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Kanban Planning: Making Data-Driven Decisions

Using historical data, Kanban helps you make precise estimations about project length and use your Kanban boards as a planning tool to prioritize upcoming work.

Usually, the project manager's duties are to plan, assign start and end dates to tasks, monitor, and control project activities against plan, but not to manage the workflow. Although this is the general approach in traditional project management, it rarely leads to good project results. Contrary to this deterministic way of creating a plan, focused on exact dates, Kanban planning offers a probabilistic alternative. This way, instead of saying, "Our deadline is 30.09," you can communicate that your team will need between 25 and 30 days to complete the project, for example. 

In its core, Kanban planning is to plan and commit to outcomes and delivery dates. However, it should be based on data-driven forecasting. This way, your estimates become an accurate prediction, as you are not trying to guess an exact end date. Instead, you can use the average cycle-time and throughput data to calculate the overall cycle-time of a project/task. Depending on the stability of your workflow, your Kanban estimates will be more or less exact.

Planning on a Kanban Board

By now, we spoke about estimating and planning project length. However, the Kanban board can help you also plan your future activities and prioritize tasks. Imagine that the "Not Started" area of your Kanban board is a reversed timeline – the rightmost column is "now" and the leftmost, sometime in the future:overview of a Kanban planning boardWith this basic timeline in place, we can easily use stickies to plan when some items are most likely to be delivered. Suppose one item has to be expedited or postponed. In that case, we take the Kanban card and move it to another column of the Kanban board, changing the card's priority. 

That's pretty much the Kanban Planning approach – simply reorder the stickies to be in the right column. Of course, we should use Kanban cards if we are using Kanban software for this purpose. 

The Kanban board also helps your teams plan their daily and weekly activities. It gives a constant up-to-date overview of the status of all work items in the pipeline and the priority of the different tasks. This way, when capacity frees up, they have all the needed information to proceed with the most important task in the queue. 

Depending on how you prefer to plan your strategic goals, you can also create dedicated columns on your board representing your different planning horizons. Strategic Kanban PlanningThis way, planning on a Kanban board will help you keep your upcoming projects and future goals in front of your eyes. 

How do we do it at Kanbanize?

Acknowledging that plans are an essential part of every management method, and even life in general, we at Kanbanize offer a lightweight approach to planning. To realize a Kanban project plan, all you need to do is add a “Timeline” workflow to your board. Typically, you put the Timeline at the top of the board. Take a look at this sample image: Kanban Planning Kanbanize
As shown above, the board is split into two areas horizontally. The top area represents a special type of workflow that visualizes the project deliverables on a timeline. We call these deliverables “Initiatives” as they represent bigger work items and not day-to-day tasks. In the example above, the Initiatives on the timeline represent the key deliverables of a project to build a custom machine (Create specification, Prototyping, Design, etc.). Once the project plan is in place, the Initiatives are broken down into tasks that are placed in the bottom part of the board where we have another type of workflow “Cards Workflow”. 

The card’s workflow is meant to be used for tasks that the team works on every day. The tasks in the “Cards Workflow” are child cards of the Initiatives in the Timeline. 

Before you think this is just a timeline component like any other you’ve seen, let’s quickly clarify some points:

  • The only way you can start an Initiative is by starting one of its child cards first. 
  • The only way to complete an Initiative is by finishing all child cards.
  • The timeline workflow in Kanbanize can have a WIP limit.
    This is a key element in Kanban and a unique feature of our platform.
    You can apply it to limit the number of parallel Initiatives you work on, something that we highly recommend, so you can focus your team's energy onto a small number of items and thus deliver them faster.

The Initiatives that are put one after the other on the same track in the timeline are automatically liked as predecessor/successor. This means that you won’t be able to start working on any of the child cards of the successor initiative unless the predecessor’s tasks have all been completed first.

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Data-driven Kanban Planning

In Kanban, metrics play a central role, and the planning and estimation aspects of the method make no exception. Focused on flow stability, measuring cycle-time, and throughput, Kanban helps you collect data on your teams and company's performance. When you have a stable workflow, you could expect that similar work items will have a similar cycle-time. Then you could also use average cycle-time and throughput numbers to calculate and predict with high probability when upcoming projects are expected to be finished. 

Although that might sound like a simple calculation, it could cost a lot of time to go over different numbers and scenarios when you are managing multiple projects. To make this easier, the Analytics module in Kanbanize offers Monte Carlo simulations. This powerful analytics tool does the calculations and predictions for you, so you can give a precise estimation by just taking a look at its diagram.Kanban Planning with Monte Carlo SimulationsNot only that you do this in a fraction of the time you’d need for a detailed plan, but this type of planning is likely to be more accurate than your gut feelings. Even further, you can use the Kanban Planning technique to forecast not just on the Kanban team level, but also on the Portfolio Kanban level.

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In Summary

To organize our workflows, the last thing we should be doing is trying to schedule or estimate our work with no real data behind the plan. Instead, we should concentrate on advancing our progress with planning based on actual historical data and adjusting at each stage. Here Kanban planning offers a solution:

  • With Kanban planning, you break down projects into tasks and estimate how long your team will need to complete all tasks. 
  • It is not focused on giving an exact end date, but on providing a range of days (for example between 25-30) your team will need to finish the project.
  • The Kanban estimation is based on historical performance data, representing an accurate prediction of the project's overall cycle-time.
  • Planning on a Kanban board allows you to transform your board into a reversed timeline and visualize your upcoming projects and future goals next to your current work. 

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