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

March 6, 2015

Kanban from the Inside: 4. Customer Focus

Filed under: Books,Kanban,Values — Tags: , , , — Mike @ 11:17 am

This is the fourth installment in a roughly weekly series of short excerpts from my book, Kanban from the Inside. Chapter 4 covers the fourth of the Kanban Method’s nine values, customer focus.


Core Practice 3: Manage Flow

Is this a mistake? How do we get from Manage Flow to customer focus? Indulge me for a moment—let me cheat a little, expanding the wording of this core practice to express more fully what this practice really means:

CP3 (expanded): Manage flow, seeking smoothness, timeliness, and good economic outcomes, anticipating customer needs.

This chapter focuses on customer needs and how to anticipate them better. Smoothness and timeliness are covered in the next chapter, on flow. Keep in mind “good economic outcomes” as you read both chapters; economic decision-making is covered in Chapter 15.


Why Customer Focus?

Task focus, role focus, team focus, project focus, product focus, company focus, technology focus . . . the list goes on. So many ways to lose sight of what we’re in business for!

Just as it does inside the delivery process, effectiveness upstream depends on the values we’ve explored so far:

  • Transparency: The system must make visible the difficult choices that need to be made. The decision-making rationale should itself be explicit. Decisions are the focus of feedback loops (prioritization meetings, for example).
  • Balance: The amount of WIP in the system is controlled, both to maintain a reliable supply of high-quality ideas and to force timely decision making. If needed, additional control can be gained by allocating WIP by customer, budget line, risk category, strategic initiative, and so on.
  • Collaboration: The work of qualifying items for further development is shared among the originators of those items and the people who will service them. Instead of sucking risk into the system prematurely, all parties (and there may be several involved) keep their options open until commitment is timely.

Let’s see what customer focus adds:

  • Whose needs do we think are met by these ideas?
  • Are we meeting needs fast enough?
  • What is the data telling us? What are people telling us?
  • What might lie behind those needs?
  • What needs might be going unmet?
  • How can we test that?

In short: Can we develop a better sense for what will be needed?


Anticipating Needs

If there’s a single idea that I’d like you to take away from this chapter, it’s making the mental shift away from doing what is asked, taking orders, fulfilling requests, meeting requirements, and so on, and reorienting the process toward discovering and meeting needs. It’s a shift from an internal perspective (what we think we know) to an external one (what’s still out there to be discovered). It’s also a shift from the past (what we’ve been told) to the future (when the customer’s need will be met).


Next up: 5. Flow. Previously 3. Collaboration: Start from the beginning: 1. Transparency.

September 18, 2014

A process of knowledge discovery

Filed under: Kanban,leadership,lean,Values — Tags: , , , , , — Mike @ 3:32 pm

Creative knowledge work is a process of knowledge discovery. You might say that this statement goes a long way to define creative knowledge work and let the rest be left the imagination, but there is still plenty to be said about the process of knowledge discovery.

In Kanban from the Inside I make 16 mentions of “knowledge discovery” – clearly it’s an important term! They are concentrated in these chapters:

  • 4. Customer Focus, about the value
  • 10. Patterns and Agendas, which introduces the Kanban Lens
  • 20., 22., and 23., which take us through the STATIK implementation steps Model the Workflow (aka Model the Knowledge Discovery Process), Design Kanban Systems, and Rollout respectively

The presence here of the customer focus value is a clue that I leave precise technical definitions to others. Instead, I describe the coming together of attitude and actual practice, which (in general) values encapsulate superbly. My conclusions could be summarised as follows:

  • Aim not merely to take orders or to satisfy requirements, but instead to anticipate and meet needs at the right time
  • Be humble about how little you really know; proceed accordingly
  • Be humble about how inadequately your process uncovers needs; help it to adapt
  • Even after delivery, expect to learn more about how needs are being met; validate!

In short—and with apologies to Stephen Covey—begin humbly with the undiscovered need in mind.

I use the word “humbling” every time I retell the story of my first introduction of an explicit post-delivery validation step. Tired of seeing my teams deliver against unneeded requirements, I insisted on it out of pure frustration and with a “that will teach them” kind of negativity, aimed mainly but not exclusively at our customers. The effect on the whole process was however nothing short of profound; the end result being real collaboration at every stage of the process!

Nowadays, and with the advent of the likes of Lean Startup and Lean UX in which validation is formalized, we know that a commitment to validation is a highly repeatable way to catalyze a shift from requirements-driven to hypothesis-driven development. The Kanban Method doesn’t make this commitment explicit, but it is a widely recognized practice fully in keeping with the customer focus value and the core practices of “Manage flow” and “Implement feedback loops”. And for me personally, there’s no going back.

