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

January 8, 2013

Kanban: values, understanding & purpose

Filed under: Kanban,leadership,lean,Values — Tags: , , , , , , , — Mike @ 8:45 pm

I’ve had a fantastic response to my previous post, Introducing Kanban through its values – it seems to have resonated with a lot of people. Followup discussions in a number of places over the past few days have helped me take the ideas a little further on and finish with some extra clarity.

Here then is the conclusion that I wasn’t quite ready to reach last week. I hope it both satisfies those who expressed disappointment that learning didn’t make my final list and reassures those who worry that values are somehow too fragile to write down.


Kanban has at its heart a value system that includes Understanding, Agreement, Respect, Leadership, Flow, Customer Focus, Transparency, Balance & Collaboration.

Having this list as a commentary on Kanban’s principles & practices is helpful at three levels:

  1. We can cross-check and perhaps reframe (e.g. for teaching purposes) our understanding of the method. As it turns out, this reconciliation will pick up areas where perhaps the method definition itself could usefully be strengthened, though that wasn’t in my mind at the beginning.
  2. At any given time, we can use them to help us reflect on where we are as change agents and validate the approach we’re taking on the ground. This may heighten self-awareness &/or help identify areas of risk or weakness (as it did for me, though retrospectively).
  3. It identifies some characteristics of learning organisations (in the sense of, say, Peter Senge) that Kanban helps to foster. I don’t mean (as some have worried) “Kanban defining for me my company’s values”, but it suggests some good things to expect and encourage, as implicitly or explicitly as your situation demands.

A note of caution: at any level, don’t expect anything good to come from espousing values inauthentically. When in doubt, understand and reflect first.


Some time after identifying that third level I had a lightbulb moment: we often say what the Kanban method is (an evolutionary approach to change) without saying what it is actually for! Change what? To what end?

Let’s fix that then:

The Kanban method is an evolutionary approach to building learning organisations.

Put like that, learning is right up there in Kanban’s purpose. That’s a relief! In retrospect I might have done well to start there but I’m journalling my thinking process as honestly as I can.

Interesting Addenda

On agreement, Greg Brougham brought to my attention Ackoff’s distinction between agreement in principle (a theoretical kind of agreement) and agreement in practice (an agreement to live with the consequences of a decision, accepting that agreement on “better” can be effective where consensus on perfection is impossible).

David Anderson would add Pragmatism (with a big P), referring to a philosophical tradition that describes a process in which theory is extracted from practice and applied back to practice. I expect we’ll see that one again.

Doing some blog archaeology, I revisited my Kanban in a nutshell post (March 2010) and confirmed that I took the same tool-first (or worse, tool-only) approach that I worried about in last week’s post. Health warning needed! I’m relieved to find that Learning together (June 2010, a collaboration with Jabe Bloom looking at Kanban and Agile principles) came not too long afterwards


I really do value collaboration, and I’m grateful (proud, even) to have these as collaborators: Dave “Value System” White, Arne “Learning” Roock, Hermanni “Understanding & Purpose” Hyytiälä, Patrick “Variety & Resilience” Steyaert and Jabe “Learning Together” Bloom. David “Leadership” Anderson has on multiple occasions actively encouraged me to pursue lines of thought or language even when they seemed to be in conflict with his. And if you tweeted, left a comment, posted on kanbandev or Google+ or in any other way encouraged me to explain myself better, thank you.

1 Comment

  1. […] helped me understand and explain Kanban’s purpose. I described some of that thought process here, and how it helped me get from “what Kanban is” to “what Kanban is for“. At […]

    Pingback by Who is Kanban for? | Positive Incline — March 28, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

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