Kanban from the Inside: 16. The Kanban Method

Chapter 16 of my book Kanban from the Inside condenses into a single chapter the following:

  • Some historical context
  • The principles and practices of the Kanban Method
  • “Contextualized Kanban” — Personal Kanban, Portfolio Kanban, and Scrumban
  • So-called “enabling concepts” —values, agendas, the Kanban Lens, etc
  • Implementation guidance —an overview of STATIK, to be covered in part III (chapters 18-23)

This week’s excerpt comes from that “Contextualized Kanban” section.


Scrumban

Scrumban is a name coined by Corey Ladas, for what happens when what you do now is Scrum and you apply Kanban.

I stress again the cautions of Chapter 13: Kanban does not mean recklessly throwing out all of your Agile discipline; rather it’s a transformative process that takes time, thought, care, and collaboration.

This progression is typical:

  • Already practicing a degree of visualization, the team organizes work according to its “done-ness.” This extends beyond “code complete,” “demo-able,” or “potentially shippable” to cover acceptance, deployment, and customer validation states.
  • Increasingly, standup meetings are organized around the board.
  • Already limiting work-in-progress through the sprint mechanism, the team pays more attention to the amount of work started but not yet finished. As a result, they start to see work items getting completed sooner. Immediately or after seeing the board operating well, explicit WIP limits may be introduced.
  • With work items completed sooner and more visibly, greater attention is given to the later stages of the process. Impediments to continuous delivery start being addressed. The nature of the sprint begins to change as releases are planned independently (if they need much planning at all).
  • Having decoupled releases from sprint planning, the system now easily accommodates work of different types and speeds. The team pays attention to the cost of delay of individual items and to the mix of work overall. Mid-sprint changes become much easier to accommodate; classes of service may be offered.
  • The rhythm of sprint planning continues, but the meeting itself gets easier. Estimating the right amount of work for the sprint seems less important; it’s enough to ensure that there is sufficient work of high enough value and quality and that the riskiest items have been identified and broken down where necessary.
  • With the need for customer validation made more visible, new feedback loops begin to emerge.

Different attitudes toward the Scrum practices and roles will of course lead to different outcomes. It’s not unusual for teams to go through changes of the kind described here and for them still to identify themselves with Scrum. That’s completely fine with us—it’s “Kanban with,” not “Kanban versus.”

The team I’m currently [mid 2014] working with as its interim development manager is a long way down this path. The planning rhythm is still there and I’m in no hurry to see it disappear. The highlight of my working fortnight is the “Show and Tell” (the sprint review), a lively meeting in which the project team is outnumbered by customer representatives and outside observers (as a “digital exemplar,” one of a number of pioneering citizen-facing projects delivering services online for UK Government departments, we often receive visitors from other departments and public agencies interested in how we do things). Not only do we review progress and show what we’ve recently built, we often review pertinent videos of outside customers interacting with the live system or with prototypes. These are highly motivating—sometimes even moving—and the shared experience adds to its impact.


 

Next up: 18 Understand Sources of Dissatisfaction. Previously: 15. Economic approaches to flow. Start from the beginning: 1. Transparency.

Kanban from the Inside: 15. Economic approaches to flow

We’re at chapter 15 of Kanban from the Inside, on economic approaches to flow. This excerpt expands on the third of three principles of Real Options as identified by Chris Matts and Olav Maassen [1, 2]:

  • Options have value
  • Options expire
  • Never commit early unless you know why

Never Commit Early Unless You Know Why

This looks like another truism, but it is well worth repeating. How different would most projects look if for every planned feature someone asked this question [3]:

What would have to be true for this option to look fantastic?

Where the answers to this question are unknown, a new layer of exploratory options can be generated.

Typically, the project provides the perfect mechanism for avoiding this question. Scope, duration, and cost are all decided before the questions are even asked, let alone answered. By design, changes to any of these cause drama and stress!

