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

October 4, 2013

My notes for the Portfolio Management panel at #lkfr13

Yesterday I had the privilege of sitting on a panel on the subject of portfolio management at Lean Kanban France. Our facilitator was Thomas Lissajoux and my co-panelists were Ian Carroll, Chris Young and David Joyce.

Thomas did us the great service of asking for some notes ahead of time. I found his headings really helpful, and I’ve decided to share my notes. And here they are…

How would you define ‘portfolio management’?

I see portfolio management as managing at that kind of level where maintaining the right balancing between competing projects is as big a challenge as any individual project.

What are the specifics of a lean/agile approach?

Depressingly, I see too many people talk about portfolio management like it was a sausage factory. The story goes like this: “just pay attention to the quality of ingredients going into the machine and success is guaranteed”. I doubt that this metaphor works very well even for sausages!

A lean approach means several things:

1)     Paying attention to the balance of demand and capability (supply), managing WIP relative to capacity and relative to lead time aspirations

2)     Paying appropriate attention to flow, because speed, predictability and timeliness matters (to the extent that there are economic penalties when we get these wrong)

3)     Expecting the way we manage the portfolio to keep evolving. That evolution needs to have some positive effects at project and organisational level that customers will recognise and appreciate, and there needs to be effective feedback in the other direction too (success and failures at project level should generate portfolio-level learning).

In which context/clients do you do portfolio management?

I’ve twice been in the role of portfolio manager myself, once with a $XXmillion annual budget, the second time at a smaller scale but with wider organisational impact.

Nowadays as a consultant I find that many problems on the ground point back to problems in portfolio management. Parts of the process get overwhelmed, and the organisational feedback loops aren’t fast or capable enough avoid real pain and cost. I’ve seen extreme cases where the whole portfolio seems to be grinding to a halt (there are reasons why this happens, a topic for another post maybe).

What about the previous situation and its shortcomings?

In many organisations, to get a project started it’s enough merely to sell the idea. The capability of the organisation to deliver and the impact on existing work is not given much consideration.

What key practices/tools/artefacts/meetings/metrics do you use?

  • The sheer number of projects (relative to the capability to manage them effectively)
  • Their value (with an understanding of the relationship between value and urgency)
  • Planned, potential and actual burn rates (making sure we have the capacity to deliver; too often the sum of all promises doesn’t match the sum of available effort)
  • Lead times
  • Amount of work in certain key states
  • $WIP

Tool-wise I’ve had success with

  • A3, as a means to test project rationale
  • Changes to portfolio reporting (feedback loops)
  • Customer validation – for its own sake and as a catalyst for process change
  • Regular customer meetings (cadenced)

What about the Kanban principles and practices at portfolio level?

They need to be applied with imagination. Add the phrase “Find ways to…“, perhaps “Find multiple ways to…”.

Core practices:

  • Find (multiple) ways to visualise work at portfolio level (transparency).
  • Find (multiple) ways to limit work in progress at portfolio level (balance).
  • Look at how policies can drive better portfolio performance (transparency again).
  • Pay attention to the feedback loops (and again!)
  • Keep improving and evolving (collaboration)

Foundational principles (or rather, their underlying values):

1)    Understanding: Make sure change is based on genuine understanding of how things work now, taking both internal and external perspectives

2)     Agreement: Always have the right people (ie those with a stake in the solution) solving problems at the right level, seeking agreements that will hold in practice

3)     Respect: the first two, plus creating the expectation that improvement will benefit people, not just the numbers

4)     Leadership: grow the next generation of portfolio managers (growing yourself in the process)

Additionally I would add that the portfolio mindset and Kanban are really complementary. Identify

  • different kinds of projects
  • different risk profiles
  • different stakeholders
  • different budgets/appetites

Make these dimensions visible (I mean an in-your-face, Kanban’s-killer-feature kind of visible, not just a filter on a report), aim for a healthy mix of work. With success comes trust in both your ability to deliver and the underlying principles and techniques that make it happen.

What challenges did you face?

Pretty much everywhere, far too many projects and projects that take far too long to deliver.

  • In one company, more projects than there were people, not just in IT but in the whole company!
  • In another, projects taking multiple years, little thought given to the possibility of incremental delivery

What key advice would you have for ‘change agents’ about to dig into portfolio management questions?

