Combining Kanban and Service Level Agreements

Combining Kanban and Service Level Agreements

A service level agreement (SLA) is a crucial aspect of Kanban, setting performance benchmarks for workflows. SLAs guide task prioritization, identify bottlenecks, and aid in capacity planning. They are determined collaboratively, considering historical data, business requirements, and team capabilities. SLAs and work-in-progress (WIP) limits work together to throttle flow, prevent bottlenecks, and manage capacity.

SLAs bring predictability, aid prioritization, improve transparency, and drive process improvement. They help manage cycle times and address bottlenecks. Handling SLA violations involves root cause analysis and corrective actions. SLAs evolve based on feedback, changing priorities, team dynamics, and external factors. Ultimately, SLAs are a valuable tool for Kanban teams to deliver value predictably and continuously improve.

Start with:

A service level agreement (SLA) is a contract between a service provider and a customer that sets expected service standards. When used with Kanban, these conventions benefit project and process management.

service level agreement sla

Kanban conventions are based on time metrics. This ensures that service performance expectations are aligned with workflow management.

“In Kanban, the main purpose of an SLA is to set performance benchmarks for workflows over time.”

The agreement is usually based on three main points:

  • Promise to complete work within a specified time.

  • Waiting: Estimated time needed to complete the task based on experience and workflow data.

  • Violation: When delivery takes longer than promised, the problem must be resolved and rectified.

Each part affects how teams plan, execute, and analyze their work.

Implementing an agreement in Kanban is not about creating strict rules. Instead, they are made dynamic and flexible, constantly changing in response to changes in workflow, team capabilities, or customer expectations.

Consider a simple example:


SLA (in days)

High priority




Low priority


This table shows the SLAs for various work items based on their importance.

  • A standard or low-priority task has a longer execution time than a high-priority task.

  • If a high-priority task runs for longer than two days, it is considered a violation, requires immediate attention, and may require a process change.

SLAs help Kanban teams maintain consistent and effective delivery standards and identify improvement areas.

SLA and workflow

A well-defined convention directly affects how tasks move through the various stages of the workflow:

  • Prioritization: Tasks are prioritized based on their level, ensuring that high-priority tasks move quickly through the Kanban system.

“Agreements are like directional signs that show how tasks should move through the Kanban system.”

  • Identify bottlenecks: Violations often indicate bottlenecks in the workflow that need to be addressed immediately.

  • Load planning: helps employees understand how much work they can realistically complete in a given time. This makes planning more efficient.

sla and work flow

Let's use a simplified Kanban board to show how SLAs determine the flow of work:

To do

In progress


Task 1 (2-days)

Task 2 (5-days)

Task 3 (10-days)

Task 4 (5-days)

Task 5 (5-days)

Task 6 (10-days)

In this case, tasks are placed in the To-Do column in order of priority, with the most important tasks at the top. As the work continues, the team can quickly see if the task is not progressing through the expected milestones, which could indicate a rule violation.

It is important to note that SLAs should not lead to faster work or compromised quality. They help teams balance speed and quality, making their workflows more efficient and effective. Thus, the terms of the agreement need to be changed and improved as teams gain more experience and data.


Determining the terms of an agreement is a group effort involving all stakeholders in the Kanban system. SLAs must consider several things to ensure they are realistic, measurable, and aligned with the organization's goals.

  • Historical Data: Teams can set time limits by examining how similar tasks have been performed.

"Data from the past helps establish realistic service level agreements."

  • Business requirements: SLAs should be based on the broader business context and needs, considering customer expectations, project timelines, and strategic goals.

  • Team Capabilities: It is important to know how much a team can do and what skills it has before setting conditions that can be met.

Consider the installation process:

  • Analyze past performance: See how long it took to complete similar tasks in the past.

  • Understanding the business context. Align the time frame with project timelines and client expectations.

setting sla

Assess team capabilities: Determine how many tasks your team can realistically complete in the allotted time without sacrificing quality.

Determine the conditions for different tasks based on the above factors.

Communicate Agreements: Make sure everyone on the team knows what SLAs are and what they mean.

Monitor and improve: Review performance regularly and make changes as needed based on changes in team size, workflow efficiency, or business needs.

