In a conversation my wife overheard yesterday she heard me mention ‘swimlanes’ which led her to excitedly expect that we were going to the leisure centre this weekend. Of course as each year passes we have a tendency as a species to reuse and reapportion the meaning of words into new and fancy things. Apparently back in the annals of time the word ‘Nice’ meant ‘Silly , foolish , simple’ and the word ‘Silly’ originally meant ‘to be worthy or blessed’. Luckily for us and our Jira musings the concept of swimlanes is very similar in use to that most of us grew up with albeit in a slightly different context.
To put it simply, ‘Swimlanes’ are normally used to separate your project ‘to-do’ lists into ordered, actionable and easily identifiable ‘faster /more important’ sections often by individual users or project areas. They are a clever and query driven way of producing dynamic lists with a logical workflow and, significantly, are a visual way of seeing the health of a project and any outstanding blockages that need rapidly addressing. Hitherto in most definitions this is a ‘view’ of a Kanban board and is not dissimilar to physical board forms used throughout many Agile organisations in the world. There are advantages and disadvantages of using virtual boards using swimlanes over physical boards but that is for another time.
If you choose to have such a project or set of tasks with a Kanban and swimlane approach then Jira has most bases covered. Once you have a project in mind then there are a number of key decisions that the project needs to make before creating the swimlanes on a board. (blog for further info on Visualizing Work with Jira Kanban Boards).
Get your Jira Workflow Right
It may sound obvious, but without an appropriate workflow, swimlanes are not very powerful and possibly very unusable. When you set up a project there are a number of basic workflows out of the box which you could choose but it is often better to start with fundamentals and draw your own workflow on a piece of paper before mapping it into Jira . The number of times I’ve scribbled down and modified what I was trying to do in a meeting has saved me time in the long run – the measure twice and cut once still applies at a rudimentary ‘tech’ level! Most workflows have similar concepts such as a starting state, an end state, and one or multiple loops in the middle, but it is key for you to choose what is right for you based on what statuses you plan on reporting on, or are wanting to see.
… that includes State Transformations
So many times I have been called to look at a Jira Kanban board that cards cannot be moved on screen as they are not ‘in the right state’.
TIP: Before you start to create your swimlanes ensure that each item can be dragged freely from one status to another within your on screen/project modelling.
Which Workflow Statuses to Report on the Jira Dashboard?
A workflow in simplest terms might have a simple three-part model with a beginning, middle, and end but this would be rare. It is more common to have many more statuses that you could group on a singular board. Jira provides the opportunity to merge multiple workflow statuses into the same columns and relabel columns in any way that suits you so you are able to have a useful board setup quickly, e.g. when presenting ‘test’ and ‘retest’ in the same column on the board to reduce space under some mapping, which is very useful when creating a board with swimlanes on it.
What Type of Jira Swimlanes Should I Use?
Jira comes with six distinct options for swimlanes each with differing purposes and uses…
Story (or Jira Epic) Swimlanes
As you would envisage selecting to create Story or Epic related swimlanes will simply present the stories or epics in the project and in what current status they are in. There will be other information on the cards but it is a standard view of seeing the state of a project and very much looks like a traditional Kanban board.
Jira Issue Assignee Swimlanes
Selecting this option simply shows a person by person view of what work is assigned to them which might be useful for a quick view on workload at scrum master level or to see what reliance a project has on an individual e.g. if they were ill/unable to work for a period of time.
“For smaller teams, we actually prefer to do quick filters for each assignee.Patty Land, Project Management Consultant, PwC
On the kanban for our waterfall teams who are executing a project plan, I see a lot of value in using swimlane by query to dedicate a swimlane to critical path and another to behind target.”
Jira Project Swimlanes
If reporting on multiple projects (or sub-sections of projects) then this option will allow you to see the status of each in a way so you can see what is happening from a very global perspective …. perfect for the Big-Picture megalomaniac amongst us all!
This option simply applies no filtering to a board and is not something I would often use but is probably useful at getting to grips with vanilla Jira Kanban boards.
Here’s the thing… I use query-driven swimlanes almost all the time. You have full control, can add new queries at any time and can adjust what is seen on the screen to help present the information you are trying to show. With the query-based approach you can create swimlanes for each of the other types described by simply writing appropriate JQL. I tend to write query-based swimlanes for each member, or team, in the project(s) and also like to have a priority-driven view i.e. highest at the top. This can be defined in the appropriate JQL and then dragging the ‘Name’ column into a relevant order on screen.
TIP: Swimlanes can use any valid JQL so different lanes shown on the same report don’t even need to relate to each other but simply show a grid view of how a query models against a workflow
The configuration options and uses are endless here. When you suddenly have one of those meetings with ‘The Boss’ who suddenly determines that an issue you deemed insignificant has to be fixed for a big demo coming up… but don’t want to change the priority.
By utilizing a label and adding a new swimlane at the top of your settings then this and other tagged issues will suddenly be the prime focus of the next catchup meeting and can be dealt with accordingly.
TIP: Jira will allow as many boards as you want so you don’t ever have to stick with one view. Why not have a swimlane board dedicated to priorities and one dedicated to individual workload? The options are endless….
Jira Swimlanes are a fantastic way of presenting information for individuals and teams. With minimal JQL knowledge, you can create Agile Project boards within Jira containing items that you want showing and in the order you wish them to be displayed. You can hide items you don’t want displaying and use such organized boards to drive an agenda for any meeting that updates dynamically in real-time as the meeting progresses. Jira swimlanes can also be used in conjunction with quick-filters, card layout and details, and other board features to present a perfect view of your project for your audience.