Contrast that to an options-based approach. Instead of a predetermined project backlog, we have a portfolio of options, a growing pool of uncommitted ideas that may or may not come to fruition. Options get exercised—that is, work gets pulled—when they will generate the most valuable information relative to all their alternatives.

Options thinking also does something interesting to risk management. Outside the development process, uncommitted options remain in the hands of those best placed to manage them, for example, those with the market knowledge to maximize opportunity. Once inside the system though, the risks change in both nature and ownership—there are expectations to meet. There is more than meets the eye in the act of pulling of work across these boundaries—it creates obligation and transfers risk. It is not to be done lightly.

[1]Chris Matts and Olav Massen. 2007. “Real Options” Underlie Agile Practices (InfoQ)
[2] Chris Matts, Olav Massen and Chris Geary. 2013. Commitment Hathaway te Brake Publications.
[3] Roger L. Martin, in Lafley, A. G. and Roger L. Martin. 2013. Playing to Win, How Strategy Really Works Boston: Harvard Business Press.


Next up: 16. The Kanban Method. Previously: 14. TPS and Lean. Start from the beginning: 1. Transparency.

Coming soon: Agendashift

[Update: Now cross-posted to Agendashift’s new blog. View on blog.agendashift.com]

Imagine a change process based on choice and collaboration:

  • You (an individual or team) take an assessment of your choosing, invite a coach to facilitate one with you, or opt to participate in a survey
  • You explore online an analysis of your own inputs and the aggregated inputs of your colleagues, identifying strengths, weaknesses, leading and lagging areas
  • You identify the prompts or categories that best describe your collective agenda for change
  • You track actions through to completion until it’s clear that they have taken hold and are delivering the benefits expected

No emailing of spreadsheet-based questionnaires. No being left wondering what’s happening to your inputs. No imposition of priorities from on high. No failure of ownership and follow-through. These are my “itches to scratch”. Whether you’re a consultant, a client, or managing without external support, Agendashift can help you too.

Right there are Agendashift’s four A’s: Assessment, Analysis, Agenda and Action. Of course it doesn’t have to be as linear as that: given time, Action should dominate, kept on track with periodic recalibrations from the other three.

You’ll see a free version launched in the next few weeks that anyone can try without obligation. A little after that, paid accounts will bring the ability to design new assessment templates and to manage client/team workspaces.

Agendashift will launch with a “Values-based delivery” template adapted for public consumption from my book with the help of some much-appreciated collaboration. If you have ideas for other templates (your own practice’s tools perhaps, or more specifically Agile or Lean than mine), do get in touch.

Meanwhile, leave a comment, follow @agendashift on Twitter or sign up at agendashift.com to be sure of receiving launch news.

Kanban from the Inside: 14. TPS and Lean

I really enjoyed writing this chapter! My goal was to illustrate the extent to which things can look radically different and yet share the same underlying principles and philosophy. The excerpt below comes after a description of a production line at Toyota; the “TPS” of the chapter title is the Toyota Production System.

Beyond the already-familiar “Kanban“, a number of Japanese terms are introduced. I use them freely in this chapter but rarely elsewhere (and I explain why).


This [preceding] description is rather simplistic, but there’s enough here for some striking characteristics of the system to be noted:

  • All three tools (kanban, heijunka, and andon) are examples of visual management.
  • Inventory of all kinds is limited. Neither basic supplies nor WIP (the subassemblies, or partially-built products) will be replenished until equivalent amounts have been pulled from downstream.
  • Even though, perhaps, it might seem more efficient to do so, the production line doesn’t work in large batches of similar items. Instead, it produces a variety of products spread over the course of the day.
  • Workers on the production line would rather stop the line (for everyone) than allow work of inferior quality to proceed.
  • This system and the kanban boards from Part I work very differently. On the production line, the kanban [1] are sent upstream to signal that there is demand to be fulfilled. On our boards, the cards represent work items as they flow downstream; signals are implied by the gaps between the actual amount of work in progress in each state and the corresponding WIP limits.
  • The heijunka box and our kanban boards both allow the mix of work to be managed.

