Map, Edit & Optimize Your Workflow with Kanban

What are the steps to developing an efficient workflow? Learn how to edit your Kanban workflow, visualize your process better and optimize your Kanban boards

Introduction

You already know what Kanban is all about. You have introduced your team to the Kanban board and you have started using it.

You map every task on it and analyze its path from Requested to Done column.

You like how it works for you, but you feel that there is more to do with Kanban but just don’t know how to get started for your specific case.

Want to know some of the best practices for structuring your Kanban workflow?

Here they are.

Getting Started With Sub-columns

The most basic Kanban board (whether physical or digital) has three columns – To Do, In Progress and Done. Before understanding their specific needs, teams usually start for some time with just the three. The sooner you personalize your board, the more benefits you will get from Kanban.

The first thing you can do on each board is to organize the To Do/Requested column. It’s useful to divide it into two sub-columns, where one contains ideas for the near future and the second – the items that are most urgent and ready to start.

The more columns you were able to identify, the smoother your Kanban workflow will be. You will see exactly which stages of the process are slowing it down, where cards are waiting in queues and are the WIP limits set accordingly to the team capacity.

Editing workflow in Kanbanize

Usually, most of the sub-columns are in the In Progress area. Depending on your field of occupation and specifics of your processes, your Kanban board layout may vary a lot. For example, in RnD, there may be even two levels of sub-columns.

At Kanbanize, the team has made three divisions of the In Progress area – Tech Design, Development and Production. Tech Design has its own 3 sub-columns – Design, Review, Ready for Coding.

Workflow columns in Kanbanize

Development is divided into another 3 – Coding, Testing, Code Review. Production has another 2 sub-columns – Testing on Production, Deploy. This way the stages are clearly divided, waiting columns ensure proper cycle time calculation and a smooth workflow.

Marketing teams can have different variations such as Conceptualization, various Review sub-columns, or Waiting on a 3rd party when a task depends on a partner/media/designer. Columns depending on external parties are called buffer columns. If you want to keep you cycle time on track, it is recommended to visualize them so you can differentiate between the actual time spent working on a task and the time it had spent waiting.

Introducing Swimlanes Into Your Kanban Workflow

In the very beginning, teams are not quite sure why they need swimlanes and how to organize them. Usually, the top one is Expedite/Urgent and tasks with high priority are pulled there, so they can be started as quickly as possible and processed forward. The other swimlanes could be organized thematically, so tasks don’t get mixed in the different stages.

Workflow board with swimlanes

If you are using Kanban software, swimlanes are even more useful. For example, in Kanbanize, you can collapse each column or swimlane. You could leave only these that you are working in so that you have a concise view only of information that is relevant to you. You can even imply a WIP limit per swimlane so that you are sure a certain part of the process is not being overloaded.

The New Generation of Swimlanes

With advanced Kanban software such as Kanbanize, you can build completely customizable swimlanes. As a result, a single board can contain multiple workflows with specific columns for each of them.

Multiple workflows on a single board

This allows you to build your boards exactly the way you need them. With the added functionality, you can define specific steps for each class of service you provide, and gather cross-functional teams with fundamentally different processes at a single board (e.g. Marketing and Development).

Defining Tasks With Kanban Cards

In Kanban, there is no accent on the size of the work items. The idea is to break projects into the smallest possible pieces. It is assumed that if done properly, there shouldn’t be big differences in terms of size. Each task is represented on the board with a card containing all the information about it.

Kanban card in detail

In the description section, you can put a summary of what should be done step by step, mention coworkers, and add comments in a specifically designed section. In Kanbanize, you are able to attach files and external links, in order to have all the necessary documentation all at one place.

It is also a good idea to set priorities for your tasks, so you know how to organize them. You can set a reminder for the day before the deadline and minimize the stress and the chance to delay projects.

Kanbanize also allows you to create custom types and templates for cards, containing predefined field specifications such as assignee, content description, card color, among others. Types allow you to easily spot on the board what kind of work do certain cards represent without having to open them and read the whole description.

