Teams turn to the Kanban method to streamline workflows and improve process efficiency. With large teams and complex projects, however, a common issue occurs – the Kanban board becomes cluttered and hard to read. Kanban swimlanes are used to tame this visual clutter and improve task organisation.

What are Kanban swimlanes?

In large projects, different team members often need to focus on different work items. Your developers and your customer service aren’t going to have any overlap, and your team members in London probably have quite different tasks to deal with than your team in New York. When the whole team is reading from the same board, having every task displayed makes it harder for your team to identify their next step.

Kanban swimlanes divide the board horizontally, representing parts of the process that run in parallel: tasks in one lane should not depend on tasks from other lanes, and tasks should not move from one swimlane to another. For example, Development and Testing should not be different swimlanes, as Development work items will then pass to Testing.

Swimlanes were added to the method early on in the history of Kanban. They let members of large teams know exactly what their role is – without being overwhelmed by a cluttered and complex Kanban board.

Kanban board with swimlanes

Swimlane Categories

The categories for your Kanban swimlanes can be as varied as your projects – we’ll go over the most common ones here:

  • Team/Department/Individual
  • Feature
  • Recurring tasks
  • Priority-based

It is essential in Kanban to apply work in progress limits for each column. WIP limits should also apply to each swimlane in a process state. We recommend keeping swimlane WIP limits low so total WIP doesn’t balloon. For example, if the total WIP limit for In Progress is 6, Team London and Team New York each could have a WIP limit of 3. Remember, swimlanes are used for processes that will run in parallel, not sequentially.

Team/Department/Individual

When different teams, departments or individuals take on completely different tasks, it makes sense for each to have their own swimlane. This keeps your team members focused on the work items most relevant to them, while still giving them an overview of how the project as a whole is progressing.

Feature

Alternatively, some projects have large teams all working on the same tasks – but these tasks need to progress in parallel, rather than one after the other. This is often the case for Kanban teams where multiple features need to be worked on together. Using swimlanes to visually separate each feature makes it immediately obvious when work on a single feature is falling behind or getting stuck in a process state.

Recurring tasks

Some teams use Kanban swimlanes to separate tasks that must be carried out once from those that need to be repeated. By setting WIP limits for both types, this stops necessary maintenance actions from being pushed aside while the team works on new features.

Priority-based

Priority-based swimlanes (sometimes known as Classes of Service) are used to classify work items based on urgency. These can be used in addition to other types of Kanban swimlanes if necessary, for example, both Feature and priority-based swimlanes can appear on a board. With priority-based swimlanes, it’s important to keep an eye on total WIP limits – letting too many “urgent” items on the board at a time means your team can’t keep up and average throughput will drop.

Kanban swimlanes with Trello

Trello doesn’t support horizontal swimlanes (yet), but don’t despair! You can still implement these principles on your Kanban Trello board. With the Labels feature, you can assign colours to each of your swimlanes. You can even assign multiple labels to each card – a task can be classed both according to priority and department.

By keeping your labelled work items grouped together on your Trello board, you can have the same visual effect as swimlanes.

 

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When to implement swimlanes

Remember, the beauty of Kanban is in its simplicity – if you have a small team and a simple Kanban board functions efficiently, you don’t need to force your project into swimlanes. Swimlanes are most useful for larger teams or teams with different types of tasks that must be worked on in parallel.

Kanban swimlanes are ideal for situations where every part of the team needs to be aware of how the whole project is progressing – while still being able easily identify and focus on their personal responsibilities.

Have you implemented Kanban swimlanes for your project? Which type of swimlane did you choose? What were the effects for your team? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

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