It seems perverse, not only setting things up to work in this deliberately difficult and seemingly inefficient manner, but empowering workers to bring it all to a halt at any time! Clearly there must something special about the company’s culture for this to work at all, but why would they choose to do things this way?

TPS and Lean in Perspective

To answer that question you must understand TPS as a magnificent example of systems thinking.

It starts with a vision, a true north that gives the direction for change:

  • Single-piece flow, in sequence, on demand, with zero defects; 100% value-adding activities and security for the people performing them

The technology does not yet exist to make it economical to run the entire production line in batches of one (which is what single-piece flow means), but the pursuit of this perhaps impossible vision is what propelled Toyota from its struggles in postwar Japan—where land, factory space, plant, and materials were all in short supply—to the global market leadership position that it now occupies.

The tools support one or both of two purposes:

  1. Satisfying customer demand as quickly and as smoothly as (currently) possible with the minimum amount of inventory
  2. Evolving the company to take it closer to its vision, harnessing the abilities of its entire workforce to smooth flow, reduce inventories, prevent defects, eliminate other forms of waste, and (not least) design new products that customers really want and that can be produced both profitably and sustainably

The two pillars of just-in-time and respect for people are shorthand for those sub-goals.

Often missed is this crucial point: The pillars and the tools can been seen in their proper perspective only once it is grasped that Toyota’s pursuit of perfection is a multi-generational challenge. Toyota works not only to build cars, but also to build the company capable of delivering on its vision.

Divorced from that kind of thinking, the tools of Lean can seem shallow. Without the tools, it can be even worse—too often we hear Lean reduced simply to a short-term focus on waste (perhaps to dress up exercises in cost cutting), or to continuous improvement (important, but very hard to sustain in isolation). The challenge of the Lean movement is to make sure that the thinking is packaged up with the tools so that people can apply them appropriately in context.

[1] “Kanban are like sheep” – One kanban, two kanban, …


Next up: 15. Economic approaches to flow. Previously: 13. Agile. Start from the beginning: 1. Transparency.

Kanban from the Inside: 13. Agile

In this series of short excerpts from my book Kanban from the Inside we’ve reached chapter 13, on Agile. Following the pattern of the preceding two excerpts, we’re skipping the main content of the chapter and reproducing some of my main conclusions.


Kanban and Agile

Compatibility

We’re often asked, “Is Kanban Agile?” To anyone who understands Kanban as the start with what you do now method, that’s a slightly odd question, but still, it deserves a respectful response.

When “Agile” is used as an adjective like that, it’s worth drilling down a bit to find out what’s really meant by the question:

  • Are the values of Kanban and Agile compatible? Yes, absolutely! There is a basis here not just for comparison but for integration.
  • Can Kanban help “improve agility” or make things “more agile,” improving an existing software development process—explicitly Agile or otherwise—in directions entirely consistent with Agile values and principles? Not only is the answer to that question a resounding “yes,” it is what the method was first developed to do.
  • Is Kanban, in the words of the manifesto, a way of developing software? No. We are splitting hairs, perhaps, but in this sense it is misleading to describe Kanban as an Agile method. It isn’t a development process (or any other kind of delivery process) at all; there is nothing in the definition of the method that ties it to software. It is a management method that is broadly applicable to creative knowledge work, with a particular focus on organizational change.
  • Is Kanban part of the Agile movement? Kanban’s community identity makes sense both inside and outside the Agile movement (note that both communities have a similar relationship with Lean). Some people seem to be troubled by that ambiguity, but actually it’s helpful and necessary. Ideas find room to grow and flourish in their own communities, and when the time is right, there is ample opportunity for cross-fertilization. And to providers of supporting services (trainers, coaches, consultants, and so on), the ability to choose from multiple identities can be very convenient.

