Prioritizing tasks in Kanban

Sarah Jones
September 16, 2023
6 min read

“Healthy” backlog, task pull system and priority visualization.

We will help you create a Kanban board where the priority of each task is clear.

When tasks are not prioritized, important work may be delayed and the project will not progress. To prevent this from happening, you should clearly indicate the priority of tasks on the Kanban board. We tell you how to do this.

Kanban uses a pull system. It came from the Lean approach (lean manufacturing). Its main goal is to reduce the amount of overproduction of a product. That is, a product is created only at the moment when there is a demand for it.

For example, if a company has 18 refrigerators on order and produces 30, there is a risk that 12 refrigerators will remain unclaimed in the warehouse. Therefore, we need to make as many refrigerators as customers need now.

In Kanban, the rule of the pull system is:

A task is taken on only at the moment when the customer needs it, and is completed only in the specified size (quantity).

That is, when a team member finishes working on one task, he “pulls” the highest priority task from the queue and starts working on it. This creates a flexible and efficient system where work is carried out in accordance with the real needs and capabilities of the team.

In order for team members to understand what tasks need to be taken on right now, it is necessary to develop a prioritization system and figure out how to visualize it on the Kanban board.

How to prioritize in Kanban

The column from which the path of any task begins is the backlog. It contains the ideas of the team and requirements from customers. In this column, tasks may be unclear, there may be insufficient information for implementation, and other problems. It's just a queue.

Next comes the “Ready to Go” column. Here are the cards that the manager has already studied, asked additional questions to the customers and made the technical specifications clear to the contractor. And most importantly, this column sets priorities.

One column may not be enough to clarify and discuss the task before taking on the job. The number of columns depends on the capabilities of the team and the type of tasks.

Example of additional columns:

Statement. The task is clear, but to take it on, you need to wait for approval from other teams or managers. For example, confirmation of the advertising budget from senior management.
Consideration. This column contains tasks that the team has not yet assessed. It is often implemented by developers. The project manager may not know the technical nuances of the project, so there is a risk that the contractor will not be able to complete it or additional questions will arise. Figuring out these points will take time, and work on the task will be stalled. Therefore, team specialists must evaluate the task and find out all the necessary nuances before starting work.
Waiting for external activity. Here are tasks that cannot be taken on yet, since they depend on third parties. For example, a designer cannot start working on an advertising banner because he does not have at least some approximate text. Or a video blogger is waiting for an offer from a partner company in order to film an advertising insert.

An example of a backlog divided into different stages of preparing tasks for work

How to keep your backlog healthy

Every customer wants their task to be completed as quickly as possible. And I want to implement and test the team’s ideas. But the working group's resources are limited. Employees cannot guarantee that they will complete all tasks in the backlog in the near future. To make it easier to prioritize tasks, the queue needs to be kept clean.

Always make sure that the technical specifications in the backlog are written correctly and that there is all the necessary information for implementation. Don't wait for a big team meeting to discuss tasks. The manager must continually review incoming work and ensure that the description is complete. You can also make a checklist for the customer to follow when preparing the technical specifications.

Example of a checklist in a card

Clear the backlog of irrelevant tasks. The customer found another solution, the requirements for the product changed, the market changed and the idea definitely won’t work - such situations happen all the time. Get rid of such tasks from the queue.

Combine tasks. If several tasks can be solved with one action, there is no need to keep several cards in the backlog. Just copy all the data into one.

Decompose tasks. If a task is complex, it needs to be broken down into smaller ones. This way, it will be easier for the performer to understand what is required of him and it will be easier to predict the timing of its implementation and track progress.

Ways to Visualize Priority in FlowFast

Method 1. Priority tasks up, non-priority tasks down

The easiest way to visualize priority is to arrange tasks by importance: at the very top are those that need to be taken first, and at the bottom are the least priority ones.

The higher a task is in the queue, the more priority it has.

Disadvantages of this method:

1. This does not guarantee that all the team's resources will be devoted to the priority task. They'll just take her

2. The performer does not understand how urgent the task is and why it needs to be taken on right now. It is also impossible to understand how many resources need to be allocated to complete a task.

Method 2: Prioritizing with Lanes (Classes of Service)

A Kanban board can be divided into tracks. They are also called tracks or swimlanes.

With their help you can divide tasks:

   - by performers,
   - according to customers or projects,
   - by task category, etc.

Example of a board with three tracks for tasks of different performers

But another way to use them is to prioritize work. Kanban divides tasks into service classes.

There are four main classes:

   - urgent,
   - with a fixed date,
   - standard,
   - intangible.

Service classes don't just answer the question of which task is more important, they tell you:

    - how quickly each job needs to be completed,
    - why more resources need to be allocated for one task than for another,
    - what happens if the deadlines are missed?

Based on this data, each team member can determine the degree of importance of a particular task and independently distribute their working time. That is, classes of service and tracks will help the team ensure that all priority tasks are completed.

Example of a board with separate tracks for each class of service

Tracks are not only a great way to visualize. With their help, you can analyze the performance of tasks of each class separately and identify weak points in the workflow. This means that the team will understand how work can be optimized.

Method 3. Tags

Labels provide a convenient and visible visual signal of priority to all team members. You can come up with convenient names and choose the color yourself. For example, a red "urgent" label might indicate a critical priority, while a green "standard" label might indicate a normal priority.

You can also define colors for tasks such as an error, software update, etc. To make the labels even more visible, you can use emoji. Using tags, filter cards in space and collect reports on specific types of tasks.

You can use one of the suitable prioritization tools on your Kanban board or combine them:

    - create several columns in the backlog to understand the degree of development of the technical specifications;
    - implement lanes and classes of service to expedite time-sensitive issues;
    - Use labels to highlight different categories of tasks and their importance.

Do whatever optimizes your work. Try and find what works for your team, and Kaiten has all the necessary features to implement these approaches.