My team has recently changed from Scrum to a Kanban like setup. We switched because our plans in Scrums were always spoiled by external initiatives. Now we do day to day planning instead.

We pull items from a large backlog, have a WIP limit set on in progress items etc, but sometimes new "emergency" work appears. How should we handle this in Kanban?

  • 1
    When you say your Scrum plans were spoiled by external initiatives, what do you mean? Because "emergency" work can derail Kanban process as easily as it can derail scrum. Was the Agile methodology the issue, or is there an underlying root cause that is still unaddressed?
    – mwan
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 22:53
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    What I'm trying to say is that we, during sprint planning, set up a full sprint of activities, but the day after, context could have changed so the plan was no longer possible to fulfill. Then the things that were planned but not possible to fulfill could be seen as waste. Now we do day to day planning instead, so I guess some of this "emergency" work could just be set next in queue for people to pull from.
    – Michael
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 5:39
  • I had answered a very similar question here which you might like to take a look at - pm.stackexchange.com/a/12517/8132 Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 22:33
  • @Michael I'm trying to understand a scenario where someone could need something, a day passes and they don't get their need fulfilled, and yet they no longer need it due to "context change". I may be wrong, but it really sounds like the methodology isn't the issue, it sounds like there's definitely something deeper at play here.
    – mwan
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 23:11

4 Answers 4


The most common approach I've seen is to create an emergency swim lane at the bottom of the board. This swim lane is not subject to the same WIP limits and takes priority over the other work. This way we keep the work visible. However, when you track metrics like lead time and cycle time, consider these items separately. That way you'll see the impact that the volume of emergency work has on the lead time and cycle time or planned work.

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  • 2
    If you create an Emergency lane, just as they have on highways, you'd better be very sure you can control the flow of traffic into that lane (ie how do you classify Emergency vehicles/tasks, what if putting things in this lane makes other tasks "emergencies" because their timeframe has changed)? Without VERY strict rules you can get into the situation where everyone fights for that lane and you've just put a loophole (or an incentive for bad behaviour) in your prioritisation process.
    – mwan
    Commented Oct 22, 2015 at 22:56
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    Daniel and mwan are correct. It is typical to have this "expedite" swimlane, and only 1 card is allowed in it at once. The stakeholders have to choose exactly which "emergency" is the real emergency. If there are lots of emergencies, the problem is that capacity measurements are not being fed back into the stakeholder's planning process. Usually the plan should assume that the work will be carried out with the known throughput and lead times so emergencies should seldom be required.
    – Kurt
    Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 6:02

Having an emergency lane with the WIP limit one is a good approach as Daniel mentioned, or you can introduce different classes for your work items, and prioritize your work in your columns accordingly.

In your cause the class will be the severity, and the unplanned card enters with the highest severity, therefore will the first in each column (in Kanban you can always prioritize your internal columns). When somebody is ready to pull, they will pull the important unplanned card, which is on the top.

When the emergency level of the said work item increases, the team can decide to stop the work, and pull the item. In cases like this you can break the WIP limit. It is recommended to talk about why it was necessary, and how come nobody saw this work coming in the spirit of continuous improvement. We used this approach in a project and the number of unplanned cards went from 6/week to 2/week. (This article which goes into more details on the prioritization I mentioned before.)

If the "emergency" work means just unplanned work, create only two categories planned and unplanned, and measure each week their ratio, and like in the other case, discuss how come that nobody saw the unplanned work coming.


One simple approach is to enforce a limit on WIP items. An emergency item that comes in, forces a planned item to go back out. It stays out until the emergency item remains in progress.

We follow this internally and initially it used to be hard to have that rigor but now we have built that constraint into board itself, so it forces you to move an item out to create an "empty slot" where you can bring in an emergency item. Theoretically this also limits # of emergency items we could be tackling it at any time, but practically we have not approached that limit, so it works fine.

  • We had also tried with creating just another "Emergency" stream, but that didn't work for us as developers would continue working on their WIP, even though stuff was sitting in Emergency stream. Commented Oct 23, 2015 at 16:27

Like the above posters mention, classes in combination with an emergency or express swim lane are the most common solutions. You're looking for several important behaviors from the team that go beyond the basic Kanban board tools however:

  • Does the team have discipline in understanding when or when not to use the emergency lane vs sticking to their WIP limit?
  • Do they class appropriately?
  • Do they have a service level agreement on their classes of work?
  • Does the team have an agreement to always move work forwards or backwards (to clear a lane) when necessary?
  • If they move work backwards what do they communicate to the stakeholders of the work that was moved backwards?
  • If they move work forwards before starting interrupting work, what is the communication to the stakeholder introducing the interrupting work?

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