The Portfolio Kanban is a holistic method that aims to improve your organization’s ability to deliver by applying the principles of visualization, limiting work in progress and flow management on a system level.
The Portfolio Kanban method is applicable across the hierarchy levels, starting from the team level, going through product management and project or program management, reaching as high as C-level strategy execution. Before presenting the details about implementing Portfolio Kanban on any of these levels, let us first clarify how the Portfolio Kanban method differs from the Team Kanban method.
The Difference between Portfolio Kanban and Team Kanban
The main difference between the Portfolio Kanban method and the Team Kanban method is that the Kanban cards on your Portfolio Kanban board are “parents” of one or many Kanban cards that live on your Team Kanban board. Ideally, the status of the parent Kanban card is automatically updated based on the status of each of the children Kanban cards.
For example, when a child Kanban card on the Team level is moved to In Progress, the parent Kanban card should also be considered to be In Progress, because the first child has been started. Respectively, when all the children Kanban Cards are moved to Done on the Team Kanban boards, the Kanban card on your Portfolio Kanban board should also be considered Done.
If we take a look at the image below, the top-most card might be a work item in the Portfolio Kanban board of the CEO of the company. The CEO has broken down this strategic initiative into two programs and has assigned them to two program managers. They have their own Portfolio Kanban board or boards.
The program managers have broken down their programs into two or more projects and have assigned them to the responsible project or product managers, who also have their own Portfolio Kanban board or boards.
The Project or Product managers have broken down their projects into work items and have passed them to the Team Kanban boards, where the teams can actually work on actionable work items (usually user stories).
In this context, we have a couple of team boards (the bottom-most level) and a couple of nested Portfolio Kanban boards.
It is important to mention that you don’t have to start from the CEO. You can implement Portfolio Kanban on each and every level, based on the context that you are in.
Portfolio Kanban on the Team Level
The first challenge for most teams, after mastering Kanban, is that they lose visibility into the bigger picture. Many tasks get done, but the connection to the parent project or initiative is easily lost. The usual approach in situations like these is the addition of a Portfolio Kanban lane in the Team Kanban board. This is a simplified lane at the top of your Kanban board, where the so-called “Initiatives” are being visualized and tracked. In the specific case of Kanbanize, the Portfolio Kanban lane looks like this:
The top Portfolio Kanban lane contains Initiatives, which are visible to the entire team. New children of the Initiatives can be created with a simple drag and drop and everyone can quickly check where the key Initiatives stand. Also, the Initiatives change their status automatically, based on the status of the children Kanban cards.
Portfolio Kanban on the Project/Product Level
Suppose that you are a project manager at a web agency. You are tasked with a big web project that you need to execute on a tight schedule. If your default behavior is to plan everything on a Gantt chart, please read this article first: Kanban Planning – Killing the Gantt Chart. Scheduling everything in MS Project is not going to work well – countless projects have been failed this way and you don’t have to do it yourself.
Your best option is to break down the project into MMFs (minimal marketable features), then break them down into Team tasks (user stories) and let your teams PULL them at a sustainable speed. This means that they will only start working on a new MMF when another MMF has been finished. If you do this and make sure that no MMFs get stuck forever, your chances of success are much higher. But how do you track all that and how do you know if you are going to make it?
This is where the Portfolio Kanban method comes into play again. If you are on a small team, the Portfolio Kanban lane, which we talked about in the previous section, is going to be sufficient. However, if you need more fine-grained control over the MMF’s workflow, you will have to employ a dedicated Portfolio Kanban Board. This dedicated board will only contain MMFs, which will be broken down into user stories. These user stories will live in separate Team Kanban boards.
In this situation, you need to maintain a relationship between an MMF and its user stories, so that no items get lost. You can do this on a physical board using some visible indicators, but it is much easier to do it with Kanban Software tools.
If you use Kanbanize, for example, you will be able to link multiple User Stories to the corresponding MMF and use Business Rules (Runtime Policies) to automate your workflow. In a way, you will be doing the same thing, as you have done with the Portfolio Lane, but instead of having only one Portfolio Lane, you will have an entire Kanban board to convert into a Portfolio Kanban board.
This approach becomes even more valuable when you have multiple teams and not just one. If you implement a Portfolio Kanban board, each team can have its own Team Kanban board, while you monitor the flow of MMFs on the central board directly.
Having this “master view”, you can easily synchronize your teams and help them work in a much more aligned way. For example, instead of having one team working on MMF1 and another team working on MMF2, you can ask them to work on MMF1 and complete it much faster. By that, you will improve the flow of value to your customers, which is the ultimate goal.
Portfolio Kanban on the Program Level
The Portfolio Kanban can be scaled on a program level too. The concept here is the same as the project/product level one. The only thing you need to do is to add one Kanban board “above” the MMF board and link all MMFs to a corresponding project (the project is a single Kanban card on the program board):
If you follow this approach, the status of the MMFs will automatically change the status of the projects. This will allow the program manager to concentrate on much more important topics than reading status reports and will save a lot of reporting time for the project managers and their teams.
Portfolio Kanban on the Strategic Level (C-level)
As you have guessed, the same pattern can be replicated on the strategic C-level. When a CEO has defined the strategy of the company, it can be broken down into strategic initiatives. The strategic initiatives can be further broken down into programs/projects/MMFs, etc. (depending on the size of the company).
At Kanbanize, all strategic initiatives are broken down into MMFs and then all MMFs are broken down into user stories for the teams. As soon as the teams start working on a user story, which is part of a strategic MMF, the MMF goes to in progress automatically. As a result, the entire initiative goes to in progress automatically and everyone on the board can monitor the progress without asking for status reports.