Setting up the terms of an agreement is not something you do once. It is a process of constantly reviewing and making changes so that they remain useful and effective for workflow management.

SLA and WIP limits

Work-in-progress (WIP) constraints and service level agreements are used in Kanban to improve workflow and maintain a steady pace.

WIP limits limit the number of work items in an active state, while SLAs indicate how long it will take to complete them.

“Constraints and agreements are a way to keep order within the Kanban system.”

Rules and WIP limits affect each other in several important ways:

  • Flow Throttling: Limits help teams meet SLAs more consistently by balancing their workloads and preventing them from being overwhelmed.

  • Bottleneck Prevention: Teams can find and fix bottlenecks sooner if they limit the number of active tasks. This reduces the number of violations of the agreement.

  • Capacity management. When work-in-progress limits are set, teams can better assess their capabilities, which helps them accept realistic responsibilities.

sla and wip limits

By using service level agreements and work-in-progress limits, teams can improve their ability to achieve agreed service levels, streamline workflow, and eliminate bottlenecks.

SLA Benefits

When used with Kanban, these rules make the process more efficient and improve service delivery:

  • Predictability: Conventions set the standard for runtime, making workflow more predictable.

"SLA makes workflow predictable and efficient."

  • Prioritization: Because each task has its own SLA, teams can easily decide which tasks are most important and complete them first.

  • Transparency: Rules give stakeholders clear information about when they can expect tasks to be completed, which builds trust.

  • Process improvement: Regular checks can show where changes need to be made.

sla benefits

In this case, the team knows which tasks to complete first. People interested in the project know when to expect the work to be completed. Monitoring violations will help improve the process and ensure smooth and fast operation.

Thus, rules are important to Kanban excellence because they make things more predictable, help set priorities, clarify things, and improve processes.

Cycle time and bottleneck management

In Kanban, cycle time is the time it takes for a work item to move from the beginning of a process to the end.

"SLAs set a target cycle time for each piece of work."

The workflow is healthy and works well when the cycle time is always within the targets. On the other hand, long cycle times can lead to disruption, which is a sign that the process needs to be reviewed.

cycle time and bottleneck management

Bottleneck management

Bottlenecks occur when work accumulates faster than it can be completed. This can lead to an increase in the length of the cycle and possible violations.

If Task 2 and Task 5 in the In Progress column take longer than their 5-day SLA, this may indicate a bottleneck. This may be due to insufficient resources, inefficient processes, or high SLAs.

When teams spot bottlenecks early, they can address them, such as reallocating work, improving processes, or revising SLAs to keep things running smoothly.

Handling Violations

Handling SLA violations is one of the most important parts of keeping your Kanban system running smoothly. When a task goes beyond its SLA, it means that the expected workflow has changed.

“Continuous process improvement is possible when SLA violations are addressed quickly.”

Here are the steps for a good way to deal with violations:

  • Find violations: monitor tasks that are outside the SLA. These tasks should be labeled in some way so that they are easy to find.

  • Root Cause Analysis: Analyze to find out why the rule was broken. Was it due to bottlenecks, lack of resources, or outside forces?

  • Implement corrective actions: Once the cause of the problem is found, take action to fix it. This could mean changing processes, moving resources, or establishing better service-level agreements.

violation handling

  • Review and change. Track them once corrective actions are taken to see how well they work. Adapt your plans as needed.

  • Communicate: Make sure team members and customers know the violation and what needs to be done to fix it. Trust and understanding grow out of clear communication.

If Task 2 remains in the Running state for more than 7 days, it violates the SLA. The team will begin remedial action starting with a root cause analysis.

By acting on SLA violations, teams maintain the integrity of their process, ensuring that tasks are completed quickly and always meeting stakeholder expectations.

The evolution of the service level agreement

SLAs cannot remain the same in an environment that is constantly changing. They change as business needs, team skills, and external factors change.

"SLAs should change as Kanban processes improve."

Let's see what causes the SLA change and how it happens:

  • Feedback cycles: Regular reviews of how well the agreement is working. Certain SLAs must be reviewed if they are frequently met or violated.

  • Business Change Priorities: When business goals change, SLAs must reflect the new priorities.

  • Team Dynamics: Changes in team size, skills, or tools can make it harder or easier to meet SLAs.