At the level of methods and practices:

  • Does Kanban work with iterative methods, Scrum in particular? Yes, and in the case of Scrum, the combination even has a name—Scrumban (described in Chapter 16). Kanban can work both inside Scrum, where it mainly drives team-level improvement, and outside it, where it helps a deliberately team-centric framework address the challenges of scale.
  • Doesn’t Kanban mean abandoning iterations and other elements of Scrum? This is a serious misconception. Kanban is the start with what you do now method; we would be the first to warn you not to drop aspects of your current process in an uncontrolled fashion. However, it would be dishonest of us to pretend that your pursuit of flow won’t at some point test your commitment to timeboxes, story points, and the like. How you and your organization deal with that will be a matter of choice.
  • Do Agile and its methods and practices represent important models for Kanban practitioners? Most definitely yes—it seems almost unthinkable that an effective Kanban practitioner working in the software development domain would get very far without a deep understanding and respect for Agile.

When to Use Kanban

One question remains: In an Agile context, when and how might Kanban help? More questions about your current situation will help answer that:

• Is Agile’s principle of sustainable pace still just an aspiration? Are people still overburdened in a process that doesn’t seem to fit all that well? Could Kanban-style transparency (Chapter 1) and balance (Chapter 2) provide some relief?

• Is your collaboration (Chapter 3) focused mainly inwardly? Does customer focus (Chapter 4) suffer as a result of over-protective intermediation around the team or of excessive internal focus on the technology, the product, or the team?

• Are team-centric and process-centric approaches failing to deliver needed gains in end-to-end flow (Chapter 5)? Are local gains even making things worse elsewhere?

• Are leadership (Chapter 6), understanding (Chapter 7), and agreement under-appreciated? Is respect (Chapter 9) too easily forgotten when the big decisions are being made?

It is hard to change how organizations tick. Agile adoptions face that challenge all the time, and it should come as no surprise that issues such as these arise. Whether you are just planning to set out down that road or are already well along the way, the start with what you do now method is there to help, not to judge.

If your wider organization is ready to make the kind of changes called for by a hard and disruptive [1] Agile adoption and you can be very sure of success, it’s possible that you might not need Kanban. For organizations unprepared to take that risk, Kanban offers an alternative path to agility, an open-ended journey of co-evolution in which better ways of doing things are waiting to be discovered.

The Agile Model

Don’t be fooled by [the preceding part of this chapter’s] necessarily process-centric treatment of FDD, XP, and Scrum. With any of these methods you can go through all the iterative motions and still find that:

  • People serve the process, not the other way around.
  • The product is driven by the loudest internal voices, not the emerging needs of actual customers.
  • Lots of work gets done without the end product ever being used for real.
  • Changes in direction cannot be contemplated, let alone accommodated

On its own, process gets you only so far. If the aim is to be Agile, the Agile values need to be evident. Technicalities aside, if it’s working neither for the team nor for the customer, call it something else!

Agile has been and still is a game-changer. It has legitimized evolutionary delivery, wresting control of swathes of the software industry away from a plan-driven style of project management that was often ill-equipped to deal with uncertainty. No self-respecting Kanban practitioner can afford to ignore it.

[1] http://www.controlchaos.com/storage/scrum-articles/Scrum Is Hard and Disruptive.pdf


Next up: 14. TPS and Lean. Previously: 12. Theory of Constraints (TOC). Start from the beginning: 1. Transparency.

Kanban from the Inside: 12. Theory of Constraints (TOC)

In this series of short excerpts from my book Kanban from the Inside we’ve reached chapter 12, the second chapter of Part II (Models). As last time, this excerpt comes from near the end of the chapter. I must therefore explain for the uninitiated that POOGI is TOC’s Process Of Ongoing Improvement (acronyms are unavoidable here I’m afraid).


POOGI and the Five Focusing Steps

Like many Kanban trainers, I like to reference POOGI and the Five Focusing Steps when I teach Kanban. I particularly remember one class in which a small company’s entire middle management layer was in attendance. It dawned on us that if the company had a constraint (and surely it must), it had to be represented by one of those managers in the room.