  • How is demand managed against capability?
  • Are lead times too long? (a very different question to the one of whether projects are late – dates tend to be genuinely critical on no more than 20% of a typical portfolio – though the long projects tend also to be ones most prone to delay)
  • Can you put a value on the amount of WIP (I refer to this as $WIP)? High shock value!
  • Another great metric once you understand it: What is that WIP costing in delayed business opportunity and delayed feedback?
  • Is the typical project process set up just to deliver to spec or to meet an evolving customer need? See recent posts Stand up meeting, thinking tool, leadership routine and Anticipating needs ahead of time.

What are the next steps? How can you improve/scale?

Quantify, visualise, sanity check. Look for imbalances. Look for sources of unpredictability, especially waiting. Look at the relationship between project size and predictability.

And remember that scale comes with addressing coordinating costs and other kinds of friction end-to-end, not from rolling out more process or adding layers on top.

January 3, 2013

Introducing Kanban through its values

[German translation]

Introductions to the Kanban method tend to start with a description of the kanban card wall (a tool) and lead on to a description of its core practices. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to hear about Kanban’s foundational principles too.

Here, I’m attempting a different approach, one that gives equal weight both to the principles (which I believe should come first – they’re not called “foundational” for nothing) and the core practices by identifying the values that underpin them. In doing so we’ll cover most of the main elements of the method, so perhaps this works as a teaching framework too?

Regardless, the result is holistic (the values are widely applicable at multiple levels), remains true to Kanban’s purpose of driving evolutionary organisational change, and helps to address three misconceptions:

i.         that Kanban is somehow a software development process

ii.         that Kanban doesn’t have at its heart the kind of values that will both challenge an organization and guide its agents of change, and

iii.         that Kanban is only for number-crunching tool-heads in control-driven organisations (I exaggerate this last misconception only slightly)

Moreover, I hope to demonstrate also that a values-based description is useful for other, more constructive reasons.

My starting point

From Kanban’s Foundational Principles in their usual sequence I identify four values: understandingagreement,  respect and leadership. The first of these requires a little justification but the other three can be read directly into the principles as they are typically worded.

The values behind Kanban’s six Core Practices are a little trickier, not because the they aren’t there but because the correspondence isn’t exactly one-to-one. I chose another four (that’s eight so far): transparencybalance, flow and collaboration. However, I found it helpful to depart from the this obvious sequence and was compelled to add an additional one – customer focus – making nine in total.

As I expand on each of these we’ll uncover a few more candidates for inclusion – I’ll highlight in bold anything that looks like a value (abstract nouns, basically). These however are less important, less axiomatic, less “core”.

Nine core values of Kanban

1.    Understanding

Understanding is one of the less obvious values of Kanban. I read it into the first foundational principle,  “Start with what you do now”. Understand the thing you’re changing, whether it’s the nitty-gritty details of a process, the way a process performs under conditions of stress, or something as abstract as your organisation’s overall approach to change.

Insist on understanding because a healthy process that can’t defend itself is a sign that you’ve forgotten what you believe.
The Process Myth, Rands in Repose

In our Kanban training we teach a Systems Thinking approach that places understanding very high on our list of priorities. It’s right there in our early introductions to the method, the basis of the very first class exercise. Where does work come from? What characterizes different kinds of work? What approaches to the problems of change and improvement tend to succeed or fail, both generally and in your organisation specifically? Why might that be?

By definition, the absence of understanding is what characterises cargo cult implementations. Even with good intentions there’s a likelihood that understanding will be lost when change is driven top-down, justified weakly (over-relying on appeals to best practice for example) and passed unthinkingly between organisational layers.  It’s no small surprise therefore that change projects have a tendency to disappoint. Unfortunately for the lazy or unskilled manager, understanding and its allied values of learning and alignment take effort.

2.    Agreement

Agreement is right there in the second foundational principle, “Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change”. I like to turn this around: would you reasonably expect to be successful in implementing change without it? Could it be that it’s lack of agreement that’s limiting your progress? Or perhaps there is some agreement but it’s not deep enough – you’re agreed on the existence of a problem but not on its impact or causes (see understanding)?

This principle might seem to suggest another value, that of incrementalism. I would however shy away from describing this this as a core value, for the reason that we promote incremental, evolutionary change because it has a high chance of success, not because its alternatives in radicalism or conservatism are never better alternatives. And if pragmatism is a value, it is a rather slippery one.

