Sunday, November 3, 2019

Under cooked Kanban, an opportunity to significantly boost outcomes

People proclaim “we are doing Kanban” all of the time, unfortunately the vast majority of them have an “under cooked” Kanban implementation and because of that they are missing out on the bulk of the value that Kanban can provide. “Boardban”   or “just pulling in work at will” are the two most common patterns of under cooked Kanban I see. Both of these patterns make some people “feel” very productive (usually the developers) however they produce little benefit to the customer (which is the point of being productive). These patterns make a small part of the system go fast, but produce waste, delays and management overheads for many other parts. Kanban is intended to operate as a cohesive package of principles and practices that re-enforce and support each other. If you are only doing part of Kanban (under cooked) I encourage to learn about the rest of Kanban and consider applying all of it.

This article highlights the pieces of Kanban that can be missing from under cooked Kanban, it explains the value that can be gained and coaching strategies to get you started. Regardless of whether your Kanban is for a team, a portfolio or a company this article will help you improve the outcomes of your Kanban implementation. 

Principles of Kanban

We are doing Kanban!

Sarcastic Response: That’s interesting. “kanban is a signal card used to pull more work into a value stream in a controlled manner. I don’t see signalling occurring or any control for that matter. Do you mean you are doing “The KanbanMethod? which is a rigorous approach for evolutionary change of your technology business? Unfortunately, I cannot see any structure, process, artefact or cultural norms that indicate your business will evolve into anything other than being more chaotic than what it is now.

Missing Element: Principles of Kanban

Helpful Response: Great, I am glad that you have decided to pursue evolutionary change for your business with “The Kanban Method”; it has been proven to work in many different situations and I am confident it can work here too. To have the best chance of successful outcomes with the Kanban Method we should be following its Principles.
  1. Start with what you do now
  2. Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change
  3. Respect the current process, roles & responsibilities
  4. Encourage acts of leadership at ALL levels.

Do you have the whole management team onboard with the principles of the Kanban Method? They will be crucial in the coming months/years as your people collaborate to change the business.  While we started with your existing process, roles and structure (as per principles 1 & 3) we will likely change some or all of that in the future. Without strong management support the necessary changes will be blocked or delayed significantly reducing the outcome Kanban can help you to achieve. That is why principle 2 is “Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change.” We will also need management support for principle 4 “encourage acts of leadership at ALL levels”; we need them to actively support this AND to active not undermine it. Having them on board with this from the beginning will allow us to make the most of any “leadership” opportunities that arise.

We are doing Kanban, because it is better than X

Sarcastic Response: You are seeking to change your business because you heard Kanban was better/easier than X. But you have no goal, no objectives, seemingly no purpose. It must be time to declare victory already and move on.

Missing Element: Purpose and objectives for the change

Helpful Response: Are you and the management team clear on your current situation? I highly recommend System thinking approach to implementing Kanban (STATIK) as an approach to figure out your current situation and what your initial Kanban system should be. STATIK will help you know how fast or how responsible you need to be, among other things. It will help you to define your goals. On that note, are you and the management team clear on what you want to accomplish? Broadly speaking everyone is seeking to improve some of these items, while maintain the rest. Have you formally agreed what you working towards, even if it is just in the short term?

What are you aiming to improve by using Kanban?
  • Responsiveness | Delivery faster or change direction faster
  • Efficiency | Reduce your costs
  • Reliability | Increase your predictability and/or ability to forecast into the future.
  • Innovation of product or service | Produce more value or produce new value.
  • Quality of product or service | Improve the intrinsic quality or make it easier to support
  • Morale | Make your people happier or retain them for longer

If you would like assistance with running a STATIK workshop please contact me.

Practices of Kanban

With the principles agreed with everyone involved, we are ready to implement the practices of the Kanban Method.
  • One: Visualise the work
  • Two: Limit your WIP
  • Three: Manage flow
  • Four: Implement feedback loops
  • Five: Create explicit policies
  • Six: Continuous collaborative evolutionary improvement

None of the other practices are feasible without the first practice ‘Visualise your work’ being in place. Most Kanban implementations have this in place, yet few get past it. Without ‘limiting the work in progress’ (practice 2) it is not feasible to ‘manage flow’ (principle 3), also the other practices are significantly hampered in how much value they can provide. The remaining practices (Implement feedback loops, create explicit policies, evolve collaboratively and continuously) work a lot better when all of the practices are implemented together. Consequently, I view the practices in three sets that have sequential dependencies. Set 1 (visualise your work), Set 2 (Limit your WIP), Set 3 (all of the other practices). Most Kanban implementations visualise the work to some degree (set 1), some apply implementation Limit their WIP (set 2), very few get on the other practices (set 3) and hence miss out on a lot of value.

