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

October 15, 2013

Kanban’s Organisational Design Principles?

Filed under: Kanban,leadership,Uncategorized,Values — Tags: , , — Mike @ 6:06 pm

Give or take a word or two, the Kanban method’s Foundational Principles have looked like this for a couple of years now:

  • Start with what you do now
  • Agree to pursue evolutionary change
  • Initially, respect existing roles, responsibilities and job titles
  • Encourage acts of leadership at every level – from individual contributor to senior manager

Does that last one really belong in that list? Much as I like the principle, I wonder. In the language of values, understandingagreement & respect (leadership disciplines, the environment and working agreements around the process and conduct of evolutionary change) then leadership (which tends to go hand in hand with change of any kind; we encourage an at-every-level variety).

Let’s try for size this new list (a list of concepts, not a serious attempt at canonical wording):

  • Service-orientation, by which customers have their needs met through single services or multiple coordinated services
  • Decentralised control and self-organisation, improving adaptability and responsiveness, easing reconfiguration both between and within services
  • Leadership, sustaining the system and change therein

These aren’t quite so foundational to the Kanban method, but are the kinds of organisational design principles that successful Kanban implementations seem to follow.

Would this change my values model? Not really. Leadership stays because it must. Self-organisation is a significant theme when I explain transparency; decentralised control slots fits both there and with leadership. Service-orientation fits with flow just as comfortably.

We’d be left with this:

  1. The foundational principles returned to their original three
  2. The six core practices as they currently are
  3. Three organisational design principles

We like?

September 11, 2013

Is this Agile’s Achilles’ heel?

Filed under: Kanban,leadership,lean,Values — Tags: , , , , , , — Mike @ 12:27 pm

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!

September 4, 2013

Find ways to…

Filed under: Kanban,leadership,Portfolio — Tags: , , , , — Mike @ 9:55 am
  1. Find ways to visualize your work
  2. Find ways to limit your work in progress
  3. Find ways to manage flow
  4. Find ways to implement feedback loops
  5. Find ways to improve (collaboratively, using models and the scientific method)
  6. Find ways to encourage leadership (at every level)*

Then ratchet it up, in terms of both creativity and persistence. Keep finding ways to…

As Larry Wall (of perl fame) says: there’s more than one way to do it. We all think we know what a kanban system should look like, but the further you depart size-wise, speed-wise, scale-wise or complexity-wise from what’s typical – where the board sees a worthwhile and manageable amount of movement each day – the more creative you’ll need to be.

A card wall visualisation may not even be the best starting point. Look at what you have – your existing practices, your existing data. Kanban is after all the start with what you do now method.

(* Yes, that sixth one is a principle of the Kanban method rather than a core practice like the others, but it still works. See also Small Acts of Leadership.)

May 22, 2013

Making a case for “leadership disciplines”

Evoking the 70’s bumper sticker “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas“, I suggested in my last post that

Agreement is not just for the kick-off meeting

Let’s extend that thought to the first group of Kanban’s values. What if we positioned understandingagreement and respect not as initial conditions for a learning environment but as leadership disciplines expected of everyone who has responsibility immediately around it?

Putting Kanban to one side, what would your Agile implementation or other significant change initiative have looked like had there had been sustained outside commitment to the following principles:

1. Understanding is a prerequisite for effective change

  • Change will be based on an understanding of genuine problems or opportunities, framed such that upsides and downsides can reasonably be demonstrated and managed
  • Change increments will be sized according to our understanding, safety never compromised (recalling J curves, bet-the-company bravado and so on)

2. Agreement will not be taken for granted

  • Change will be implemented through agreement between those (or between representative of those) who
    • request or recommend change (the instigators)
    • understand what needs to be done and estimate its impact good and bad (the designers)
    • will implement it
    • will be impacted by it

    Clearly, the more these groups overlap, the easier it gets.

3. Respect is a key test

  • Each change will be conducted respectfully
  • Collectively, change will
    • remove sources of frustration and other barriers to success
    • raise levels of trust and safety
    • create the space for creativity and excellence

What if the “skin” of your “culture bubble” was made up of a group of people who are committed to using their authority to represent and defend those three values? What effect would that have, both on the team and on the wider organisation? Rather than those inside the bubble, perhaps it is this group that should be our first concern?

If not our first concern, then at least a different concern. A focus on leadership discipline at the boundary that promotes change inside in the direction we want (including but not limited to customer focusflow and leadership), sustained internally by the drive of the more practice-focussed values of transparencybalance and collaboration.

It strikes me that this formulation (a minor refinement to the model I presented in Chicago) begins to tackle two common misgivings around Agile and Lean.

Misgiving #1: Hierarchy vs collaboration

This misgiving is most commonly associated with Lean, although similar misgivings are sometimes expressed about Agile, in particular around the Scrum roles. How can an apparently hierarchical management system be reconciled with a culture of collaboration?

