Kanban Board Swimlanes – Improve Your Process

Whether you have just started using Kanban or have been doing it for a while, you may still be surprised by how many Kanban board variations there are. Teams are using various techniques to customize their task boards, the most popular of which are by adding Kanban swimlanes. This simple improvement lets companies create boards that are just right and here is how you can do it too.

What are Kanban Swimlanes

If you are not sure what a Kanban board with swimlanes is, do not worry this one is easy. Kanban board swimlanes are simply rows on a Kanban board, used to separate and group tasks according to certain criteria.

This idea was first used as a way for Kanban teams to go around the WIP rule if there was a very urgent task they had to complete fast. 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 was added to the expedite lane and the team could start working on it immediately disregarding the WIP limit. This allowed Kanban teams to have a faster reaction time to the urgent items and separate them better from other tasks in the backlog.

kanban swimlanes expedite

As more and more teams started using this Agile framework, the use of Kanban board swimlanes started to grow and differentiate as well. Depending on their processes and needs, teams started separating tasks by urgency, teams, time, and other criteria. Thus creating Kanban boards with swimlanes that were better suited to their processes and needs. Today, the most popular use of Kanban swimlanes are as follows:

– Task type or urgency

– Products, projects, or clients.

– Teams or company levels.

– Iterations and project phases.

Let’s see each one in action.

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 really helps to see the Kanban board divided by them.

In the example below, you can see a Kanban board used by an accounting department. Here tasks are divided into swimlanes based on their type – suppliers, clients, and employees. Having defined Kanban swimlanes for each type of accounting tasks, makes the task board easier to navigate and prioritize the work that the team is doing. It also gives immediate insight into what type of work the team is mostly concentrating on at the moment.

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

Kanban swimlanes task type

Task urgency

Teams working with clients, often like to take a slightly different approach – dividing Kanban board swimlanes by service plan or urgency. This comes closer to the expedite swimlane concept, just expands it with additional options. Instead of having a single expedite Kanban swimlane, the task board is divided into several urgency levels or service plans.

As you can see in the example below, a team working on the helpdesk may find it most useful when the task board is divided into urgent, high priority, moderate priority, and low priority tasks. Allowing them to immediately identify the most important issues and solve them before moving onto the other requests.

While if there is a certain response time depending on the service plan a customer is using, Kanban board swimlanes could define those response times. For example – respond in 24 hours, respond in 48 hours, and respond in 5 business days.

kanban board swimlanes urgency

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 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.

kanban board swimlanes products

Projects or clients

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 the Kanban board below, 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.

Kanban swimlanes projects

Kanban board swimlanes by teams or departments

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.

kanban board swimlanes teams

Departments

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.

Kanban swimlanes departments

Kanban board swimlanes by iterations or project phases

Lastly, for some teams, it is also very important to be able to track iterations or phases on their task board. In Teamhood 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.

Kanban board swimlanes phases

Summary

When visualizing your process on a Kanban board it is important to use all the tools available to get the best results. Kanban 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 clientsteams or company levelsiterations, or project phases.

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

Still considering if Kanban is the best Agile framework for you? Check out this comparison of Kanban vs Scrum vs Scrumban.

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