more client-oriented services, each swimlane can represent a certain client. Such division becomes very useful when the team wants to track and understand the effort required by each of their clients and allocate resources accordingly.
In this Kanban board, you can see the team has used Kanban swimlanes to represent clients and added product tags to tasks to also track what type of product they are making for each client. Thus being able to create a double tracking system in this online Kanban board with swimlanes.
If you have several teams or departments working from a single task board, things might get quite confusing. To eliminate the mess, you can use Kanban swimlanes to separate their tasks and create more clarity in each team’s operations.
By dividing the board by teams you will be able to include teams from several locations and ease their collaboration while still keeping tasks separate and manageable for each team. As a manager, you will also be able to track and compare each team’s progress more easily.
On the other hand, if your company is more department-based, you may prefer to see different departments represented by Kanban swimlanes.
For example, an engineering company could have design, manufacturing, and sales tasks represented by different Kanban swimlanes on one board. This way 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.
Lastly, for some teams, it is also very important to be able to track iterations or phases on their task board. In Teamhood, similarly to Jira swimlanes, you can set start and end dates for each swimlane to make sure the team keeps to the set deadlines and plans for only a certain period of time. You can also rename the Kanban swimlanes any way you like, creating a clear plan for your team to follow.
Setting up Kanban swimlanes with start and due dates will also activate an additional feature in Teamhood Timeline. In this view, you will only be able to add tasks between the set dates. Thus, allowing you to plan ahead with more certainty.
When visualizing your process on a Kanban board it is important to use all the tools available to get the best results. Kanban board swimlanes are a great way to add a new layer of structure and clarity to your operations, making the process that much more enjoyable. As it is clear from the examples above, Kanban board swimlanes can be used for a variety of things and surely you can think of a couple more to add to the list.
To generalize, Kanban swimlanes are mostly used to separate: task type or urgency, products, projects or clients, teams or company levels, iterations, or project phases.
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 which is a compact but complete e-book for Kanban principles, terminology, and practices. Download our Ultimate Kanban Guide and become a Kanban Expert!
In case a physical Kanban board is used, then you just draw horizontal lines to implement swimlanes. If you want a digital solution then a lot of software tools are missing swimlanes and cannot be treated as true kanban systems. Teamhood’s main power comes from the full Kanban System and thus Teamhood offers even two levels of swimlanes to match any process or need. If you are interested to see Teamhood swimlanes in action, register for a free Teamhood account. You will also be able to leverage other powerful Kanban features such as Actionable metrics, WIP limits, blockers, and many more.
Kanban System for High Performing Teams
Visualize your work with Kanban swimlanes in Teamhood
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.
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 make sure that the classification is effective for your team.
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.