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Kanban Workflows: How to Improve Your Process Gradually?

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.

Kanban workflows are visual tools that map tasks from start to finish, typically moving through columns such as Requested, In Progress, and Done. They help teams manage and optimize their work processes efficiently.

You’ve introduced your team to the kanban board and started using it to map every task and analyze its progress. While you appreciate its benefits, you sense there's more potential to unlock but are unsure how to proceed.

Here are some of the best practices for structuring and enhancing your kanban workflow to suit your specific needs.

Getting Started with Sub-columns

The most fundamental 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 can 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 whether the WIP limits are set according to the team's capacity.

Editing workflow in Businessmap Usually, most of the sub-columns are in the In Progress area. Depending on your field of occupation and the specifics of your processes, your work board layout may vary a lot. There are multiple kanban board examples and designs, and yours can be completely different altogether. For example, in RnD, there may be even two levels of sub-columns.

Using the Businessmap platform, 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.

kanban workflow columns

Development is divided into three columns: Coding, Testing, and Code Review. Production has two more sub-columns: Testing on Production and Deployment. This way, the stages are clearly divided, and 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 your 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 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 to 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 become even more useful. For instance, you can collapse each column or swimlane, leaving only those you need for a concise view of relevant information. You can also set a WIP (Work In Progress) limit per swimlane to ensure no part of the process becomes overloaded.

The New Generation of Swimlanes

Advanced software allows you to create fully customizable swimlanes, enabling a single board to contain multiple workflows with specific columns for each. This flexibility lets you tailor your boards precisely to your needs. You can define distinct steps for each class of service and bring together cross-functional teams with fundamentally different processes on a single board, such as Marketing and Development.

Multiple workflows on a single board

Defining Tasks with Kanban Cards

In Kanban, the focus isn't on the size of work items but on breaking projects into the smallest possible pieces. Ideally, if done correctly, tasks should be of similar size. Each task is represented by a card on the board containing all relevant information.

Kanban card in detail

In the description section, you can summarize what should be done step by step, mention coworkers, and add comments in a specifically designed section. You can attach files and external links to have all the necessary documentation in one place.

Setting priorities for your tasks helps you organize them effectively. You can set reminders for deadlines to minimize stress and avoid project delays.

Businessmap allows you to create custom card types and templates with predefined fields like assignee, content description, and card color. These types help you easily identify the nature of each task on the board without opening and reading the full description.

How to Visualize Your Kanban Workflow in 6 Steps?

There are many methods and techniques for process mapping, and most of them can be very useful for this task. In the following paragraphs, we will guide you through a straightforward process to help you build and manage your kanban workflow effectively.

1. Define your first and last step

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.

2. Outline the steps in-between

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.

3. Determine the level of details

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, it is not a good idea to include it.

4. Leave a buffer column(s)

This feature is crucial for every board. Buffer columns are used when a task depends on something or someone else. For instance, if you're waiting for approval from Upper Management and can't speed up the process, you can place these tasks in a buffer column to track their waiting time.

Use a buffer column during transitions between functional areas or sub-processes, such as when Marketing sends a purchase request to Finance. Ideally, you won't need buffer columns, but they are helpful for handling the challenges mentioned.

5. Determine the shape of your process

Is your process linear or vertical?

The columns of the kanban board represent the horizontal (linear) process of your flow. The swimlanes, on the other side, represent its vertical aspects. The most common case of verticals is when we have multiple teams that are part of the same department. All verticals on the board must have similar or, in the best–case scenario, the same process applied.

6. Continuous improvement

Kanban is a continuous journey with no endpoint. At its core lies the kaizen culture, a philosophy of ongoing improvement. Every process can always be refined further, with no exceptions. Therefore, remember to enhance your work process whenever necessary regularly.

Best Practices to Continuously Improve Your Workflow

Here are some explicit ways to pursue continuous improvement through kanban practices.

Lower WIP Limits

Kanban promotes incremental change, and thus setting drastically low WIP limits could be stressful for the team. It is better to start by choosing the current number of tasks in the In Progress area and ensure they are not exceeded. Then, tasks will move faster toward completion, and you will be able to reduce the WIP limits.

Ultimately, the goal is to have one item per team member. You can start with two tasks per person. For example, if your team has five people, the WIP limit should be ten tasks.

Adjust Board Structure to the Changes in Your Process

Your columns are not set in stone. Your process is evolving. New activities emerge, some become obsolete, and the board should reflect these changes. However, new columns and swimlanes should not affect the WIP limits if there are no changes in the team's size. It is also important from an analytical point of view that your board reflects exactly your kanban workflow; otherwise, the analytics will not present correct data.

Aim for Shorter Cycle Times

Your goal is to achieve shorter cycle times. This means that a card travels faster from the In Progress column to the Done column. Most modern workflow management 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 improve.

Remember to experiment with editing your kanban workflow until you find the formula that best fits your team's needs. It's also important to analyze your progress over time and compare it with previous periods. Use analytical tools to monitor your performance and achieve sustainable growth.


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In Summary

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.
Michaela Toneva

Michaela Toneva

SEO & Content Creator | Agile Practitioner

With a never-ending thirst for knowledge and a passion for continuous improvement, Michaela is an Agile practitioner with a good understanding of Kanban, Lean, and Agile methodologies. Her professional background includes SEO and content writing with a dose of sales and a pinch of social media.

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