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Visualize and Optimize: Portfolio Kanban Implementation in SAFe Agile

April 10, 2023



Why Kanbans and what’s a big deal about it?

Scene 1:

When teaching letters to your child, you use a letter chart because it’s easier for you to teach and for your child to remember ‘A’ for Apple and ‘B’ for Ball based on color, shape, or other attributes. Why? Because children easily relate to objects they see in reality. Their minds quickly map and recall from their repository. We don’t need a degree in psychology to understand this. It’s simple: pictures are more powerful than words.

Scene 2 :

Let’s say I tell my friend that I am writing a book. My friend may or may not believe me until the book is actually published. They have to wait a long time for proof.

Scene 3:

I tell my manager that I am working on a particular task and my manager believes in me. However, in the meeting, he discovers that the actual work has not been done, which breaks his trust.

I reflect on my mistake and realize that I need to prove myself to my manager. Moving forward, I will update my progress stage by stage to create transparency between my work and my manager, in order to regain trust. Happy manager. Happy me. Trust regained.

Through this experience, my manager and other employees who have observed this situation will understand the importance of visually showcasing work as a good practice.

Nowadays, it is a widely known fact through many sources that Taiichi Ohno invented  Kanban boards which mean “visual signals” in Japanese. These Kanban boards were implemented for his company Toyota for effective strategy management and resources in 1940. 

Today, every organization, not just product or software development industries, but every industry uses the Kanban system as a common method to visually represent their work.

Kanban has evolved beyond its original use in manufacturing and has been successfully implemented in various industries, including healthcare, marketing, finance, and customer service. Its flexibility and adaptability make it a valuable tool for managing work and improving processes in any organization.

Furthermore, Kanban is not a framework or architecture but its a simple and effective methodology. It encourages continuous improvement and prompts teams to regularly review and refine their processes for optimal performance. It fosters a culture of transparency, accountability, and collaboration, which are essential elements for achieving operational excellence.

Now, Imagine a world where your organization’s portfolio management process is a seamless symphony of productivity, collaboration, and optimized workflows. Where every initiative and project is aligned with strategic goals, and teams work together in perfect harmony, delivering outcomes with unparalleled efficiency. Sounds like a dream, right? But it’s not just a dream, it’s a reality that can be achieved with the right tool in your arsenal: Kanban boards.

Kanban boards are not just another buzzword in the Agile world; they are a game-changer that can revolutionize the way you manage your portfolio of initiatives and projects. These visual boards provide a bird’s eye view of your portfolio, helping you prioritize, manage dependencies, and optimize workflows in real-time. With their simplicity and flexibility, Kanban boards have become a popular choice for organizations practicing Agile portfolio management, including in the renowned Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe).

Understanding Portfolio Kanban in SAFe Agile

Portfolio Kanban is a powerful tool that can help organizations visualize and optimize their portfolio management practices in the SAFe Agile framework. By using a Kanban approach, teams can gain insights into the flow of work, identify bottlenecks, and make data-driven decisions to improve overall portfolio performance.

To implement Portfolio Kanban effectively in SAFe Agile, it’s important to understand the key principles and practices. Here are three probing questions to help further explore this topic:

  1. What are the key principles of Portfolio Kanban in SAFe Agile?
  2. How can teams set up a Portfolio Kanban board to visualize work at the portfolio level?
  3. What are the benefits of implementing Portfolio Kanban in SAFe Agile for portfolio management?

Key Principles of Portfolio Kanban in SAFe Agile

Portfolio Kanban in SAFe Agile is guided by certain key principles that organizations should understand to effectively implement it. These principles include:

  1. Visualizing Work: Portfolio Kanban provides a visual representation of work items, such as initiatives, epics, and features, on a Kanban board. This allows teams to see the flow of work, identify dependencies, and track progress at the portfolio level.
  2. Limiting Work in Progress (WIP): Portfolio Kanban helps teams to establish WIP limits, which prevent overloading of work at any given time. This helps to optimize flow and avoid bottlenecks in the portfolio management process.
  3. Managing Flow: Portfolio Kanban emphasizes managing the flow of work through the portfolio by using metrics and data-driven insights. This enables teams to make informed decisions about work prioritization, resource allocation, and risk management.
  4. Encouraging Collaborative Decision-Making: Portfolio Kanban promotes collaboration and transparency among stakeholders, enabling them to make decisions together based on the visual representation of work on the Kanban board. This helps to align the portfolio management process with the organization’s strategic goals.

Setting up a Portfolio Kanban Board in SAFe Agile

Setting up a Portfolio Kanban board is a crucial step in implementing Portfolio Kanban in SAFe Agile. A well-designed Kanban board provides a visual representation of the portfolio management process and helps teams to optimize workflow. Here are the key steps to set up a Portfolio Kanban board:

  1. Define Columns and Swimlanes: Columns represent the stages of work in the portfolio management process, such as “Backlog,” “In Progress,” “Review,” and “Done.” Swimlanes can be used to represent different initiatives, epics, or portfolios, providing a clear visual separation of work items.
  2. Define Work Item Types: Identify the different types of work items that will be managed on the Portfolio Kanban board, such as initiatives, epics, and features. Define the criteria for each work item type, including its purpose, size, and priority.
  3. Establish WIP Limits: Set appropriate Work in Progress (WIP) limits for each column to avoid overloading and optimize flow. WIP limits prevent too much work from being started at once, ensuring that the team can focus on completing work items efficiently.
  4. Add Metrics and Visualizations: Incorporate relevant metrics and visualizations on the Kanban board, such as cycle time, lead time, and cumulative flow diagram. These metrics provide insights into the performance of the portfolio management process and help teams to identify areas for improvement.
  5. Collaborative Decision-Making: Encourage collaborative decision-making by involving all relevant stakeholders in the portfolio Kanban board. This helps to align the portfolio management process with the organization’s strategic goals and enables effective prioritization and resource allocation.