 

October 23, 2013

One method, three agendas

Working in the US last week with David on some updates to the Kanban curriculum, it struck me soon after writing my last post (where I was thinking out loud) that the Kanban Method speaks to multiple agendas:

  1. The continuous improvement agenda – kanban systems feeding the process of ongoing improvement[1], providing grist to the mills of Agile retrospectives, Lean improvement routines, collaborative PDCA and so on
  2. The service delivery agenda – using service orientation as a lens[2] on process and organisation, being clear about what we deliver, to whom and why, understanding and deepening the knowledge discovery process[3], catalysing collaborative, customer-focused delivery at scale
  3. The humane, start with what you do now agenda – the Kanban Method’s very distinctive, values-centric approach to leadership and organisational change

(Forgive me for presenting these in this inside-to-outside order – it aligns to my talk[4])

Many people both inside and outside the Kanban community find it easy to identify with that first agenda. For better and for worse, it integrates very comfortably with other frameworks, the “better” part being that it helps (a lot), the “worse” part being the limits imposed on Kanban’s reach by attachment to existing models.

I’ve majored all year on that last agenda; from my initial post in early January, explaining Kanban as a system of values has been very fruitful. Invoking Bruce Lee (yes, that Bruce Lee) with “be like water” and “no method is method”, David elevates Kanban’s approach to change to a philosophy.

But neither agenda adequately reflects the impact that Kanban can have from the moment it is introduced. It’s a paradox often observed: how is it that the start with what you do now method so often heralds such immediate change?

Perhaps we’ve invested too much in explaining how Kanban works and too little in describing its effects. We must allow the possibility that some familiar messages that continue to resonate strongly with those that deeply understand Kanban may do little for those that don’t.

The service delivery agenda is distinctive enough (actually quite radical in many organisational contexts) and gets quickly to the immediate benefits. We know from teaching to this agenda that it resonates. Yes, change management and leadership are necessary to bring it about and continuous improvement will sustain it, but those messages can come later.



[1] Or POOGI, the improvement cycle of the Theory of Constraints

[2] See David’s post The Kanban Lens and the kanbandev discussion

[4] Don’t forget LKUK13 (London) next week and LKCE13 (Hamburg) the week after!

September 24, 2013

Anticipating needs ahead of time

Filed under: leadership,lean,Values — Tags: , , , , , , — Mike @ 10:00 am

Last week’s post Stand up meeting, thinking tool, leadership routine included this line:

In what ways do the activities of this stage help us anticipate what will be needed?

“Anticipate” and “will”: two very future-focused words.

That emphasis on the future is captured very nicely in the closing words of the Toyota Customer Promise that I found displayed on a plaque behind the customer service desk at my local Toyota dealership:

…anticipating the mobility needs of people and society ahead of time

Think of a service on which you personally rely. Wouldn’t you be delighted if they anticipated your needs ahead of time? What process innovations would be needed in order for that to happen? How could that thinking be translated into your workplace, and how would it then be sustained?

These are important questions. They’re questions of customer focus, of flow, and of leadership, the three direction values. They’re important because an organisation that works on its capability to anticipate and meet future needs is a fitter organisation, and it’s the fittest that thrive.

There’s more where this came from! My book is going to be a while, but in the next few weeks you can hear me speak on Kanban’s values at:

Unfortunately I must report the postponement of the UKSMA annual conference at which I was to give the keynote. I’ll mention it here when it has been rearranged.

September 16, 2013

Stand up meeting, thinking tool, leadership routine

Filed under: Kanban,lean,Values — Tags: , , , , , , , — Mike @ 11:47 am

My last post was on the provocative side; to restore this blog’s usual balance, here are some antidotes to some of the problems I described. These are ways to use your kanban board to help you look at your process from the perspectives of customer focus and flow, two values from that middle direction layer.

Imagine you’re facilitating a stand-up meeting in front of your board. If you have a physical board, you’re probably heading (in your mind at least) towards the board’s right hand side so that you can stand looking left across the board. If you use an electronic kanban tool, you can achieve a similar effect by turning your laptop or monitor monitor to the left a bit (ok, I’m kidding).

Now scan the board from right to left (in other words working your way backwards from the end of your process towards the start) and ask these questions of the columns:

Customer focus:

  • Whose needs are explored in this stage of the process, and how? Whose aren’t, and what risks does that pose?
  • What do we learn in this stage that we don’t (or can’t) know earlier? In what ways do the activities of this stage help us anticipate what will be needed?
  • What is still to be learned? Are outstanding uncertainties best dealt with by pressing on or by going back?

Flow:

  • How do work items leave this stage in the process? By what criteria do we know that they’re ready? How are those criteria expressed? How is the state change communicated?
  • Typically, how much time do work items spend in this stage? How much (if any) of that time is spent in active work?
  • What are the most significant sources of unpredictability? In the work in or the waiting? Waiting for internal availability or for external dependencies to be resolved?
  • How much of this stage’s capacity is absorbed in rework? Or in failure demand, which arrives only because previous work failed to meet customer needs adequately?
  • How do work items arrive into this stage? How do we know that they’re ready to be worked on?