3.    Respect

Respect for people” is a pillar of Lean. Kanban applies this to the problem of organisational change in its third principle, “Initially, respect current roles, responsibilities & job titles”.

As in life, respect is a good guide when implementing change. Will it increase your chances of success if you start by implying that people are doing a bad job, or their roles are worthless? Probably not. Is it helpful to assume bad motives? Again, probably not. But does respect just mean “be nice”? Again no:

Showing respect for people does not mean you have to like them, agree with their views, and fail to challenge any half baked reasoning.
Stephen Parry

That kind of respect takes courage, taking us to our next value.

4.    Leadership

Leadership features in most stories of success but it was only in 2012 that it was added as a foundational principle, in the form “Encourage acts of leadership at all levels in your organization – from individual contributor to senior management”.

Much has been written on leadership and I won’t add to it here except to make a few quick observations:

i.         You might wish for an autocrat – a Steve Jobs (or a Steve Ballmer) perhaps – but the “at every level” kind of leadership is something different.

ii.         Not only is leadership something to value, management isn’t inherently something to despise either (remember respect?).

iii.         Furthermore, neither leadership nor management precludes self organisation, where individuals, teams and systems have the capacity to adapt without central or senior direction. Rather, good leadership and good management create the conditions in which self organisation thrives.

iv.         Good leadership involves challenge (we’ve used this word already). As agents of change we must be prepared both to challenge and to be challenged.

5.    Flow

Turning to the practices, we start with the third one, “Manage flow”.

The management part of this practice speaks of tactical organisation and decision-making aimed at progressing work for optimal outcomes (effectiveness). At some level – though with widely varying degrees of success – this is universal.

Flow adds something much less common, a sense of smoothness and predictability; addressing impediments to these systematically is a powerful improvement approach, exemplified in Lean.

We also value flow in Csikszentmihalyi’s sense, that very positive state of complete absorption in what we’re doing. This kind of flow is hard to find when distraction, interruption and constantly changing priorities dominate the work environment.

6.    Customer Focus

We haven’t finished with “Manage flow” yet! An expanded version of this practice might read something like

Manage to timely completion the smooth flow of customer-recognised value over a range of timescales

Value is meant in the sense of purpose (understanding the customer’s “why”) as much as in any monetary sense (taking care not to confuse utility with mere cost). A customer-focussed concern for completion means going beyond an activity-centric “task complete” or a product-centric “potentially shippable product”. In my experience, this is a surprisingly challenging concept whose impact can be dramatic.

Work done but not yet benefiting the customer is just sunk cost. We’ll return to this issue and address the “over a range of timescales” phrase when we look at the value of balance.

7.    Transparency

Transparency underpins three of Kanban’s core practices: the first, “Visualise [work]”, the fourth, “Make policies explicit”, and the fifth (another 2012 addition), “Implement feedback loops”.

Kanban creates transparency at multiple levels:

i.         In making work visible

ii.         In making visible the workflows that work items go through and the states that actual work items occupy at any given time

iii.         In making visible the parameters, policies and constraints that guide decision-making and ultimately drive the overall performance of the system

iv.         In making visible the impact of all the above in customer-focussed measures of performance

The first two types of visibility flow naturally from the kanban systems after which the Kanban method is named. The first three together create leverage points – points in our systems at which significant change can be effected for relatively little cost or effort. The fourth (a feedback loop) tells us that change is taking us in the right direction.

Kanban then is a way to evolve systems that learn and adapt, a strategy for organisations to find greater fitness relative to the competitive ecosystems they inhabit.

8.    Balance

The second core practice is “Limit work-in-progress (WIP)”. Limiting WIP across a process has multiple benefits:

  • Thanks to Little’s law, lead times (and therefore feedback cycles) tend to shorten; the customer is satisfied sooner and learning accelerates.
  • Work gets started only when capacity becomes available. This creates flow from the work item’s perspective and keeps supply and demand in balance from the team or worker’s perspective (respect!).
  • With just a little extra sophistication we can easily find balance between different kinds of operational work and between operational work and improvement work.

This last point suggests another principle, “Embrace variety”. Systems that behave well in the face of variety can be described as having a resilience that is good for customer, organization and worker alike, another example of balance. Kanban’s help in evolving resilient systems that can deliver predictability for a variety of work item types with a range of performance expectations (timescales perhaps ranging from hours or days to months or more) really is a killer feature.