Implementing Portfolio Kanban in SAFe Agile

Implementing Portfolio Kanban in SAFe Agile requires a systematic approach and active participation from all stakeholders involved. Here are the key steps to implement Portfolio Kanban in SAFe Agile:

  1. Define Portfolio-level Policies: Establish clear policies and guidelines for managing the portfolio Kanban board. This includes defining the criteria for initiating, prioritizing, and managing work items at the portfolio level, as well as setting expectations for stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities.
  2. Populate the Portfolio Kanban Board: Populate the Kanban board with relevant work items, such as initiatives, epics, and features, based on the organization’s strategic goals and priorities. Ensure that work items are accurately represented on the Kanban board, with clear descriptions, dependencies, and deadlines.
  3. Monitor and Manage Workflow: Continuously monitor and manage the workflow on the portfolio Kanban board. This includes tracking the progress of work items, updating their status, and managing dependencies and blockers in real-time. Use the metrics and visualizations on the Kanban board to identify bottlenecks, risks, and areas for improvement.
  4. Collaborate and Make Decisions: Encourage collaboration among stakeholders and facilitate decision-making at the portfolio level. Use the Kanban board as a visual aid for discussions, reviews, and prioritization sessions. Engage in regular portfolio reviews to evaluate progress, align with strategic goals, and make data-driven decisions.
  5. Continuous Improvement: Implement a culture of continuous improvement by regularly reviewing and refining the portfolio Kanban board and associated policies. Encourage feedback from stakeholders and use it to identify opportunities for optimization and innovation in the portfolio management process.

Prakya’s portfolio Kanban – Best Practices

Prakya’s Portfolio Epic Kanban View presents these six states as lanes of a Kanban Board , as shown in Screenshot below.

Screenshot : Kanban View

Prakya’s Kanban View is organized into lanes that represent the states of a portfolio epic, including Idea Funnel, Reviewing, Analyzing, Backlog, Implementation (with two sub-states – MVP and Persevere), and Done. These states represent the journey of the portfolio epic and can also be viewed as project phase gates.

  1. Analyzing the idea funnel in portfolio Kanban is crucial for gaining insights in a Portfolio/Program. A long idea funnel during execution could indicate spending too much time on discussions rather than implementation or exploring new possibilities. Towards the end of execution, a long idea funnel may indicate expanded scope, requiring discussions on the impact on cost, time, and deliverables with the customer. Regular analysis helps in effective idea management and portfolio execution.
  2. Reviewing lane in Prakya’s portfolio kanban helps to migrate ideas into portfolio epics when they are ready for implementation. Prakya uses rich text editor to provide relevant titles and descriptions for these portfolio epics, assigns appropriate team members for ownership and accountability and seamlessly manages the portfolio epics
  3. Prakya utilizes the Analyzing Lane to break down the portfolio Epics into smaller work pieces and add features and User Stories.
  4. Portfolio Epics in the Analyzing phase are moved to the Backlog phase for User Stories.Backlogged Epics are monitored for potential roadblocks. Portfolio Epics nearing completion are assessed to plan resource allocation and improve portfolio efficiency.
  5. Prakya effectively uses the Implementation Lane, including the MVP and Persevere stages, to actively work on and complete features and User Stories.
  6. Prakya marks Epics as Done only when fully completed and no further changes are expected, and considers archiving them for better organization and visibility in the Done Lane.
  7. Portfolio epic requirements are reviewed for change requests within scope. Time, cost, and resource implications are considered for requests outside scope.
  8. Requirements that are evolved during portfolio epic progress are reviewed with team and customer for appropriate action.


Implementing Portfolio Kanban in SAFe Agile can greatly enhance an organization’s portfolio management practices by providing improved visibility, optimizing workflows, increasing collaboration, enabling Agile portfolio management, and promoting continuous improvement. By following the key steps outlined in this blog post, organizations can effectively implement Portfolio Kanban in their SAFe Agile framework and reap the benefits of improved portfolio management.

Remember, successful implementation of Portfolio Kanban in SAFe Agile requires active participation and commitment from all stakeholders, including portfolio managers, product owners, team members, and other relevant parties. Regularly reviewing and refining the portfolio Kanban board, policies, and metrics, and continuously improving the portfolio management process can lead to better outcomes and increased organizational agility.

In conclusion, Portfolio Kanban is a powerful tool that can enable organizations to effectively manage their portfolio of initiatives and projects within the SAFe Agile framework. By embracing Portfolio Kanban and following the best practices outlined in this blog post, organizations can optimize their portfolio management practices, achieve strategic alignment, and drive successful outcomes.


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