If you have used a visual Kanban board to manage your work, which is not a continuous production at a factory, you probably have come to a complexity challenge. Too many cards in a column? Several parallel processes on the same board? Managing subtasks while parent task is in progress?
All of these issues sound too familiar, and to tackle them, we came up with the concept of Advanced Kanban. An approach that helps many service and project-based companies easily manage their work.
Quest for visualization
Historically, Kanban methodology has been developed as a system to control the manufacturing logistics chain. Taiichi Ohno at Toyota found a solution to implement a pull instead of a push approach in their Just-in-Time production lines. You can read more on the history and development of Kanban methodology in our article about the transition from physical to online Kanban board.
Principles developed by Toyota have become a success story and have started to be applied in many other management areas to improve operational efficiency. Software development teams were the first to adopt it as one of the agile techniques.
Today, most businesses use Kanban to manage projects, development, or operations. Industries using Kanban vary from engineering and construction to financial services and marketing. Managers have been creative in adopting Kanban principles in their organizations and finding spaces for Kanban boards in their offices. Digitalization has even brought new possibilities to visualize processes.
In basic and commonly used Kanban, board columns represent work statuses. Cards then represent work units. They can contain assignments, estimations, deadlines, tags, descriptions, to-do lists, and more information items. First, we create new cards in the Backlog column.
Then, we move them through the process steps until completion and the cards reach the Done column. When we move a card from In Progress to Done, we need to drag a new card from the Backlog into the empty space to make sure the production is utilized.
Basic Kanban works well in managing end-to-end manufacturing processes from customer orders to inventory of finished products. It also works for most isolated processes in services or sales.
What if we work on a project that takes 3 months, involves more than 10 people, and contains more than 100 items on a board? Projects also usually involve parallel processes and diverse functional responsibilities.
One solution might be to use multiple boards. However, this will complicate the collaboration and general management of a project. Imagine a meeting where a team has to review 5 or 10 different boards.
And how to summarize priorities – the most important things to be done now?
The traditional straight-forward Kanban board often lacks all those multiple perspectives that we need to monitor processes and to visualize them.
Kanban Swimlanes for a Visual Kanban board
First of all, we can address limitations by assigning different card colors to different categories of items. Then swimlanes can be applied when Kanban is not a board with just columns, but a grid of columns+swimlanes. Swimlanes or rows have been first applied in software development to represent features.
Dividing any project into logical categories improves the visuality of the board.
Similar to features, swimlanes can represent different work areas in the project. In the illustration below a research project is divided into two work areas – laboratory and field. Such a visual solution allows smooth cross-team collaboration between laboratory and field research departments. All involved teams and their managers can have a clear view of their tasks and responsibilities as well as a full overview of the project on one visual Kanban board.
Separate project stages
Horizontal swimlanes are often used to represent stages of a project. When we complete a task in the first swim lane, the system takes it to a backlog of the second and assigns it accordingly. An example can be manufacturing and quality control. Using swimlanes to represent stages works best if all stages have the same process.
However, if manufacturing and quality control processes involve different stages, we cannot apply the same board with the same columns.
Therefore, swimlanes are not enough to define an Advanced Kanban board. It is rather multiple parallel lines without a second dimension than a two-dimensional plane.
Fully Advanced Kanban
No doubt – for more complex processes, fixed swimlanes are not enough. Think about involving distributed teams, dividing projects into stages, and process into smaller steps. Kanban in the context of knowledge work requires unlimited columns+swimlanes combinations. And we need to switch them fast, in a few clicks. This is where any physical board usually reaches its limits of the ability to visualize and becomes too difficult to maintain.
It is quite usual to divide larger tasks into small subtasks or to-do lists. When we pull a large task to the next stage, subtasks just follow. However, smaller tasks usually have their own schedule and are not ready for the next step at the same time. Traditional Kanban systems have limitations of work details management. They force you to choose either to look only at high-level work or at the detailed level of work.
This results in at least two different Kanban boards, one for the „Project portfolio” or “Epics” board, while the 2nd one focuses on detailed work, which becomes detached from their hierarchical parents.
The Advanced Kanban board below illustrates a solution for visualizing the full process, including the management of subtasks. We represent bigger units of work with reduced details during the planning and prioritization phases. When we move them to WIP (Work In Progress) they unfold into details and start showing smaller items in swimlanes.
This way we give our board a second dimension – we can now manage the full scope of the project and follow detailed tasks on the same board at the same time.
Professional work management systems like Teamhood represent rows and columns as two axes of freedom. This way, we maintain relationships, tackle complexity, and visualize a large amount of work on one digital kanban board.
Digital Advanced Kanban solutions offer a universal platform for planning and teamwork. Companies provided with an easy and visual tool have unlimited ability to visualize anything. In addition to rows and columns, there is the possibility to use card colors, tags and assign tasks to employees. Adding advanced filters to this mix, users can toggle views with a few clicks between global scope, personal assignments, and team priorities.
With Teamhood it can take less than five minutes to create an Advanced Kanban board. It is made to be as easy to start, just as a regular whiteboard. Just list down your process and subprocess steps (columns) and define categories (rows). If the board doesn’t look fitting to your needs, try another one.
When tasks start moving, take advantage of the visuality, engage your team and improve your processes further. Click on the link to learn more on how to visualize your processes with Teamhood Advanced Kanban Board. Have fun! Make Your project a success!
Want to learn about other advanced Agile approaches? We suggest starting with this article on scaled Agile methods or this one about Kanban project management. Alternatively, look through these examples to get ideas for your board.
2019 - Present Co-founder and CEO @ Teamhood.
2015-2019 Head of software engineering department at Danske Bank.
2017-2018 Partner Associate Professor at Vilnius University. Lecturer of Software Architecture course
2011 - 2015 Managed numerous smaller IT teams at Prewise.
Co-founder of RaveIT, Eylean, No Brakes Games
Certified Agile product owner and practitioner. Managed large scale enterprise projects as well as launch of small startup products.
MSc of Software Engineering at Vilnius University.
Hobbies: Racing, MTB cycling, Windsurfing