Effective backlog management is pivotal to any successful project. Prioritizing the right work in the right order plays a key role in continually delivering customer value.

Manually prioritizing all backlog items, however, can be quite time-consuming. Moreover, without clearly defined criteria specifying the priority of the work items, what’s most important and what actually brings value to your business becomes questionable.

The Kanban Method suggests an approach of backlog management that reduces the effort of maintaining your backlog and enables teams to make their own decisions. It helps teams become more self-managed while bringing transparency and consistency to the decision-making process of what the team is going to work on next.

User Stories as a Representation of Customer and Business Value

The Kanban backlog consists of user stories representing customer value and the desired outcome. Each user story has its own importance in the pool of available work and confirms clear objectives.

As customer requests come in, new user stories are added to the backlog. Likewise, as business needs change and you receive more feedback, some stories become more important than the others and your backlog has to reflect that. In order to properly prioritize each user story, you need a classification system that leads to the right decisions for your business.

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Classes of Service and Sequencing Policies: Arranging Your Kanban Backlog

In Kanban, product managers classify user stories in the backlog by assigning a Class of Service to each story at the moment of its creation. Classes of Service (CoS) have two main purposes: to classify different work items according to their priority and to clearly define how the items in each CoS should be treated.

The process of defining Classes of Service strongly depends on the context of your business. You might base them on cost of delay, market value, complexity or technical risk, or a combination of all. Defining prioritization criteria is a layered set of decisions which need to take into account the feedback from your team, stakeholders, and customers.

Once you determine your Classes of Service, adopting explicit sequencing policies will define how to treat them and how they interact with each other.

Here’s an example of how your Classes of Service and their respective sequencing policies might look like:

Kanban rules using Classes of Services

  • Expedite: systems went down, an unexpected serious glitch has occurred or last-minute change requests have been made. These will be treated as high priority. At any given time, there can be only one emergency task in the workflow. You may need to set up a notification system when such an item appears so that current work in progress is suspended until that item is handled.
  • Fixed Delivery Date: includes key handovers and other pivotal commitments to customers. These are the tasks with a fixed end date whose delay impact is high. They should be handled before bugs.
  • Bug: bugs should be corrected as soon as possible. They have a higher priority than standard tasks.
  • Standard: regular workflow tasks, neither high nor low priority – more important than intangible.
  • Intangible: tasks that are not urgent, such as maintenance or small upgrades – code refactoring or minor UI updates. These are the lowest priority tasks.

This list isn’t conclusive, however. For some teams, bugs don’t necessarily have to be a Class of Service. For others, bugs might be more important than fixed delivery date tasks, so they move it higher up the sequence. If there are multiple tasks with the same CoS in the backlog, the team can take on any item regardless of their order.

Discover what works for you and create as many Classes of Service accordingly. The rules should reflect your project needs. Make sure you keep reviewing your CoS and sequencing policies on a regular basis to ensure they are still relevant to your business requirements.

3 Main Benefits of Kanban Backlog Prioritization

Let’s have a look at the main benefits that Kanban backlog prioritization brings along.

1. Consistent and Transparent Decisions

The process of ordering backlog items becomes explicit as everyone is aware of the prioritization policies. The reasons behind decisions become transparent and the process becomes more consistent.

2. Teams Grow More Self-Managed

Product managers don’t have to order the work for their teams. As long as the CoS and sequencing policies are in place and maintained regularly, and each user story is assigned with a CoS at the moment of its creation, the team will know what to work on next on their own. This results in a more self-managed team as they select tasks to work on independently as soon as they have the capacity to do so.

3. Reduced Backlog Maintenance

If the circumstances of your project change, new classes of service and policy adjustments become self-evident. Project managers don’t have to reorder their backlog items manually, as the change in rules will automatically dictate the new prioritization criteria. Consequently, the team will adapt to the new rules when selecting new tasks to work on.

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Maintaining Your Kanban Backlog

Maintenance of your Kanban backlog essentially means reassessing the criteria of your user stories on a regular basis. User stories’ Classes of Service are not static. An intangible task or a fixed delivery date task can easily become an emergency if neglected for too long.

Likewise, a new business request can impact the value of the tasks in your Kanban backlog, meaning you may need to assign new CoS accordingly.

Another good policy to introduce is purging tasks that are older than 6 months. We recommend you clean up your old backlog tasks on a monthly basis. If an item hasn’t been dealt with in half a year, chances are it probably isn’t important enough anymore.

The Kanban approach eliminates the need for manual backlog reordering. It encourages transparency and consistency of prioritization decisions while defining a set of criteria and policies that will help you manage your backlog more efficiently. Additionally, it increases workflow efficiency by enabling self-managed teams to make independent decisions that align with their customer and business needs.

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