How Spotify Uses Kanban for Proactive Workloads

As we continue to look at Kanban project management case studies, we want to showcase some of the most successful companies who use Kanban to streamline their work processes. We all know Spotify as being a popular and ad-based music streaming service. But it’s seldom reported how they keep their company running optimally to prevent mistakes and employee burnout.

Already back in Spotify’s early days, the company’s operations engineer enacted a Kanban management system to help employees be able to tackle work more proactively.

It took time to adjust since they initially thought they had a good work system in place. However, they soon found out they were working more in a reactive manner due to urgent projects. Their focus on these time-sensitive tasks ultimately took away time from their internal projects planned in the long-term.

The company realized their real problem was scalability, and their work methods hadn’t scaled enough to accommodate growth.

So what Kanban formatting did they use to get themselves better adjusted? As with all companies, you usually have to adjust some details based on particular functions.

Identifying the Work the Team Did

To get started, the Spotify team met up in person to figure what kind of work they were actually doing. This was a good way to start since it clarified exactly what tasks were most important. Regardless, it went into a form of complete audit where they determined how much time they spent on each project, where jobs were coming from, and whether the work could become categorized into domains.

They also asked serious questions like how they were sharing information and whether they had proper time for operations development.

Ultimately, this led to creating a standard Kanban board many companies (big and small) now use, along with sticky notes.

As an adjunct to their Kanban system, the Spotify team hired what they called a “goalie” to help maintain the board and gather work requests through categorization.

How Spotify Organized Their Kanban Board

They set up their Kanban system much like those in smaller companies do. This meant a “To Do” column, a “Doing” column, and “Done.” All of these had some variation, though, especially the WIP (Work in Progress).

The team set up two lanes on the “To Do” column for standard and intangible stories to help get a better differentiation on the type of projects they regularly handled. In addition, they divided up tasks into size, meaning small, medium, and large.

All the smaller tasks had designation to complete in generally one day. Medium projects could get done in a few days, and large projects could take up to a week. Through this variation, they set a very low WIP so intangible projects could get done faster.

Later, they realized some projects take more than a week to complete. Using Kanban, they essentially divided these projects up into individual tasks of small, medium, or large size. Then, they inserted these tasks into their backlog as an intangible project.

Further Variations

As proof any company can vary their Kanban system based on their needs, Spotify used smart ingenuity to make their Work in Progress column streamlined. By utilizing the above “intangible” task category, they were able to keep their WIP consistently low.

When they split the WIP in half between standard and intangible tasks, they could make the intangibles exactly 50% of all projects completed. This simple calculation managed to create a truly refined workflow for Spotify that’s worthy of imitation for many similar companies.

Photo by Sorosh