6 Step Plan for Workflow Visualization

There are many methods and techniques for process mapping and most of them can be really handy when it comes down to this task.

In the following paragraphs we will walk you through this simple process and help you build and manage your Kanban process flow.

  1. Define your first and last step
  2. To give the process a shape we start by outlining the first and the last step of the workflow. The first step is represented by the “requested” state and the last by the “done” state. It is important to shun away from the “almost done” trap.

  3. Outline the steps in-between
  4. Make a list of all the steps you go through after you have started to work on a given item and before finishing it. Keep in mind that this is not the final version of your board and you will edit it many times as your experience and process evolve.

  5. Determine the level of details
  6. It is important to determine how deep into the details your process will go. Too complex flows could harm your productivity and create confusion in your team. A rule of thumb is to add a step only if it repeats itself in time. If a given step occurs 1 time in 100 cases then it is not a good idea to include it.

  7. Leave a buffer column(s)
  8. This is really useful and it’s an important part of each board. The buffer columns are for those cases when the task you work on depends on something or on someone.

    A good example is when you are waiting for approval from the Upper Management and there isn’t anything you can do much to speed things up. Like this though, you can separate these tasks and measure the time they have been “waiting” in this column.

    Set a buffer column when there is a transition between functional areas or sub-processes like when the Marketing sends a Purchase request to the Financial department for example. In the best case scenario you won’t need buffer columns but if you stumble upon the kind of challenges outlined above this is a good tip to have in mind.

  9. Determine the shape of your process
  10. Is your process linear or vertical?

    The columns of the Kanban board represent the horizontal (linear) process of your flow. The swim-lanes on the other side represent the vertical aspects of it. The most common case of verticals is when we have multiple teams, part of the same department. It is important all of the verticals included to the board to have similar or in the best case scenario – same process applied.

  11. Continuous improvement

Kanban is an ongoing journey without an end. Kanban’s core is the kaizen culture – the philosophical movement for continuous improvement. Every process can be improved further, there is not an exception to this rule. So don’t forget to improve your work process regularly if there is a need for it.

How To Continuously Improve Your Kanban Workflow

The Kaizen culture of continuous improvement is one of the core elements of Kanban. Here are some explicit ways to pursue it. In addition, it is important to analyze your progress in time and compare data with previous periods. There are useful analytical tools to help you monitor your performance and grow sustainably.

  1. Lower WIP Limits
  2. Kanban prescribes incremental change and thus setting drastically low WIP limits could be stressful for the team. It is better to start with choosing the current number of tasks in In Progress and be sure they are not exceeded. Then, with the use of the method, tasks would be moving faster towards completion and you will be able to reduce the WIP limits.

    Ultimately, the ideal would be one item per team member. You can start with two tasks per person – e.g. if your team is made of 5 people, then the limit of the items being worked on should be 10.

  3. Adjust Board Structure to the Changes in Your Process
  4. Your columns are not set in stone. Your process is ever-evolving. There are new activities added, some are excluded and the board should reflect these changes. New columns and swimlanes, however, should not affect the WIP limits if there are no changes in the size of the team. It is important also from analytical point of view that your board reflects exactly your Kanban workflow, otherwise, the analytics will not present correct data.

  5. Aim for Shorter Cycle Times

Your ultimate goal is to achieve shorter cycle times. This means that a card travels faster from Requested to Done column. Most of the modern Kanban software solutions are equipped with advanced analytics modules to help you monitor your workflow and analyze your results. Some of the most valuable tools are the cycle time chart, heat map for cycle time and cumulative flow diagram, which could help you on the way to improving.

Remember, experiment with editing your Kanban workflow until you find the right formula that fits your team’s needs.

In Summary

In order to achieve a smooth workflow on your Kanban board you need to map precisely every step of your work process. To continuously improve, you need to:

  • Optimize your WIP limits
  • Adjust your Kanban board's structure to address changes in your process
  • Aim for shorter cycle times

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