For more on the role of balance in Kanban see David Anderson’s talk When is Kanban not appropriate [video] [slides]. My talk Kanban the hard way [video] [slides] includes an exploration of variety and resilience.

9.    Collaboration

Collaboration features in the sixth (and last) core practice, “Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally [using models [and the scientific method]]”.

Building on agreement, respect and customer focus, collaboration creates the expectation that we will look beyond our own team’s boundaries in addressing impediments to flow.

The full version of this practice (with the two optional parts included) speaks of working systematically in a way that improves understanding through observation, model-building, experimentation and measurement (empiricism).

Using models” has a second sense that suggests values of curiosity and even generosity. Kanban actively encourages its practitioners to look outside the method to a growing body of knowledge. Kanban acknowledges roots in Lean, Theory of Constraints and Agile, foundations in queuing theory and complexity science, influences as diverse as Lean Startup and family therapy. Individual practitioners have their own personal favourite models – I for example draw on A3, GROW, and Influencer.

Why stop at nine?

It bothered me that the Lean value of customer focus can’t be inferred in any obvious way from the standard wordings of Kanban’s foundational principles and core practices – you could say that I had to cheat! I think though it fully deserves its place.

Less so these others that I’ve identified:

  • Learning and alignment have strong associations with understanding. I fully recognise that a strong case can be made for each of these but I’ve gone with the one that I think best reflects Kanban’s roots in System Thinking. My most-referenced article emphasises learning, so this was a tough one!
  • Challenge (also vision) and courage overlap sufficiently with leadership that I don’t regard them as axiomatic. See related post Dole out the 3C’s.
  • Self organisation would rank high as an organisational design value but respect seems to be an adequate guide for the change agent. All else being equal, respect would prefer a solution allowing or building on self organisation over one that doesn’t.
  • Resilience features strongly in my thinking but it describes outcome more than approach. Smoothness and predictability similarly.

Putting values to work

Let’s see our nine values together then:

Understanding, Agreement, Respect,
Leadership, Flow, Customer Focus,
Transparency, Balance, Collaboration

Admittedly, that’s quite a long list – longer than the initial three or four that I have quoted at every opportunity for some time – but not so long that we’re incapable of debating, remembering and referring to them.

Do any of these resonate with you more strongly than others?  What does that say to you?  I might explore that one at a leadership retreat – the differences between practitioners might be revealing!

Do any seem to be missing in your current environment? Again, what does that say to you? Does that suggest to you some things that really need to be put right?

For example, I can look back at times where lack of the right kind of agreement either slowed the pace of change or resulted in change that could revert too easily. From what I read, I don’t believe I’m unique in this.


I’ve made values explicit – this is transparency at work – creating an opportunity for challenge (namely that I want to see customer focus feature more explicitly in the core method), and increasing my understanding of at least one source of ineffectiveness. In an eat-your-own-dog-food kind of way, the system works! I like that.

Whether you or the wider community would choose the same values is an interesting question worthy of group exploration. How else might you go about it? I’d love to see some alternative attempts. Could the values I’ve chosen benefit from some additional structure or from being sequenced differently? Or are values so fragile that they’re better left unsaid?

Continuing a line of thought started a couple of months ago in my post How Deep is “How is Your Kanban”, could values provide a better foundation for a second-generation Kanban assessment tool? Does the current tool’s emphasis on practices hide the method’s true purpose? I really think that it might.

As to whether this is a good way to introduce Kanban, this can only be answered by testing it. I intend to!

[Update: I’ve written some stronger conclusions in a followup post, Values, understanding & purpose]

December 27, 2012

My 2012 in books

I’ll get to my book of the year in a moment, but I begin with the two books that have had the most direct influence on my work in 2012.

The first is Coaching for Performance: GROWing Human Potential and Purpose: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership by John Whitmore (2009). I’ve been using the GROW model described in this book not just as a coaching tool but as a gateway to A3, really appreciating its teachability, memorability and its reminders of the importance of framing and challenge.

Like the first, the second is new to me but not a new book. From Lean Software Strategies: Proven Techniques for Managers and Developers by Peter Middleton & James Sutton (2005) I have taken away a much stronger appreciation of the word customer, and I find myself repeating its advice often.

