I’ve been refreshing my talk on Kanban’s values and I paused – as my audience is invited to do – on the middle layer of the “onion”, the direction layer of customer focus, flow and leadership. Then it struck me: it’s in this layer where the alignment with Agile seems the least comfortable.
For the inner layer (drive), it’s very easy to find Agile practices that support the values of transparency, balance and collaboration; that’s an exercise I often lead audiences through. The outer layer (discipline) is interesting but relatively uncontroversial. Understanding, agreement and respect: how would you expect to succeed without those?
But look closely at direction. Could this be where Agile implementations lose their energy or come unstuck? Could it be that this is Agile’s Achilles’ heel? Looking at its three Lean-inspired values in turn:
- Customer focus: How many Agile implementations are team-focused or technology-focused, lacking in external perspective? Does the identification of the Product Owner (PO) role encourage customer focus to be confused with product focus? How often does the customer get relegated to a source of raw material for the machine, expected to serve it instead of being served?
- Flow: Yes, rhythms are important. In their right context, timeboxes are indeed powerful. But to place them on a pedestal, to deny the benefits of decoupling input, output and control rhythms, to fail to see smoothness as something worth striving for… Well, you get the picture.
- Leadership: It seems to me that the obsession in some quarters with bad management makes it harder for others to talk about good leadership. Add to that an industry built around managed Agile transition, roles with “Master” and “Owner” in the title, confusion about the meaning of self-organisation, and so on. What a mess!
In short: confusion, contradiction and conflict where what’s needed is direction.
If you’re doing a better job of anticipating and delivering on your customer’s needs, that’s meaningful improvement, very likely a meaningful indication that you’re moving in the direction of increased agility. If the flow of work is faster, smoother, more predictable and less burdensome, likewise. And clearly it’s important to sustain these things, so organisational capability must be an improvement focus in its own right.
Keep making progress on these things in tandem, and it’s clear that you will keep delivering benefit to the customer, those inside the system, and the wider organisation. I would go as far as to say that when so-called improvement is at the expense of one of these groups, then you have to ask whether it is really an improvement at all. Direction matters.
You don’t have to buy in to the Kanban method to see and accept this. But it is a very good starting place; it’s the humane, start with what you do now approach to change, an alternative path to agility. And it’s not confused!