All eyes turned to the finance manager. Everyone saw how important it was that she got what she needed when she needed it. Her colleagues resolved to remove from her and her small team its overhead of chasing for paperwork, clarifications, and corrections. Special priority would be given to activities that brought in cash. Everyone in the room determined that things were going to be better, not just for that team but for the company as a whole.

That’s a great story, but Kanban is not “POOGI with kanban boards.” The constraint—typically presented as some kind of bottleneck—is rarely the Kanban practitioner’s first line of attack. Get past the delicate issue that no person or team wants to be labeled a bottleneck, and you still have the problem of identifying them. How sure can you be of the location of your bottlenecks when WIP is high, there are orders-of-magnitude differences in lead times between work items, people can easily move between activities, and (give or take) everyone gives the impression of being equally busy?

Perhaps bottleneck should be added to that list of tools, concepts, and metaphors that don’t translate from manufacturing work to knowledge work quite as readily as some would have you believe. Chapter 14 identifies some more of those.

The bottleneck may not enjoy a first-class status in the Kanban Method, but POOGI will long continue to be taught. It promotes understanding, and there is still power in the idea that you need to keep on identifying and addressing your system’s constraints, especially when your mind is open to the possibility of much broader constraints—lack of knowledge, feedback, learning, trust, and so on, or the attachment to unhelpful ways of thinking.


Next up: 13. Agile. Previously: 11. Systems Thinking, Complexity, and the Learning Organization. Start from the beginning: 1. Transparency.

 

Kanban from the Inside: 11. Systems Thinking, Complexity, and the Learning Organization

This series of short excerpts from my book, Kanban from the Inside has reached Part II (Models). For the next few chapters we look outside to other important bodies of knowledge.

I’m not going to reproduce here chapter 11’s tour through Systems Thinking and related fields—I’ll jump straight to some of my conclusions. If they leave you hungry for the detail, you’ll have to read the book!


The Method’s Design

Several elements of the Kanban Method have their roots in the models outlined in this chapter. In particular:

  • The transparency practices (Chapter 1) create new leverage points, making the system more open to challenge and improvement. Furthermore, they can promote self-organization, a strategy for resilience in the presence of uncertainty.
  • Core practice 5, Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally, connects collaboration (Chapter 3), knowledge, experimentation, shared learning, and evolutionary change.
  • Kanban shares with Lean (Chapter 13) a Systems Thinking approach to leadership (Chapter 6). In the long run, organizations get the leadership they deserve, the kind that their system recruits, encourages, and promotes. It follows that the most enduring organizations are those that have paid attention to this.
  • Albeit implicitly, the first foundational principle, start with what you do now, points both to Systems Thinking and to evolutionary change. I’ve added some extra emphasis by abstracting from this principle the understanding value (Chapter 7)—the goal is for organizations to value understanding and to have the discipline to make it the precursor to change.
  • Evolutionary change is explicit in the second foundational principle, agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change (see Chapter 8, agreement).

Earlier chapters have made it clear that the Kanban Method leaves room for interpretation. This is a strength. It is articulated sufficiently clearly for a community to rally around it, yet it is applied with sufficient diversity that its community continues to learn, to develop lower-level practices, and to share experiences. It is satisfying to observe that the Kanban community itself demonstrates in some measure all five of Senge’s characteristics of the Learning Organization.

Application

Neither Kanban nor Systems Thinking should be one-off exercises or specialist, “ivory tower” disciplines that are kept separate from where the “real work” is done. John Gall advises this (sometimes known as Gall’s law):

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system[1].

Don’t worry that every step must be right first time. Keeping the system in motion with safe-to-fail experiments, there’s a limit to how much harm any one step can do, and any local difficulties will soon shake out. Under these conditions, suboptimization—the localized improvement that makes things worse globally—is less a problem than the loss of momentum caused by fear of it. “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” as they say.

[1] Gall, John. 2003. The Systems Bible: The Beginner’s Guide to Systems Large and Small, 3rd ed. Walker, MN: General Systemantics.


Next up: 12. Theory of Constraints (TOC). Previously: 10. Patterns and Agendas. Start from the beginning: 1. Transparency.

