map okrs with kanban

Do you know what sets successful managers apart? A lot actually, but one of their main traits is the ability to set the right goals, clearly communicate them, and eventually turn them into reality.  

That’s why a management tool such as OKRs is steadily gaining popularity over the past years. Putting it in practice, however, can be a challenge. 

In the following paragraphs, we will briefly explain what is OKRs and show you how combining them with Portfolio Kanban in Kanbanize will help you align strategy and execution.

What is OKRs?

OKRs stands for “Objectives and Key Results”. It’s a famous goal-setting framework (used by companies such as Google, Amazon, Dell, etc.) whose main purpose is to bring organizational alignment.

The objectives represent high-level goals that should communicate “what” your company/division/team wants to achieve. 

On the other hand, the key results are the building blocks of the objectives. They answer the question “how” you are going to achieve your high-level goals. You can think of them as the milestones that you need to progressively meet. 

The OKRs framework is a great way to enable your company to work on the right things at the right time. Putting it in practice, however, requires you to have a complete management system that stitches everything together. 

This is where Portfolio Kanban can help.

Mapping OKRs with Kanban and Kanbanize

Kanban is heavily focused on visualizing work. Depending on the scale of the implementation, you can put on display all work activities in a department or the entire company. 

To effectively map your company’s OKRs, you need to implement Kanban on a portfolio level. There, your goal should be to connect the objectives, the key results, and their execution with the help of interconnected Kanban boards. 

Let’s start with the objectives.

Visualize Objectives on a Portfolio Kanban Board

To visualize your high-level objectives, the first thing you need to do is set up a Portfolio Kanban Board. In Kanbanize, this happens by creating a Management Workspace. Here, you can create your Portfolio (Management) board and visualize your OKRs on it.

create a portfolio kanban board in a management workspace

For the sake of the example, let’s imagine that you are the director of an engineering department, and for Q1 of 2021, you’ve set a goal to improve the quality of a given product in your portfolio.

To visualize this objective, you can use the uppermost workflow lane of the Portfolio board. 

visualize objectives on a portfolio board

There, you can create your first objective and make it transparent for all relevant stakeholders. This will give them easy access to it so they can clearly understand the direction where the company (or the department in this case) is headed. 

Now let’s imagine that you need to separate your high-level objectives on different functions. In the case of the Engineering example, those could be “Design” as well as “Operational” goals. 

To distinguish between the objectives of these 2 functions, all you have to do is add different swimlanes in the respective workflow of your Portfolio board.

separate your objectives with kanban swimlanes

As the image above shows, there are two swimlanes that separate the high-level goals of the Engineering department. In the “Design” swimlane, the objective might be something like “Improve UX of Product Y”, while in the “Operational” swimlane – “Improve the Efficiency of QA Processes”. This gives you even more structure and transparency in tracking the progress of your top-level goals.

Of course, the process inside every department or organization will vary. That’s why Kanbanize allows you to tailor your Portfolio board and eventually find the best scenario for your unique situation. 

Break Down into Key Results

The next step is to break your objectives down into key results. 

The structure here can get a little bit more complicated, but the idea remains the same – making everything transparent for all relevant stakeholders. 

For simplicity, let’s continue with the “product quality improvement” goal from above. To execute it, you might need the input of multiple teams. For example – “Design Engineering”, “Electrical Services” and “Mechanical Services”. 

The main concept here would be to visualize how each one of those teams contributes to the main objective of the department. To do that, your first job inside the Portfolio board will be to create a “Key Results” workflow right below “Objectives”. 

create initiatives workflow and visualize key results on a portfolio board

Then, you can use Kanban swimlanes to separate the key results that every team will be working on. This will help you bring transparency and order into their specific milestones.

use swimlanes to distribute key results across different teams

Once you have this structure set up, your next step would be to create the actual key results and link them to the high-level goal. 

In Kanbanize, we use parent-child relationships to break down strategic initiatives into smaller pieces (key results, projects, tasks, etc). To do this, you can simply drag the objective to the “Key Results” section on your Portfolio board and create a child initiative. In our case, this will be one of the key results that the teams need to accomplish. 

break down objectives into key results with parent-child relationship links

With the help of the parent-child link relationship, Kanbanize allows you to tie your OKRs structure together. Furthermore, you will be able to see at a glance how each one of the key results relates to the high-level goal. 

This gives you a customizable solution for transparency and work breakdown structure. As a result, you will be able to track everything in one place, discuss and adapt to changes whenever necessary.

map okrs on a portfolio kanban board

Use Related Kanban Boards to Connect Strategy to Execution

So far you’ve set up your objectives and linked key results to them on a Portfolio Kanban board. However, there is one missing piece of the puzzle – the connection to daily operations. 

For example, let’s say that one of your key results is to redesign a specific functionality of your product. This milestone involves a bunch of different work activities, some of which you can convert into team projects for the Design Engineering team (ex. laboratory research, new drawings, etc.). 

To visualize this work breakdown structure, your first step should be to connect team Kanban boards to the Portfolio board. In Kanbanize, this happens with the “Related boards” feature.

use related boards to connect okrs to teams

Next, you should break down the key results into actionable team projects. 

To do that, Kanbanize allows you to use the parent-child relationship links as we mentioned above.

For example, if we breakdown the “Design Engineering Key Result” into 2 team projects, the structure of the Portfolio Kanban board might look like this:

breakdown key results into team projects and connect them to team kanban boards

This entire structure of using interconnected Kanban boards with the OKRs framework will allow you to bridge the gap between strategy and execution. As a result, you will have a way to track work progress across the entire department or company and quickly shift your operations so you can ensure that you do the right things at the right time.

Benefits & Use Cases of Kanban OKRs

Let’s take a look at some of the key benefits of combining OKRs with Kanban as well as common use case scenarios that can come in handy for top-level managers.

  • Align Strategy and Execution – One of the main problems that Agile transformations address is the high failure rate of strategy execution. Using the OKRs framework with Portfolio Kanban brings transparency into the high-level planning process and connects it to daily operations. With a combination of Kanban cadences, all of this enables companies to do the right things at the right time.

    If you are looking for a real-life example of aligning strategy and execution, you can check out this case study from Kanbanize.

  • Track Team Progress Toward Company Goals – Connecting OKRs structure to daily operations allows managers to track how teams contribute to company goals. This enables them to better plan projects and take quick actions whenever they spot deviations from the high-level goals.

  • Set Clear Vision & Empower Effective Leadership – Using OKRs with Portfolio Kanban allows companies to visualize their vision and openly communicate it across all organizational levels. This empowers more effective leadership as all stakeholders can relate to the company’s vision and see how their work makes an impact.

  • Discuss Action Items During Management Meetings – Mapping OKRs with Portfolio Kanban gives managers an easy way to track the progress of their high-level goals in real-time. It facilitates strategic discussions of the company’s performance during management meetings and allows managers to easily visualize a roadmap of their future plans.

Get Started with Kanban OKRs

Mapping the OKRs framework with Portfolio Kanban is a huge topic that we’ve only scratched the surface of. After all, based on the process inside your organization, the structure might be different from what you’ve read in this article. 

The important takeaway, however, is the concept. Make sure that you visualize your objectives, key results, and their execution across teams. Kanban and Kanbanize can help you do that. 

Just remember that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Instead, start with what you do now and gradually evolve from there.

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