  • External factors. Changes in regulations, market conditions, or customer needs may require changes.

How SLAs change over time:

sla evolution

  • Gather data: find out how well the agreement is working now. How often are they completed on time? How often are they violated?

  • Engage stakeholders: Have discussions with team members, management, and customers. Their points of view are very important for creating realistic and coherent documents.

  • Make changes: based on what you've learned. This may include extending or decreasing deadlines.

  • Implement and Monitor: Keep a close eye on what is happening and keep all stakeholders aware of changes and rules.

  • Iterate: Keep returning to conventions and make changes based on feedback and how things are going.

For example, if the SLA for a particular task type was set to 5 days, but the team always completed it in 3 days, the agreement might need to be changed. On the other hand, if new complexities are added, the agreement may need to be expanded to accommodate them.


Let's take a software development team as an example of how SLAs can be used in Kanban. They divide their work into bugs, feature additions, and research.

Scenario 1: Execution

During the week, the team worked on five bugs, three new features, and two research tasks. All tasks were completed on time. It showed that the system is set up well and what the team is capable of.

Scenario 2: Violation

The following week, one feature took seven days to develop. The team found that a lack of certain skills caused the problem. I had to spend money on training team members and improving my skills.

Scenario 3: Agreement changes

Over time, the team realized that research tasks were always completed in 7 days instead of 10. This allowed the convention for research tasks to be changed from 10 to 7 days. All stakeholders have been informed of this change to ensure all expectations are met.

In each case, SLAs were the key to managing, finding bottlenecks, and improving processes over time. They helped the team balance what users want and what they can do, which is a key part of Kanban.

Conclusion: SLAs and Value

The main goal of Kanban is to create value in a predictable and long-term way. Service Level Agreements help achieve this goal. They set performance standards that can be measured.

“SLA is a valuable compass on the path to Kanban, leading teams towards continuous improvement and predictability.”

Agreements improve value delivery in the following ways:

  • Predictability: When tasks have deadlines, teams can better manage clients and their expectations.

  • Workflow Optimization: Service Level Agreements point out bottlenecks and underperforming areas, directing teams where to focus their efforts to improve the situation.

sla and value

  • Continuous Improvement: SLAs are reviewed regularly, starting a service improvement cycle.

  • Communication: Clear agreements ensure everyone knows what to expect, which builds trust and openness.

  • Adaptability: SLAs are useful because they change over time to reflect the team's current skills and changing business needs.

Adding agreements to the Kanban system helps teams achieve their core goals of value creation, smooth workflow, and continuous improvement.


How can Kanban teams ensure SLAs remain relevant over time?

Kanban teams should regularly review their SLAs based on performance data, changing business needs, and team feedback. Adjusting SLAs as needed helps maintain their relevance and effectiveness.

What role do SLAs play in managing stakeholder expectations?

SLAs provide clear communication to stakeholders about expected delivery timelines. This transparency builds trust and helps manage expectations, reducing misunderstandings and dissatisfaction.

How do SLAs contribute to continuous improvement in Kanban?

SLAs drive continuous improvement by highlighting areas that consistently meet or miss targets. Teams can then investigate root causes and implement changes to enhance performance.

Can SLAs be used for all types of work in Kanban?

While SLAs are commonly used for recurring, predictable work, they can be adapted for various work types. The key is defining appropriate metrics and targets that reflect the nature of the work.

How do SLAs impact team morale and motivation?

Well-defined SLAs provide clarity and focus, boosting team morale. However, unrealistic or overly stringent SLAs can demotivate teams. Striking the right balance is crucial.

What are some common pitfalls to avoid when implementing SLAs in Kanban?

Common pitfalls include setting unrealistic targets, failing to regularly review and adjust SLAs, and focusing on SLAs at the expense of quality or customer satisfaction.

How can teams handle SLA violations that are outside their control?

Teams should document and communicate external factors causing SLA violations. Collaborating with stakeholders to find solutions and adjusting SLAs if needed can help manage these situations.

What role does technology play in managing SLAs in Kanban?

Kanban software with built-in SLA tracking and alerting can automate SLA management, providing real-time visibility and reducing manual effort. However, technology should support, not replace, human decision-making.

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