Let’s be clear about one thing: I have no interest whatsoever in replicating a shop-floor management hierarchy with its team leads, supervisors and so on. But what about leaders already at the periphery of the change initiative? If they’re expecting to see understanding, agreement, and respect and have learned to live those values themselves, won’t that have an effect? I see this expectation catalysing creative collaboration inside the boundary and facilitating collaborative problem-solving across it (thereby growing the initiative’s scope). Doesn’t this give a good picture what the effective leader (or manager) as coach looks like?

To further illustrate the potential for de-emphasising hierarchy, let’s see less of this (me, 2012):

alignment

and more of this (me, 2013):

change-team

Perhaps hierarchy is like iteration – just as it’s interesting and useful to see how far we can take these ideas (many people now assuming that they’re axiomatic to Lean and Agile respectively), it’s also interesting and useful to describe and explore universes that don’t depend on them quite so fundamentally.

Misgiving #2: The “mindset get-out clause”

I have long wished to challenge those who say that Agile can’t work here because the organisational mindset is wrong (or that Lean failed for the same reason). I find this chicken-and-egg excuse hard enough to swallow when expressed with genuine regret; when it’s accompanied by disrespect (of which “pigs and chickens” is but a mild form) I despair!

If we’re agreed that an incremental, evolutionary approach makes sense both for product development and process improvement, wouldn’t it make sense to approach mindset and culture in the same way? With some kind of plan of attack maybe?

Here’s my starting approach in two steps:

  1. Find the skin of the bubble: I’ve learned the hard way that improvement that isn’t end-to-end is often futile; reaching out upstream and downstream is therefore essential. It’s also natural for me to reach out (or up, if you like) to managers – I was one myself and I have no difficulty in identifying with them.
  2. Speak there the language of values: Don’t just gain an understanding of the problem for yourself; insist that shared understanding and agreement are essential, that respect is both a means and an end, and that their discipline as leaders will be critical not only to initial wins but to lasting success. Then explore the other values as you seek alignment between external and internal goals. Balance was for example a key theme of the early part of my last engagement, moving later into transparency and customer focus.

Real life is of course a little messier than I’ve described but I’m glad to have crystallised much of what I’ve been doing over the past few months.

Acknowledgements

Joshua Kerievsky for broadening my understanding of “safety” (see #techsafety) and Liz Keogh for “respect is a test”, both at #LKNA13Michael Sahota for “culture bubbles”; Steven J Spear whose book The High Velocity Edge (mentioned here) is still exerting its influence.

I’m grateful also to Jim Sutton and Martin Burns for feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

February 26, 2013

How complex systems fail

Filed under: leadership,lean — Tags: , , , , , , — Mike @ 7:40 am

From Steven J. Spear’s The High Velocity Edge, chapter 3 – How Complex Systems Fail:

In all the cases that we examined, there were common characteristics that led to painful results. People lacked a systems view – a full appreciation of how the work they did was affected by and affected the work of other people. Granted that, as Perrow pointed out, it was exceptionally difficult to understand all the nuances of how such as complex system worked, but the people in these cases did not advance their understanding when there were warnings that they should have. Rather than push for ever-better clarity as to how things should work, they were exceedingly tolerant of ambiguities regarding who was supposed to do what, how to convey information from one person to the next, or how to perform a particular task. And even when it was obvious that something was wrong, they worked around the problem, relying on extra vigilance and extra effort. Thus they imposed on themselves the same set of problems day after day, constantly turning down the chance to understand the complex interactions of people, technology, place and circumstances better and thus improve the system as its flaws were discovered.

February 11, 2013

Hear me interviewed on SPaMCAST

I had the pleasure last month of being interviewed by SPamCAST’s Tom Cagley. It’s now up as SPaMCAST 224 – Mike Burrows, Kanban Values. I’ve never appeared in a podcast before and I’m very pleased with the result. Thank you Tom!

I reference these posts:

We touch on some more general aspects of leadership, on what it means to be a change agent, and on why some improvement efforts are ineffective. It may become apparent that the issues raised by “Potato, tomato” and “Agreement: it’s not about you” were on my mind at the time too.

London Lean Kanban Day deserves a link after I described it rather vaguely as being “in London, in March”. I’ll be doing a new version of “Kanban the Hard Way” that (naturally) features values. It’s not quite a values-centric talk – that’s in the works for LKNA13, more on that soon.

 

January 31, 2013

Agreement: it’s not about you

Filed under: Kanban,leadership,Uncategorized,Values — Tags: , , , , , — Mike @ 7:22 pm

Google this morning gives 62 hits on “agreement” for positiveincline.com. Admittedly that includes some dupes, but it’s definitely an itch I keep scratching. Most recently:

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)?
Introducing Kanban through its values (January 2013)

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).
Kanban: values, understanding & purpose (January 2013)

Where in the assessment tool [is] 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”?
How deep is “How deep is your Kanban” (October 2012)

That last one needs some modification. 360-degree agreement is all very well, but it places me at the centre. What happens when I go away? How much agreement is left? If the agreement is about change, is that change really going to stick? David Anderson this week reminded me that change often fails to survive a generational change in leadership. That’s a sobering thought if you’re in the culture game.

