Kanban Backlog Prioritization (and why you should avoid it)

Kanban Backlog Prioritization (and why you should avoid it)

Author: Anna Radzikowska, Accredited Kanban Trainer and Coach

Do you feel like wasting too much time in the endless prioritization meetings? Read our article to learn how to manage your Kanban backlog!

Friday evening. You are sitting on your couch scrolling back and forth the streaming platform. You've already eaten all the snacks prepared for a "home cinema", but you still haven't made a choice. Finally, two hours later you decide to give up frustrated and not satisfied. Time passed, evening lost, movie not watched. 


Monday morning. You are leading a weekly "prioritization meeting". People in the room argue about the importance of their client's requests, production bugs, and change orders. You are trying to organize this chaos moving tickets back and forth between backlog and the "to do" column. Two hours later you all leave the room frustrated and unsatisfied with the outcome. Time passed, morning lost, decision not taken.

Do you recognize the pattern? Have you ever been in a similar situation? Do you also suffer from having to choose between too many items of equal importance on your plate? If so, keep reading!

Question 1: what is the prioritization of a Kanban backlog?

Before we move on, we need to clarify the words, which we will use, starting with "priority".

"Priority" means "how the request is treated". And we can look at it from different angles:

  • Sequencing – does it go before or after that?
  • Scheduling – when should it start?
  • Selection – which should we pick to start?
  • Class of Service – how do we treat this in relation to other requests?

In this article, when talking about "priority", we will be referring to "selection", and eventually "sequencing" of what was selected.

Question 2: what is Kanban backlog?

Going back to the industrial tangible goods era, a "backlog" is synonymous with an "order book", i.e. we have an order book of 5 naval vessels for the shipyard, could equally be "we have a backlog of 5 naval vessels for the shipyard." The orders are firm and are committed, perhaps even scheduled.

In that sense, backlog implies already committed.

So the backlogs are appropriate for:

  • A maturity level 2 or below, with early commitment
  • For project and portfolio management where the scope of the project is already committed because the project is committed
  • Or for a portfolio where projects are committed in an annual planning cycle.

It is not appropriate where deferred commitment is an advantage, or we want to actively manage options in an upstream discovery process.

A backlog implies (big) batch transfers, whereas a pool of options implies individual commitment and single-piece flow.

Hence, whenever using "Kanban backlog" we will be referring to the "pool of options" rather than big batch transfers.

Don't prioritize!

Easier said than done! What does it mean to "not prioritize"? How can we know what we should do next, if we don't prioritize?

Here comes the expanded advice:

Don't prioritize! Filter instead!

How do we filter large backlogs? Let's use an example of an enormous pool of possibilities: flight tickets.

So, you want to fly. Excellent, but...

You cannot simply put "flight" in your search engine (actually, you can, but the results you will receive will be far from perfect). Without even noticing it, you start the filtering procedure.

Filter #1. The starting point and destination: Bilbao to Munich.

Still, too many results. We need to filter more.

Filter #2. Dates of travel. Better, we filtered down to 90+ results. Not bad compared to the initial set of thousands of results, but still too many.

Filter #3. One stop or fewer. 53 results.

We can keep doing this until we come down to the number of options that we are able to discuss and decide about. If your screen shows four, five, or seven options you can start applying specific qualification criteria based on the risk assessment.

The sprinkle of magic

Have you noticed the magic row with "all (available) filters"?

Did you create an equivalent of this row for your Kanban backlog? Do you have an explicit policy in place that would support your decision-making?

If not, it's high time to make one!

Don't waste your time in the endless prioritization meetings that end up with no conclusion. Think about your filters: the criteria that will help you to filter down the number of options requiring an immediate discussion and decision on whether they should be pulled next or not.

What will you do?

Hi! It's Anna here!

Winter is coming. Longer evenings, colder nights, the smell of cinnamon and orange... it all puts me in the mood for Christmas-themed romantic comedies. There you go! My cinematic coming out! 



But if it means I've just created a filter for a difficult relationship between me and streaming platforms... let's be it!

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1 comment

I’ve been studing KMM. I’m interesred in this theme


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