Kanban

How to Do Kanban Prioritization

Mindaugas Gluchovskis ·

2019 - Present Marketing specialist Innovative content marketeer with MSc in International Communication, Mindaugas brings fresh ideas and inspiration about project management and beyond.

Kanban prioritization

Have you ever considered why some teams easily hit their project deadlines while others struggle with delays and disarray? The secret often lies in one critical factor: effective task prioritization.

When I started managing projects, I stumbled upon Kanban, which changed my game. Originating from Toyota’s production lines, it’s a workflow management tool and a comprehensive strategy to tackle project chaos. This system uses a visual board to limit work progress and streamline task prioritization, drastically improving team morale and ensuring predictable delivery timelines. 

This article breaks down the order of the Kanban board, why you need Kanban prioritization, who exactly is responsible for task prioritization, how to use Kanban in a practical way to turn chaotic workflows into successes, ensuring you don’t miss out on leveraging this powerful tool for your team.

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What is Kanban prioritization?

Kanban prioritization refers to the methods and practices used to decide which tasks are most important and ensure they are completed first so the workflow continues smoothly.

Key aspects of Kanban prioritization:

  • Visual Signals: Prioritization in Kanban is often indicated through visual cues such as color coding, tags, or placement on the board. High-priority tasks may be placed at the top of the column or marked with specific colors.
  • Dynamic Reassessment: Kanban encourages continuous reassessment of task priority based on evolving project needs and team capacity. This flexibility allows teams to adapt to changes quickly and efficiently.
  • Pull System: Unlike traditional push systems for work assignments, Kanban uses a pull system. Work is only pulled into the next stage when there’s room for it, and tasks are done based on their importance and urgency. Importantly, it is the team members themselves who decide which tasks to work on next.

As tasks are prioritized on the board, team members pick the highest-priority task that they are capable of completing and assign it to themselves. Pull system approach ensures that tasks are not only completed in order of priority but also managed according to team members’ capacity and expertise, preventing the team from being overwhelmed and ensuring important tasks get done on time.

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.

What is the order of the Kanban Board?

The Kanban board is made to be simple and helpful, guiding tasks from start to finish. The board has columns for each stage of a task’s journey. These stages generally include:

  • To-Do (or Backlog): This column is where tasks sit before they’re worked on. It’s like a waiting area for undone tasks, which are then worked on in order of their priority.
  • In Progress (or Doing): Once a task is ready to be worked on, it moves into this column. Keeping the number of tasks here low is important. It helps the team stay focused and not feel overwhelmed. This is called limiting work in progress, a key part of Kanban.
  • Review/Testing: Once a task is done, it often goes into a review or testing stage. This stage is vital for maintaining quality control and ensuring that the output meets the required standards before it is considered complete.
  • Done: This column signifies completion. Once a task passes through the previous stages without issue, it is moved to the Done column, indicating it requires no further attention.

The order of these columns is important because it affects how well the team works.

For example, if too many tasks are in progress, it shows that many tasks are initiated but not completed efficiently. Consequently, it shows there are issues with the workflow or resource allocation.

How should you prioritize in Kanban?

Prioritizing tasks in Kanban means planning strategically and using visual tools to keep work moving smoothly. Prioritization is usually done during a prioritization meeting. This happens once the currently prioritized tasks are almost depleted. Here’s how to do it effectively, including using color codes and symbols for better organization.

Step 1: Define priority categories

Start by defining clear categories that reflect the urgency and importance of tasks. Two common approaches are: Categorical priorities and numerical priorities.

Categorical priorities :

  • Critical: Tasks must be done immediately to meet deadlines or deal with urgent matters.
  • High: Important tasks that help keep the project on schedule but aren’t as urgent.
  • Medium: Necessary tasks that do not have immediate deadlines but are essential for project completion.
  • Low: Tasks that need to be done but have the least impact on the project timeline. This approach promotes a balanced workflow. Critical tasks receive the necessary resources and attention while still progressing on less urgent tasks.

Numerical priorities 

  • P1 (Priority 1): Tasks that require immediate action due to their urgency or impact on project deadlines. These are the highest priority.
  • P2 (Priority 2): Important tasks that need attention soon to keep the project on track, but are less urgent than P1 tasks.
  • P3 (Priority 3): Necessary tasks that support the project but can be addressed after more critical tasks, allowing for flexible scheduling.
  • P4 (Priority 4): Low-priority tasks that are least critical and can be completed as time allows, without immediate impact on the project.