I’m struck by the difference in coaching models aimed at getting to “what will you do now?” and other models (the Triad model [1] is a great example) that are more indirect but no less deliberate. Could it be that we invest too much in getting agreement from other people and too little in supporting agreement between people?

I’m pleased to report that I do see some very encouraging signs of the latter kind of agreement in my own consulting and coaching work. It takes time though! I wish I could give some recent concrete examples, but NDAs & such prevent. One day perhaps.

You may enjoy Jason Yip’s article We agree… but… meanwhile. I did!

[1] See The Culture Game – a book by Dan Mezick – Triads are described about half way through the article, and the book it describes is well worth a read.

January 27, 2013

Potato, tomato

Filed under: Kanban,lean — Tags: , , , , , — Mike @ 10:18 pm

I tend to avoid direct comparisons between Kanban, Lean, Agile in general and Scrum in particular. One reason for this is terminology – dialogue is hard enough when opinions are strongly held, but try to engage in it when there is confusion over language! Ouch!

That’s the background to this rather cryptic tweet (watch out for another one later):

Here then are some working definitions that I use. Think about how you use these terms; perhaps that in itself could be the starting point for an interesting conversation.

Self-organisation, self-management

Self-organisation is what’s happening when systems reconfigure themselves in response to environmental change, without external direction. Often associated with resilience, it’s a phenomenon frequently observed in nature and in a wide variety of social systems.

A team could reasonably be described as self-organising if it adjusts its structure or process when faced with conditions outside of the norm (that’s an example, not a definition by the way).

Self-management describes an ability of people, teams or systems to manage or regulate themselves.

A team that prioritises its own work in some predetermined manner and can be relied upon to produce some output in a predictable manner with a minimum of outside intervention can justifiably be described as self-managing. We all know inviduals who are like that too. Again, this is not a definition.

Teams can be either, neither, or both of these. When neither are present, we can expect ineffectiveness (lack of direction or failure complete), inefficiency (the team – by choice or otherwise – is highly dependent on people outside of it) or fragility (no expectation that change will be met positively).

A well-functioning Scrum team encourages both self-organisation and self-management by setting clear boundaries for the team and defining certain roles within the team. Kanban encourages us to make process constraints explicit and evolvable whilst allowing freedom of choice within them. Two approaches that are at the same time very different and yet surprisingly similar in purpose. Mutually exclusive? No!

Increment, iteration

An increment is a piece of work or change that is both meaningful from the recipient’s perspective but still small relative to the whole. Loosely, an incremental delivery approach means that we aim to deliver what we can when we can, in (say) shippable features. Predictability is achieved through (amongst other things) careful sizing and attention to flow.

Iteration is about repetition. Loosely, an iterative delivery approach is one in which we aim to deliver as regularly as we can. Predictability is achieved through (amongst other things) careful attention to commitment.

Within a process we often see elements of both approaches. Towards the input and outputs of a process however we tend to see one dominate over the other. We might see for example regular prioritisation meetings at the input and continuous delivery at the output. Conversely, requests might just arrive when they do but releases are according to a fixed schedule.

Over long enough timescales, either approach is capable of supporting evolutionary delivery, in which the key driving force is feedback from the customer or market. In both cases, we may also see evolutionary change happening to the process itself, perhaps to a degree that implies a change of delivery approach.

I bring these up because of the seeming near-identification of Agile with Scrum and iterative delivery in the one hand, and the equally simplistic identification of Kanban with incremental (or continuous) delivery on the other. When I see authors equate Agile with iterations and put up Kanban as a direct alternative, I despair at the sloppiness. Are they really that uninterested?

Potato, tomato

After excellent bread, the humble potato is my carbohydrate of choice. Like Rabbi Lionel Blue (this reference identifies me as a long-time listener of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme) I would happily eat boiled potato with a side order of potato salad and call it a good (if slightly unbalanced) dinner.

Through my childhood, I ate tomatoes almost exclusively in ketchup form. I now enjoy them in a variety of processed and unprocessed forms. Often in combination with potato.

The shock of the different

Does it come as a shock that things can be different and yet not mutually exclusive? Good together, even?

Time for another cryptic tweet:

That was almost a year ago. If I were to tweet that again, I would pick up a baton thrown down by Torbjörn Gyllebring and give it the until now unused hashtag #andban.

The Kanban method is not a delivery process, it’s an evolutionary method that works with your process, whether that’s iterative or incremental, Agile or not. Applying Kanban will very quickly tell you things about your process, help you understand it better, help your organisation learn and improve. Potato, tomato.

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.

Values

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.

Purpose

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

Acknowledgements

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.

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.

Reflection

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]

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »

Powered by WordPress