My book of 2012

I choose Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character not because it’s still fresh in my mind but because it’s a book that I hope will be read widely. Readable, thought-provoking and inspirational, it’s a book for anyone with an interest in the relationships between environment, learning, character and life prospects. That should be most of us.

For the benefit of UK readers I should mention that I had to import it from the US but it will be available here in paperback next month.

Honourable mentions

I approached How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business (2010) with some caution, the title preparing me for a book that might be overly analytical and worryingly money-centric. Instead, it’s a broad, insightful and practical book about making decisions and managing risk in the presence of uncertainty. I’m delighted that the author Douglas W Hubbard will be a keynote speaker at the 2013 Lean Kanban North America (#lkna13) conference.

Turning to fiction, I’m grateful to Dave Snowden for introducing me to anthropology-cum-science-fiction author Ursula le Guin.  Since reading The Dispossessed (1974) in preparation for the CALMalpha event I’ve enjoyed a number of her books, sharing some written for younger readers with our foster daughter.  This one remains my favourite though – I was genuinely disappointed that it had to come to an end! As a sci-fi fan, how did I not encounter le Guin previously?

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman was for many reviewers a best book of 2011 and I got round to it in 2012.  Well worth the effort.

The surprise package

I carried around a review copy of Agile Project Management for Government: Leadership skills for implementation of large-scale public sector projects in months, not years in my suitcase for several weeks and was more than a little surprised and humbled to discover my name listed in the acknowledgements! It’s not an easy topic topic, but author and fellow Agile North speaker Brian Wernham has done a good job of drawing out valuable lessons from reference projects around the world and calling out the kind of leadership necessary for project delivery in the public sector to improve.

Since first meeting Brian I have myself joined a large public sector programme so the arrival of this book turned out to be very timely. I should get round to a longer review in the New Year.

Next up

Top of my list for next year (already purchased and downloaded onto my Kindle) is The Culture Game: Tools for the Agile Manager (2012) by Daniel Mezick. Do you confront culture and mindset head-on, or regard them as something emergent? That has been a favourite conversation topic on Twitter and in conference bars and I’m really looking forward to reading Dan’s take on this.

November 19, 2012

Dole out the 3C’s

Filed under: Kanban,leadership,lean,Values — Tags: , , , , , , — Mike @ 10:34 pm

I pick that phrase out of Eight Ways to Avoid the Kaizen Roach Motel, from Mark Hamel’s (@MarkRHamel‘s) blog. The 3C’s? Challenge, courage, creativity. That’s a new one on me but I like it – you may recall that I argued for “challenge” a month ago, here.

Hat tip: Curious Cat’s Management Improvement Blog Carnival #182.

October 23, 2012

No-one said it would be easy…

Filed under: Kanban,leadership,lean,Portfolio — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Mike @ 8:33 pm

Much as expected, Lean Kanban Central Europe 2012 (#lkce12) turned out to be an excellent conference, probably the best-organised I’ve attended. Well done to the board (Markus, Pawel, Hermanni, Klaus and Karl) and everyone who helped behind the scenes.

The slides for my talk ‘Not “Portfolio Kanban” but “Kanban”’ are now up on Slideshare.  The most important slide is probably the one shown below (#30), which illustrates the scale of the what’s to be done “if we are serious as change agents” (a phrase I used more than once).

Four different directions of interaction to consider. Four different considerations (the “Agreement, Alignment, Models, Challenge”) for each direction. That makes 16 if all combinations are relevant (most will be). Hard work and worth tracking, so perhaps some new visualisations will be needed too – something to think about. I will be talking to David about incorporating some or all of this in the “Kanban depth” tool also.

October 19, 2012

How Deep is “How Deep is Your Kanban”?

[wonkish, sorry]

I’m busy putting the final touches to my portfolio-related talk for next week’s #lkce12 conference in Vienna. It owes a significant debt to David’s milestone talk How Deep is Your Kanban, but this leaves me with a couple of slightly embarrassing niggles.

Where in the assessment tool are:

  1. Agreement – “Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change” is a foundational principle of Kanban and the organisational scope of any agreement is surely assessable. As a change agent, have I achieved 360-degree agreement? If I have, won’t this help make change “stickier”?
  2. Challenge – The language of the tool is big on improvement, implicitly in the direction of “improved” or “fitter”. Isn’t this a bit weak? What about other drivers, direction-setters and pace-setters? Together with “leadership” and “alignment” (already well represented), adding “challenge” might go some way to address the “Kanban is too nice” perception and help complete the connection with Lean organisational practice.

