What Are Kanban Swimlanes and How to Use them in Practice?

Learn what Kanban swimlanes are and how they can help teams improve their work organization and prioritization.

Introduction

Simply said, Kanban swimlanes are lines that split horizontally a Kanban board into two or more parts. They are useful for all teams but prove to be extremely handy for larger teams that have to visualize not only their work stages but also the different types of tasks that flow through the work process. As a result, the Kanban board stays nicely organized, uncluttered with homogenous work and thus brings more clarity to the workflow.

What Can You Use Kanban Swimlanes for?

A simple example of a Kanban swimlane would be the separation of the different types of content that your marketing team is producing – text and video. In most cases, those two activities are not sequential, so you can visualize them as separate on a Kanban board and thus achieve better flow.

text and video content swimlanes

When talking about flow, we should mention the topic of limiting work-in-progress (WIP) too. As you are probably familiar, the different stages of your workflow should have limits so your team members focus on finishing rather than constantly starting new work.

The same thing applies to the Kanban swimlanes. If we take the marketing example from above, you should set a separate WIP limit for the text and video content lanes that is in conformity with the overall limit of the “In Progress” work stage on the Kanban board.

Generally speaking, Kanban swimlanes are used to separate work of different nature and how you are going to apply them depends on the specificity of your workflow. However, there are some major types of lanes that you should be familiar with, so keep reading below.

Different Types of Kanban Swimlanes

The most common types of swimlanes that can exist on a Kanban board are the following:

– Individuals/Teams/Clients
– Repetitive tasks
– Classes of Service (Expedite, Fixed Delivery Date, Standard, Intangible)
– Company-level lanes
– Discarded Options

Let’s briefly go over each one of them.

Individuals/Teams/Clients

To visualize the work of different teams or individuals, you can create dedicated Kanban swimlanes for them. For example, you can separate the design team in your organization that is working on some creative stuff on your company’s website, and the development team, that is dealing with the technical part. This way, each team will have their own dedicated flow for their unique tasks while still retaining the ability to easily see what their colleagues are working on.

Furthermore, you can use Kanban swimlanes to separate different clients so you can better visualize the work that you are preparing for each one of them. This scenario is not very common but it can be effective for some bigger, long-term clients of yours whom you want to make sure you provide with exceptional service all the time.

For example, let’s say that you are a digital agency and you have just signed two big companies to manage their marketing campaigns. As they are big clients with larger budgets that you want to keep for the long-run, you might decide to pay a bit of extra attention to them. In this case, you can separate their respective flow of tasks as seen from the image below.

swimlanes to separate clients

Repetitive Tasks

Sometimes, teams have a number of tasks that need to be done on a regular basis. For example, an IT operations team within a company might have a number of maintenance tasks that require the regular backup of important business files within a network system.

Those are work items that provide the organization with higher security, and due to their repetitive nature, it’s a good practice to use Kanban swimlanes to visualize and separate them from the rest. This way, you will be able to further de-clutter your Kanban board, especially if you have a larger volume of both one-time and recurring tasks.

swimlane for recurring tasks

Classes of Service

Visualizing different classes of service is one of the most widely used options for Kanban swimlanes. The purpose of these lanes is to provide teams with a solution to better prioritize work in an effective way to reduce risk.

As you can imagine, different types of work items will not have the same type of “urgency” attached to them. That’s why in Kanban, there are 4 classes of service for priority management which you can separate and visualize with the help of Kanban swimlanes. We are listing them below.

  1. Expedite
  2. Fixed Delivery Date
  3. Standard
  4. Intangible

Expedite

This class of service is reserved for work items that have the highest priority, which means that they require your team’s full devotion. You can create a separate swimlane on your Kanban board for that class of service and process items through it that are critical, have high risk and might be blocking your other tasks from moving forward.

expedite class of service swimlane

Fixed Delivery Date

The second one – Fixed Delivery Date is reserved for work items that need to get done by a certain point in time. You can use a dedicated Kanban swimlane to visualize and separate items that, if not finished on time, might accumulate high cost of delay (CoD).

fixed delivery date class of service swimlane

Standard

The standard class of service represents the normal activities in your workflow that don’t come with much risk or cost of delay attached to them. That’s why, in case the work items in your project are not homogenous, a good practice is to use a Kanban swimlane to separate the standard tasks from those with higher priority.

Intangible

The last class of service in Kanban is Intangible. It is reserved for the tasks that are of least priority and thus bear the lowest risk and cost of delay. As you’ve probably guessed it, you can visualize and separate those work items from the rest too, with the help of a dedicated Kanban swimlane.

Learn more about Kanban classes of service.

Discarded Options

When working on projects, teams often come up with a number of different ideas on what approach to take with the execution of the work and how to develop specific things. However, a lot of those ideas never come to pass and are abandoned in favor of others. A problem here comes when those options are just thrown away and never looked up again because it might turn out that their alternatives were not the better choice.

That’s why a good practice in Kanban is to visualize the discarded options with the help of a dedicated swimlane for a period of time, immediately after rejecting them. This will give you greater flexibility to reflect on your decision to choose a certain option over another and determine whether something has been properly discarded.

When advancing through your Kanban knowledge, you will get familiar with discovery and delivery Kanban. The former is a refinement phase where the “Discarded” options should be placed in a lane which serves as a “bin”, while the latter is where the actual work on the chosen tasks happens.

Company-Level Lanes

Apart from separating and visualizing different types of work on the team-level, there are also company-level Kanban swimlanes that you can apply. This is part of Portfolio Kanban and works best when you are scaling Kanban across the entire organization.

company level swimlanes

For example, you can use a dedicated lane to visualize your wider company objectives on a Portfolio Kanban board. After that, you can break down those bigger strategic objectives into smaller key results that are visualized and separated with their own Kanban swimlanes. Those key results can be further broken down into initiatives/epics that are allocated to the respective teams and live both on the Master Kanban board as well as the separate team boards within the company.

Kanban Swimlanes at Kanbanize

Hopefully, by now, you have a good grasp of what Kanban swimlanes are and how they can be used. While they are a great solution for better work organization and prioritization, we at Kanbanize always follow the mantra of “continuous improvement”, which we have now applied to our swimlanes too.

The standard approach so far has been to use one Kanban board per workflow and apply different lanes within it. However, what if one team in your company needs to deal with more than one unique flow of work items or you have team members with different skill sets that have a different nature of tasks?

In this case, you might have to create separate Kanban boards for those workflows or team members, so they can apply swimlanes within them to better organize the work. This will cause them to switch between those boards constantly and thus lose time, focus and productivity.

To deal with that problem, at Kanbanize, we use Multiple Workflows on one Kanban board and then we apply swimlanes within them. The concept is simple. For example, a Customer Success team can use two workflows on their Kanban board – Requests from Existing Clients and Internal Activities.

multiple workflows for customer success

In the former – Existing Clients’ Requests, they can have different Kanban swimlanes to separate tickets from hot customers (highest priority), small and medium-sized businesses, enterprises, customers interested in a specific integration, etc. The latter workflow – Internal activities, can serve as a place where they visualize tasks, unrelated to clients’ work, that they have to do internally, for the company.

This will allow the team to achieve greater work organization of their activities, keep everything in one place, further reduce context switching and thus, increase their productivity levels.

In Summary

Kanban swimlanes represent lines that divide a board horizontally. They can be used in a number of different situations, however, the main types can be summarized below. You can create swimlanes for:

  • Individuals/Teams/Clients
  • Repetitive tasks
  • Company-Level Lanes
  • Classes of Service (Expedite, Fixed Delivery Date, Standard, Intangible)
  • Discarded Options

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