Positive Incline Mike Burrows (@asplake) moving on up, positively

May 25, 2012

Kanban: Thinking tools for portfolio-level problems

This is followup #4/n to my LSSC12 debrief, probably the last of the series (n = 4) but who knows.  If you haven’t already read followup #2 Portfolio stuff (sic) at LSSC12 please do so now, what follows should then make a lot more sense.

I put the deck for my hastily-arranged talk “Kanban: Thinking tools for portfolio-level problems” up on slideshare a few days ago.  I had only a couple of days to prepare it (and it shows, no doubt), but presenting it was still a lot of fun. In contrast to my earlier talk where interaction was programmed in, here it just happened, a real pleasure.

I will be giving a reworked version of this talk at a management seminar in London in June (if you’re based in the UK, send your manager!) and I’ll release an updated deck after that event.  Meanwhile, I’ve done a better job of summarizing how the Kanban practice “Limit Work-in-Progress” (which was always about so much more than just avoiding multi-tasking) points towards the generation of flow at portfolio level:

  • Apply “traditional” WIP limits where effective
  • Test the logic of your investments with A3
  • Make the full cost of your inventory visible
    • Effort, time, money
    • Cost of carry
  • Manage your inventory down
    • Decide what to finish
    • Work out how to release customer value incrementally
    • Break habits of over-commitment & premature commencement
    • Balance work & capacity across the board, seeking smoothness

To explain the first bullet, limiting business initiatives at the highest level can be effective (I’ve helped to make it happen), and naturally we would recommend Kanban at the lowest levels.  But between those extremes of scale, traditional(!) Kanban-style WIP limits can be hard to apply if there are a large number of projects, orders-of-magnitude size differences between them, or glacially slow progress, ie just what you might expect in many larger organisations. Clearly we will need to be more creative in how we begin to control inventory here.  After that we might move away from projects (especially projects of the fixed-date kind) as the default container for work.

My references to A3 are based on real successes which I spoke about last year at #lkbe11 (Antwerp) and #lkce11 (Munich) and my updated deck will contain a simplified example. The phrase “Decide what to finish” also appeared in last year’s talks, along with the more desperate “Decide to finish something“!

The rest is newer.  If you have any financial information about the work in your portfolio, think about re-purposing it for inventory management, aiming to generate flow by managing inventory down.  Think about cost of carry; see how it incorporates both cost and time into one measure, see that it can help to bring value and risk into consideration too.

I would be the first to acknowledge that Kanban at this level is very much in the early adopter phase.  I make a virtue of this, in that we have the opportunity to explain the Kanban Method as a pragmatic and actionable strategy, neither a leap into the unknown nor something that is primarily tool-driven (although it’s good to see the tools coming along quite nicely). I see the techniques I and others are exploring leading to better organisational feedback mechanisms that help to drive organisations in the direction not only of faster delivery but also of smoother flow supported by more stable teams. Real change, in the direction of effective, economic and humane – isn’t that what we all want?

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