How to Manage Epics in Kanban

Traditional project management tends to be structured based on due dates. If work is finished ahead of schedule, the entire schedule has to be changed. You run the risk of idle team members or people working on unimportant tasks until other dependent tasks on the timeline are completed. The best solution here is to set up epics. In this article, we’re going to explain what epics are and how you can implement them in a Kanban system.


What Are Epics in Kanban?

An epic captures and tracks performance-related work. Every epic shares a common objective, whether it is clearing a helpdesk ticket backlog, implementing long-requested report enhancements, or performing overdue maintenance. Epics could be tied to new features in software, business requirements, or customer requests. However, it typically isn’t tied to a hard customer deliverable like “send 500 widgets to X”.

Epics are tied to user stories and pretty much act like big user stories. The user story is the high-level narrative about how a specific type of user performs a function or uses the system. The epic is a short explanation of the user’s final expectations, and the details are in the user story itself.

A general rule of thumb is to combine five or more user stories into a single “epic” if they have the same focus area. For example, you could use epics to manage aspects of a product launch from the marketing campaign to the completion of the prototype and ramping up of production. The question for many project managers, however, is how to manage epics.

To be able to manage epic, you have to assemble them under themes, and these themes under initiatives. Themes are general goals that span an entire organization, like entering a new market, for instance. In this case, initiatives would be a certain number of epics that would all drive towards that goal.

If you want to learn more about agile epics, initiatives, and themes, you can check out the linked article. It runs down every one of these in detail, and their importance. It also explains why it’s essential to structure your workflow in an agile way and how each piece relates to each other for efficient project management.


How Epics Are Broken Down

Epics can be broken down into actionable chunks of work, but there are tons of different ways that you can breakdown workflow. For instance, you can break down epics by roles, and each role will have certain objectives that will be further broken down into specific tasks. In other cases, you can break epics down by how much time they might take and give priority to certain tasks that might be more urgent but require less time to complete. The way you decide to break epics down will make a big difference to how you manage them, and one approach might be better than the other depending on your organization.


Tracking Epics with Kanban

Tracking epics in Kanban will largely depend on which tool you’re using. Some Kanban tools will have what is called a Hoshin Board/ This will serve as the top of the layer for the project. The Hoshin board is a central part of Hoshin Kanri, which is a methodology used to drive and monitor continuous improvement within organizations. It is also used to set and meet certain benchmarks.

The Hoshin board is where themes and initiatives will be pulled from. These will then be turned into epics. The team boards will have a timeline containing epics or projects, and timeline lanes will be set here. Below this will usually be a board for tracking small work items like tasks to be completed for the day.


Tie Tasks to User Stories

Every user story can be broken down into requirements that are linked to tasks. This approach allows you to know how many tasks are related to each user story, as well as the overall epic.

As tasks are completed, you know the percentage of the user story and the epic that has been completed. This doesn’t require much of an alteration to your project management system. Everything gets managed using a standard work breakdown structure, while managers can track work toward a bigger goal.

Yet the key elements of agile development remain in place. For example, you should share the epic with the team before they begin work and seek customer feedback on every potential solution. User stories may be added, updated, or removed. Scope remains flexible, and the team can use multiple agile methods depending on the project or task at hand.

Epics are one way to manage multiple user stories in software development or manage multiple parallel projects simultaneously. It combines the flexibility of agile with the detailed resource and schedule tracking of traditional project management.

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