Are we there yet?

As seems to be the tradition, I was the opening speaker at Monday’s London Lean Kanban Day 2015, organised by Jose Casal and hosted by the BCS in London. My talk gathers together a few strands that appear on positiveincline.com from time to time:

Chapter 23 describes a process I’m now calling “Agendashift”. The deck (below) is I think its first public outing:

Kanban from the Inside: 10. Patterns and Agendas

The tenth in a roughly weekly series of short excerpts from my book, Kanban from the Inside. Chapter 10 wraps up Part I, Kanban through its values.


Does Kanban in some neutral way just create the conditions for change, or does it come with its own biases? Do the method, its practitioners, and their host organizations need direction—in the form, perhaps, of an external true north (Chapter 14, Lean)—or will they steer themselves? As a community, we’ve considered these questions several times.

By now you’ve seen enough of Kanban that you won’t be surprised to find that the answers turn out to be rather inclusive:

  • Yes, Kanban creates the conditions for change—in fact, developing the organization’s capability for change is one of its main objectives.
  • Yes, whether expressed as a “true north” or an evolutionary “fitness function,” it’s important to have measures of success.
  • Yes, not only does Kanban have some built-in biases, it’s helpful to make them explicit.

There is one “no” implied by that list of yeses: No, Kanban is not neutral. Today this seems obvious: How could something so intertwined with values—where, for the most part, “more is better”—ever be described as neutral?


Next up: 11. Systems Thinking, Complexity, and the Learning Organization. Previously: 9. Respect. Start from the beginning: 1. Transparency.

Kanban from the Inside: 9. Respect

The ninth in a roughly weekly series of short excerpts from my book, Kanban from the Inside. We’ve reached the penultimate chapter of Part I (Kanban through its values) and the last of the nine values.


Our ninth and final value is the third of our three leadership disciplines. What if all change could be conducted with understanding, agreement, and respect?

Respect underpins Kanban’s third Foundational Principle:

FP3: Initially, respect current processes, roles, responsibilities, and job titles.

It is sometimes suggested that this is redundant. Why would the humane, start with what you do now method need to state this principle explicitly?

I can think of at least three important reasons for its inclusion:

  1. It contains a pragmatic piece of change management advice: Don’t start your initiative by looking at roles.
  2. It points to an underlying philosophy: Find ways around obstacles to change.
  3. No other principle or practice expresses “respect for people” quite so directly.

Don’t Start with Roles

Changing the emphasis a little, let’s summarize some earlier advice:

  • Start with what you do, looking at how what you do meets (and fails to meet) the needs of people inside and outside the system.
  • Organize work; let people self-organize around it, allowing the system to change as a result.

A premature focus on roles would fatally undermine this process. If they need to be defined formally at all, roles can be aligned to process once it has been established—in context—that the process is sufficiently fit for purpose. Meanwhile, we’ll be making it very much easier for people to find that alignment for themselves. Why force the issue?


The Humane, Start with What You Do Now Method

Depicting Kanban as “the humane, start with what you do now method” highlights what I believe are two of the Kanban Method’s most differentiating features. They’re more differentiating than even the sticky notes and WIP limits, and that’s saying something!

Kanban is humane, not just because it has noble ideals, not just because it leads to better conditions for people, but because it is designed to be implemented in a way that is consistently respectful. Noble aims don’t justify unsafe organizational transformations. The goal of better conditions in the longer run doesn’t excuse riding roughshod over people in the interim. To my knowledge, few methods can claim Kanban’s internal integrity in its approach to implementation.

Also, there is something uniquely respectful in start with what you do now. It respects the journeys of all the people—past and present—who have brought the organization to where it is now. For all the good and the bad, it respects context, it celebrates survival, and it makes it easier to assume—however naively optimistic an assumption this might be—that people mostly did their best. I like that.


Next up: 10. Patterns and Agendas. Previously: 8. Agreement. Start from the beginning: 1. Transparency.