Got that off my chest!

With that out of the way, keep an eye out in my talk for my son’s summer programming project – Kanban meets Design Factory meets Beyond Budgeting. It needs a better name than “Foo” though…

July 20, 2012

Short post: Problem, Issue, Focus

Filed under: Kanban,leadership,lean — Tags: , , , , , , , — Mike @ 9:58 am

“No problem is problem” might work well at Toyota, but in my experience, many managers don’t like to be asked for their problems or issues, as though having to own up to some would be a source of shame.  “None that need be shared in this forum” is a typical response.

It’s early days, but I’m using and suggesting to others “What is your current focus?”.  A focus (for improvement) sounds more positive, more testable, more likely to carry over in a useful way from one meeting to the next, perhaps an opportunity for an A3-style discussion or report.  Instead of something to get out of the way, a focus is something to take to a successful conclusion.  What manager would want to admit to having none?

Could it work for you, until at least that shame barrier is breached?

July 10, 2012

What’s your strategy for success?

All projects must have a strategy for success

So starts a thought-provoking post from Glen Alleman‘s blog Herding Cats; several months later and I’m still coming back to its central idea.  Ask yourself: what are you doing right now to ensure that the thing you’re building doesn’t just meet documented requirements, but is successful in achieving valuable business outcomes?

Before we get hung up on the word “projects”, how about:

“All initiatives must have a strategy for success”

If you’ve heard me speak in the past year or two you may have heard stories of how we used A3 as a way to get to the heart of what was important in our portfolio of initiatives, against which we could deliver value to the business (I’m deliberately steering clear of how that was organised – it’s not that relevant here).

Last year I majored on how A3 helped us identify the few business initiatives on which we needed to concentrate our efforts; this year in my portfolio-related talks I’ve drilled into one project whose A3 helped take it from #5 to #1 on our list of priorities.

Its strategy for success?

  1. Re-frame the initiative not as “deliver the next milestone on the roadmap” (in this case a new trade capture system) but as “face up to a set of significant challenges” – addressing some real business risks (which we quantified at the time) linked to some big-picture architecture issues which we planned to address incrementally.
  2. Reverse the implementation plan, starting not with the shiny new system but with something much more mundane, some strengthened business controls to create (i) some additional stakeholder “pull” and (ii) a safer environment for the several (and sometimes difficult) implementation steps that would follow.  A feedback mechanism designed both to amplify learning and to dampen any potential negative effects.

You may recognise part 1 of this strategy as the A3 approach working its magic.  Part 2 was explicit, documented in its A3, agreed.  What was seen previously as an IT delivery problem was now a business problem. And it worked!

Taking it down a level

What if we asked the “strategy for success” question more often?  For every piece of work?  Have it hanging in the air in every stand-up meeting?

I have in mind what might be described as a reversal of the V-model (article and image from Wikipedia):

Instead of that backwards-looking “Verification and Validation” arrow, what if we looked forward, asking ourselves questions like these:

  • How does the work we’re currently planning (and the way we plan to execute it) really stack up against stated business goals?
  • How do we know that the thing we will make operational tomorrow is what will be needed tomorrow, not just the thing that was specified yesterday?
  • For this current feature, do we know what sort of UAT experience we can expect? (And if not, why not?)
  • How many surprises should we expect in system test?  What are we doing to pre-empt them?
  • What am I doing to make my next handover (upstream or downstream) a zero-surprise non-event?

Asked daily, some of these questions are more tactical than strategic (in Kanban terms we’re in “manage flow” territory), but ask them often enough and we may crystallise out some new policies, refine our knowledge discovery process, perhaps trigger some concerted improvement activity – a strategy for change that’s supportive of our strategy for success.

So, looking at your work from business initiative right down to today’s work items, what’s your strategy for success?

June 25, 2012

Back from #klrat

Filed under: Kanban,leadership,lean,Portfolio — Tags: , , , , , , — Mike @ 2:02 pm

I’m just back after another week away from home – first a 2-day Kanban class in London, then the Kanban Leadership Retreat in Mayrhofen in the beautiful Austrian Alps. Such a treat!