This approach helps teams quickly identify task urgency and organize their workflow efficiently.

Step 2: Use visual indicators

kanban priority
Kanban board visual indicators

Once you have defined the priority categories, use visual indicators on your Kanban board to mark these priorities. Examples include:

  • Columns/Statuses: Use dedicated columns for each priority level (e.g., P1, P2) to hold tasks according to their importance. This visual separation helps in quick identification and organization.
  • Color Codes: Use colors to show task importance: red for critical, blue for high, yellow for medium, and green for low. This helps team members identify task priorities quickly.
  • Symbols: Use symbols like stars, exclamation marks, or arrows to show priority. For example, three exclamation marks (!!!) could mean a task is critical.
  • Tags or Labels: In addition to colors and symbols, use tags or labels on Kanban cards to provide additional context or details about the priority.

Step 3: Apply WIP limits

kanban wip limits
Kanban WIP limits

Set limits on the number of tasks in each column, especially in important columns. This will prevent team members from having too much to do at once and keep them focused on finishing important tasks.

Commonly, a limit of 5 tasks might be set for P1, 10 for P2, etc. This encourages the team to critically assess and define what truly constitutes a P1 task, preventing the dilution of priority through excessive task allocation.

Step 4: Regularly review and adjust priorities

Regularly review the priorities as part of your Kanban meetings to ensure they still align with the project’s needs. Priorities should be reviewed and adjusted regularly to respond to the needs of the project:

  • Adjustment Triggers: Make adjustments when new urgent work surfaces or in response to changes during prioritization meetings.
  • Review Frequency: Ideally, review priorities weekly, or more frequently if project dynamics require.

Step 5: Encourage team involvement

Team members are part of the prioritization meeting and they should be encouraged to share their thoughts on what tasks are most important. This helps make better decisions and gets everyone on board with the process. It also allows for adjustments based on firsthand knowledge of the tasks.

Who is responsible for task prioritization in Kanban?

Kanban itself does not define specific roles for team members, it instead focuses on the process and flow of tasks. However, to better understand how task prioritization can work within typical organizational structures, we can consider the most common roles in companies.

Each role keeps the workflow efficient and ensures priorities match the project goals. Here’s a quick look at the main roles involved and their responsibilities in the process:

Team members

In Kanban, team members are actively involved in task prioritization. While the product owner outlines what needs doing, team members have a big role in getting it done. They pick tasks from the backlog as they finish current ones, based on priority shown on the board usually indicated with color codes. This lets them manage their workload and choose tasks that need doing now.

Project manager

Kanban teams typically self-regulate without a formal project manager. However, in larger or hybrid teams, a lead often emerges to facilitate the process. This leader helps ensure that task prioritization aligns with project timelines and resources, resolves conflict over priorities and guides adherence to key Kanban principles like limiting work in progress and maintaining workflow continuity.

Stakeholders

Stakeholders aren’t directly involved in daily prioritizing but are important in setting big-picture priorities. They give input based on business goals and market trends, helping the product owner and team decide what’s most important.

If you are doing Kanban as part of a larger Scrum process, most likely, it is the Product Owner.

Maintaining a clean Kanban board

Kanban board
Structure of Kanban board

Keeping your Kanban board tidy is important, especially in big teams where many tasks can quickly lead to disorganization and inefficiency. Here’s how to keep your Kanban board organized and useful for managing work:

Regularly manage the backlog

To keep your Kanban board clear and helpful, you must continuously manage the backlog. This means reviewing and prioritizing it often to remove tasks that aren’t needed anymore. It also means breaking big tasks into smaller ones to finish them faster.

Doing this regularly keeps the board focused on what’s important, especially in big teams where priorities change significantly.

Use Swimlanes or Sub-Boards

When dealing with large teams, consider using sub-boards or swimlanes to manage different projects or streams of work. This can help prevent the main board from becoming cluttered and confusing. You can create sub-boards for different teams or project stages, and use swimlanes to group tasks by type or priority. This keeps the Kanban board tidy and helps team members concentrate on their tasks.

