Yes, Kanban scales

Yes, Kanban scales, but perhaps not quite in the way you expect.

Let’s start at the beginning. First follow the foundational principles[1]

  1. Start with what you do now
  2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change
  3. Initially, respect the current process, roles, responsibilities & job titles

then adopt the core practices

  1. Visualize the Workflow[2]
  2. Limit WIP
  3. Manage Flow
  4. Make Process Policies Explicit
  5. Improve Collaboratively (using models/scientific method)

These three principles and five practices are what define Kanban.  Not sticky note commandments (“On the first day thou shalt pull a sticky note from the Ready column and by the fifth day it shall be entered unto the column of Done”) but a collaborative framework for leading change.

But change to what?

Kanban’s home turf would appear to be software development, the focus of David Anderson’s book. But Kanban doesn’t come with a predefined process – we start out by applying it to existing processes – and it’s a not hard to imagine it being applied to other team-based “knowledge work”.

Personal Kanban scales this down to the level of the individual.  Some of the principles and practices lose emphasis in this transition, though this effect is lessened if we recognise that even personal effectiveness and improvement are best played as team sports.  The wide diversity of work typically seen in Personal Kanban tends to lead to very generic process designs and a lack of explicit policies, but this is counterbalanced by the idea of creating very context-specific Kanban systems, perhaps just for a season.  What could be more explicit than a specific process made visual?

So we know that Kanban scales down nicely; what about scaling it up?

This question is often taken to refer to things like the Kanban equivalents of “Scrum of Scrums”. Some organisations have replicated these with success, but to focus mainly on the mechanics would be an example of thinking at the level of sticky note commandments.

Instead: How might we visualise and manage flow across a whole business value stream of which software development is just a component?  At portfolio level, what could it mean to limit WIP and what kinds of effects might we expect to see?  These are great questions; to ask them as an act of deliberate change leadership is to start applying Kanban at scale, beginning a journey towards a Lean organisation.

So yes, Kanban scales. Not by adding layers of complexity as we scale up, but because the foundational principles and core practices aren’t actually very sensitive to scale.  Some might call that cheating!


[1] See http://finance.groups.yahoo.com/group/kanbandev/

[2] The back of my business card (see http://yfrog.com/hs7wx0j) has the pithier “Make work visible” and the Personal Kanban book says “Visualise work”. Both are fine I think.

A new box on top of old boxes

I just read these sentences in Implementing Beyond Budgeting (Bogsnes):

It is so much easier to add on than it is to take away. You buy a new a box and just put it on top of your other boxes.

Most of us start with Kanban by adding it on top of what’s there already; “start from where we are” is the advice (and it’s good advice).  But what will you dare to take away?

Upcoming

A busy few weeks ahead:

  1. Sept 21: Limited WIP Society Manchester, Manchester, England
  2. Sept 29-30: Pre-conference Kanban tutorial at Agile Cambridge, Cambridge, England
  3. Oct 3-4: Lean & Kanban Benelux (LKBE 2011), Stuurboord, Antwerp, Belgium
  4. Oct 17-19: Lean & Kanban Central Europe (LKCE 2011), Munich, Germany
  5. Oct 30-Nov 2: Conference on Lean Enterprise Software and Systems (LESS 2011), Stockholm, Sweden

I have good reason reason to be excited about all of these:

Manchester is the closest big city to my home since I moved away from London in 2009; props to Ian for getting this meetup up and running.  While we here, I must mention Zsolt and the Budapest meetup that I attended this week.

The Kanban tutorial in Cambridge with David Anderson kick-starts what we hope will be become a regular training offering in the UK.  And yes, I’m an associate, currently the only one based in the UK.

I look forward to LKBE and LKCE not just as speaking opportunities but as the chance to catch up with some of the people who have challenged and inspired my thinking over the past couple of years.

LESS is where we reach out and learn from other communities and disciplines.  And I can’t wait to return to Sweden – I just wish I had held on to more of my childhood Swedish!

Anyway… I hope to see you at one or more of these great events.  Look me up!