You will not be surprised to hear that I found myself leading (or rather co-leading with Rich Turner) a further exploration into the application of Kanban to portfolio-level problems. By “Kanban” I mean not just kanban-style visualisations but conscious attention to WIP, flow, policies etc. I have to admit though that I got far more out of other sessions.

Yuval Yeret did us all a great service by (re)raising the topic of Crossing the Chasm. This spawned several intense discussions, mostly notably a “Compelling Reason to Buy” discussion that fully justified an additional session of its own.

Håkan Forss led a number of sessions, two of which I attended. The first was on Kanban Kata which he describes here and here – I have little to add except to say that (i) I love it and (ii) it fits very well with what I teach around the use of A3.

In Håkan’s second session he sought to challenge the sequence in which the practices of Kanban are listed. This might seem a trivial point (and at one level it is) but it led first to a fruitful discussion on rollout approaches and then to this, an unordered visualisation of the depth to which the practices are understood and applied:

Discussions like this get exciting when you realise that you’re part of something that will change the way we understand, teach and implement Kanban. My contribution was to make a connection between this picture and the use of the Story Mapping technique as a way to guide and organise a Kanban rollout. Probably the best introduction to the latter idea is this post of Yuval’s.

You could say that Håkan and Yuval had good conferences, but then we all did 🙂

November 10, 2011

Lean reading marathon

Filed under: Books,Kanban,leadership,lean — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Mike @ 12:07 pm

I have just finished reading these five books in quick succession:

The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management
: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century by Stephen Denning

The New Economics
for Industry, Government, Education by W Edwards Deming

Toyota Production System
: Beyond Large-scale Production by Taiichi Ohno

Toyota Kata
: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results by Mike Rother

The Lean Startup
: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries

The Denning book has a very interesting take on old and new models of business leadership, with lessons that business can draw from the Agile and Lean development communities.  A good and interesting read but a couple of nits to pick:
1) Scrum receives special attention but without any real analysis of why (or why not)
2) With 70+ recommendations it was easy to lose track of the underlying principles

I would have left Steve Denning there, but he came to LESS 2011 in Stockholm this month, giving an excellent keynote and holding a Birds-of-a-Feather (BoF) session on leadership storytelling. I was greatly impressed by both, two of the best sessions of the whole conference. His book The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative is now on my reading wishlist.

I approached Deming and Ohno together as an exercise in going back to original sources – both books must surely be required reading for anyone interested in Lean, even if only as historical reference points.  I was however very struck by the timeliness of the Deming book nearly 20 years after publication and appreciated his warnings against the dangers of “tampering” (a word he uses with some precision) with systems that are prone to random variation.  The Ohno book gave great insight into the origins, influences and historical context of the Toyota Production System, and most especially the exceptional determination and clarity of vision with which Ohno and his mentors applied themselves.  My lasting impressions from this pair of books aren’t so much technical but the feeling that I have encountered some remarkable people.

Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata is my book of the year. I could only read it slowly, finding myself at regular intervals putting the book down to think!  It fills a big gap in Lean literature, explaining the Toyota Production System not as something fixed but as the result of decades of ongoing work, that work being the expression of a uniquely self-sustaining and self-renewing approach to management and leadership.  I wonder if there is an organisation outside the armed services that does this quite so systematically and thoughtfully?  There are lessons we can take away on making transformations endure, but still must be admitted that not many organisations have Toyota’s staying power. That’s a humbling thought.

Taking Ohno and Rother together, it seems clear that Toyota’s approach to improvement relies less on good tools or the employee suggestion box but rather on working towards process goals which would seem well beyond the reach of most other companies.  It is no wonder others struggle to keep up!  Continuous improvement seems such an easy thing, but it is no easy option when you are led with focus and determination, guided by a “True North” to which few would dare aspire.

Last but not least, Eric Ries’s Lean Startup book.  My expectations were driven downwards by the Twitter hype surrounding this book, but I was wrong to be so cautious!  There is real depth here, surprising insights right to the last chapter.  In particular, the “validated learning” concept seems set to be regarded as one of those oh-so-simple but elegant and language-changing ideas. It resolves so many of those frustrating loose ends that get argued about endlessly in Agile and Lean circles, such as the “why” of development work, the meaning of “done” and the appropriateness of metrics.  Now we have new and powerful ways to talk about the values, economics and direction of Lean development that sit very well with Kanban.

So, quite a marathon, but what a great investment!

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