Yes, Kanban scales, but perhaps not quite in the way you expect.
Let’s start at the beginning. First follow the foundational principles
- Start with what you do now
- Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change
- Initially, respect the current process, roles, responsibilities & job titles
then adopt the core practices
- Visualize the Workflow
- Limit WIP
- Manage Flow
- Make Process Policies Explicit
- 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!