You may find it helpful to ask some of these questions of individual work items too.

What we’ve done is to turn a popular protocol for standup meetings into a thinking tool. You can try it with other values, for example transparency (is it sufficiently clear what’s going on here?) or balance (are we overburdened here?), or some other concern that seems relevant.

Caution: questions like these already assume the following:

  1. That the process has sensible objectives (to deliver the right kind of things)
  2. That the work flow is scoped sensibly (starts with the right kind of questions, finishes with the right kind of result)
  3. That the work flow is organized sensibly (sequenced to generate high value learning as quickly as possible)

I’ve encountered plenty of processes where these assumptions are open to challenge. For example:

  • A change management process whose objective was the approval or rejection of design changes, disconnected from any actual implementation process. Needless to say, any customer satisfaction delivered out of that process was somewhat short lived.
  • My bank’s account opening process. A frustrating process and several weeks later and I still don’t have online banking, let alone two additional products that I would be willing to pay for. I sense an institutionalised lack of curiosity into my needs and what might be in the way of delivering on them.

Some acknowledgements are in order:

  • The first set of questions questions are heavily influenced by Michael Kennedy and the model of the Knowledge Discovery Process. That’s a Lean product development model, but I find that many processes are usefully understood in those terms.
  • The “whose needs?” questions (the first bullet) point to the very important question: “who holds a veto on delivery?”. This is one of many good customer focus takeaways from Lean Software Strategies by Peter Middleton and my friend Jim Sutton.
  • The idea of understanding a process by walking through it backwards is an old Lean trick. I don’t know for sure how it was discovered and popularised, but Steven Spear describes very well its use as a leadership routine inside Toyota in his book The High-Velocity Edge.
  • Failure Demand is a concept I associate (in the nicest possible way) with John Seddon.

These are all great ideas. Combining them with visual management and practised routine makes them (as well as the values) accessible and actionable, don’t you think?

March 22, 2013

When transparency is not enough (or too much)

Filed under: Kanban,lean,Training,Values — Tags: , , , , , , — Mike @ 2:26 pm

Maria Alfredéen (one of my behind-the-scenes collaborators on the LKNA13 conference version of Introducing Kanban through its values) recently prompted me to consider the limits of transparency, something most of us in the Kanban community value very much. Could too much of the wrong kind of transparency get in the way of flow, either because we’re looking at the wrong things or because it keeps our attention too narrowly on the concerns of one part of the end-to-end process (and “suboptimising”, the cardinal sin of systems thinkers everywhere)? In other words, can transparency and flow sometimes be in tension with each other?

At the BCS-organised London Lean Kanban Day last Saturday, Clifford Shelley spoke of productivity metrics whose publication would cause more harm than good. I couldn’t help wondering whether they should have been collected in the first place (which I think is Clifford’s view too, though I didn’t verify this). On Twitter afterwards, I discussed with Pawel Brodzinski and Paul Klipp whether the appropriateness and effectiveness of transparency was a function of existing organisational culture, in particular of the amount of trust that pervades the organisation. We had surprisingly different perspectives on that, but I think we mostly agree that transparency does have its limits.

Customer focus to the rescue

Without making major changes to teaching materials, keeping the Kanban value system at the front of my mind when teaching does seem to make a difference. For one recent group, customer focus was the value that seemed to touch the most nerves, got conversations going (both lively and reflective), and influenced even their initial attempts at kanban system design. To me it seems significant that one of the values that doesn’t immediately jump out from Kanban’s principles and practices should have this kind of impact when made explicit.

For example:

  • When identifying work item types and their respective workflows, “Know what you’re delivering, to whom, and why” was the catchphrase (and it stuck – I had it played back to me the next day)
  • When exploring what self-organisation really means – and it’s not “working with people you like” as Dave Snowden joked on Saturday – we saw customer focus supplanting excessive role focus and task focus
  • Sensing near-completed work getting “pulled” towards the customer, this feeling strengthened by the deliberate way we reviewed board designs and later conducted stand-up meetings
  • Considering the positive impact on team and customer behaviour (I’ve seen both) made by introducing post-delivery validation. Did we deliver to the customer’s satisfaction? Is it meeting their needs as hoped? Are we happy that what we did is supportable and sustainable so that the customer and team will stay happy?

Revisiting those conversations on transparency and flow I now wonder: is customer focus the thing that will keep them in balance? I have reason to think so. Seeing work pulled towards a customer whose interests we care about surely puts local efficiency into proper perspective. So too does measuring things that matter to the customer (lead times, predictability, quality) rather than things that don’t (lines of code, hours spent in the office).

I now see customer focus not just as something nice or important, but as one value (of three) that help give processes and process improvement a good sense of direction. Part of an “outlook for improvement” as the current draft of my Chicago talk has it.

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