Employ clear and consistent labeling

Consistent labeling is key to maintaining an organized Kanban board. Use a uniform system of labels, colors, or tags to denote different types of tasks, priorities, or special conditions like blocked tasks.

This makes it easy for team members to see what’s going on with tasks and saves time figuring out what each card means. For instance, using colors like red for urgent tasks, blue for high priority, and green for normal ones helps everyone understand quickly.

Conduct regular board reviews

Regularly check the Kanban board with your team to ensure it shows what’s happening. Do this in quick meetings where everyone talks about what they’re doing and if anything’s changed. These checks fix any mistakes on the board and remind everyone to keep their part up to date.d.

Optimize for clarity

Keep the board’s layout simple and intuitive. Avoid overcomplicating the board with too many columns or categories, which can confuse rather than help. Simplify where possible, and ensure that every element on the board adds value and clarity.

Digital Kanban tools

Digital Kanban tools are great for large teams, especially geographically dispersed ones. They include features like automatic notifications, and task filtering, which are not present on physical boards. They also provide analytics to spot trends and ways to make workflows better.

Foster a culture of responsibility

Encourage every team member to take responsibility for updating their tasks on the Kanban board. This includes moving tasks along the board, adding necessary details, and removing completed tasks. Encouraging team members to update the board regularly builds responsibility and ownership. This is key for keeping the Kanban system organized and working well.

Why you need Kanban prioritization

Kanban prioritization isn’t just about sorting tasks; it’s a smart way to boost productivity and ensure important areas get attention. It brings many benefits that make projects run smoother and more successful.

Increased efficiency and productivity

According to a survey by LeanKit, organizations using kanban experienced a 200% increase in productivity and a 50% reduction in lead time. Kanban helps teams finish tasks faster by organizing them visually and focusing on fewer at a time. This reduces wasted time from switching between tasks (context switching), a common productivity killer. 

Reduced time wastage

Another study by Leankit reveals that organizations using Kanban improved their on-time project delivery by 43% and 50% reduction in lead time. Kanban prioritization helps identify where bottlenecks is slowing down the workflow. For example, if tasks pile up in one spot, it shows where there’s a problem.

Fixing these issues quickly makes work go smoother and gets tasks done faster. 

Enhanced flexibility and responsiveness

With Kanban, teams can change direction easily.

They can see priorities visually and adjust them without much trouble, making reacting to new information or market shifts simple. This is important in industries where factors such as customer needs or project plans change quickly.

Improved transparency and communication

Kanban boards show task status, priorities, and who’s responsible without many meetings or reports. This ensures everyone’s on the same page and builds trust and accountability, as team members can see how their work affects progress immediately.

Better prioritization and decision-making

In Kanban, everyone sees and manages priorities all the time. This helps decide what to do next based on what’s most important. It ensures important tasks are always the focus, so nothing gets missed.

Increased team empowerment

Kanban boards let team members choose their tasks. This encourages them to take charge of their work, pick tasks as they finish others, and be responsible for what they do.

Conclusion

Proper task prioritization using Kanban is essential, transforming how teams manage their projects by enhancing clarity and reducing operational chaos. This method’s visual nature allows teams to see their entire workflow and adapt quickly to changes, ensuring that all tasks align effectively with project goals.

Implementing Kanban isn’t just about adopting a new system; it’s about embracing a philosophy of continuous improvement. By utilizing visual indicators, setting WIP limits, and maintaining regular reviews, teams foster a culture of transparency and collaborative progress.

Start Prioritizing Your Projects

With Visual Kanban Software

Get Started

rich kanban board cards

Frequently asked questions

  • How to start prioritizing in Kanban?

    To start prioritizing in Kanban, you should clearly define your priority levels such as critical, high, medium, and low. Assign visual indicators like colors or symbols to these levels on your Kanban board. Ensure all team members understand the prioritization criteria to effectively manage their tasks.

  • How often should Kanban priorities be reviewed?

    Kanban priorities should be reviewed regularly to align with changing project needs. Typically, a weekly review is effective, but for more dynamic projects, you may consider reviewing priorities more frequently, such as daily or every few days.

  • Which members of the team should attend the prioritization meeting?

    The members of your team to attend the prioritization meetings should include the key team members such as the project manager, product owner, and key team leads from areas like development, design, and QA. It’s crucial to involve representatives from every functional area to ensure comprehensive decision-making.

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