We are doing Kanban.
Sarcastic Response: Great to see you don’t waste time visualising your work, you are so lean. You must be completing all of your work so quickly that there is no point showing progress? Your customers must be over the moon with your performance.

Missing Element: Practice of Visualising the work (zero visualisation)

Helpful Response: Having your management and people doing the work bought into the principles of Kanban is a really solid foundation. Are you ready to start implementing the practices of Kanban? Good, I would recommend that we start by visualising all of the work. This helps manage our work, is easy to do and is the skeleton that the rest of the Kanban practices attach to.

We are doing Kanban; see we have a board!

Sarcastic Response: That is great news! “Boardban”  makes everyone except the customer feel better. People can work on whatever they want whenever they want; always being busy allows your people to feel productive while generating immense amounts of waste. Managers can see work sitting in the blocked column for months; and staff can explain to them how busy they are.

Missing Element: Practice of Visualise the work (incomplete/ineffective visualisation)

Helpful Response: That is a good start, visualising the work helps your people to better manage themselves and the outcomes. Visualising your work can also act as a subconscious limiter of the amount of work. To achieve more value from Kanban consider asking yourself these questions:
  • Do you have all of your work visualised? Have all of your people visualised their work? Without ALL of the work visualised:
    • Decisions about how to complete the work will be made with incomplete information, leading to poor decisions.
    • Delays and bottlenecks could be hidden.
    • You are unable to effectively move onto the next practice of limiting your WIP. There is no point reducing the flow from a visible garden hose, if there is a hidden fire hose on full, flooding your pool.
  • Can your people self-select their next work item? Does your visualisation provide all of the information they need to make an effective decision? Can you see the following?
    • The workflow steps.  Not process steps, the workflow steps. All steps from Idea to Cash.
    • The assignee or lead on each item.
    • The breakdown of work (which parent item do the children relate to)
    • Clear description of each work item
    • The items which are blocked.
We are doing Kanban; see I can pick up a new work item from the board whenever I like!

Sarcastic Response: That is great news! I see here you have 23 items in progress, you must be so productive. Oh, everyone is really busy, there is a mountain of work on this board. [Looking closer] Most of them are blocked, when you get blocked, do you just pick up another item, and keep on working.

Missing Element: Practice of Limiting Work In Progress (WIP)

Helpful Response: This board is very helpful, I am glad that you have it up and showing all of your work, this will allow us to bring in the other Kanban practices; which in turn will allow us to achieve our stated objectives (refer above for more details). The hardest step of Kanban is now before us, time to start limiting our work in progress.

Limiting WIP to deliver more value is a counter intuitive concept. It is a significant coaching challenge to help people get past their intuitive view. Some of the concepts to convey that help to get this across include
  • The big goal we are working towards is to deliver value to our customer.
  • Littles Law – the mathematical proof behind Limiting WIP leads to increase throughput.
  • Limiting WIP, increases throughput, even if staff feel less productive.

We are doing Kanban, there is a WIP limit on our “In Progress” column

Sarcastic Response: So, that one limit has optimised the flow of value to your customers. You must be a luckiest Kanban practitioner alive.

Missing Element: Practice of Managing Flow

Helpful Responses: It is refreshing to talk to someone who realises that limiting WIP delivers great results. It seems as if you are not actively managing the flow, this presents a great opportunity to get closer to your objectives.

Flow of value
  • Does your board visual the workflow up to the customer obtaining value? 
  • Do you apply classes of service to manage your different types of work?
  • Have you applied the Theory of Constraints (especially the five focusing steps)? TOC helps us to increase flow in an economically sound and sustainable manner.

Limiting WIP to increase flow
  • How do you limit your WIP? 
  • Have you tried limits other than column limits? 
  • Have you separated each workflow state into “doing” and “ready”?
  • Do you stick within your limits, when they are about to be breached do your people meet to discuss how/should this occur and also should the system be changed? 

  • What have you done to identify and remove the waste in your system? 
  • Have you limited your WIP until it exposed the delays in your system? Aka If your WIP limits have not caused pain you haven’t lowered them enough to find the delays in your system. 
  • Do you “Follow the work, not the worker”? This encourages better discussions and helps your staff make economically sound decisions.

We are doing Kanban, meetings and reviews are wasteful so we don’t do them.

Sarcastic Response: That is fantastic, our market never changes and we have no risks, so there is no need to spend time understanding them. I see everyone is 100% aligned to our development approach which is working flawlessly, so no need to spend time on that either.

Missing Element: Practice of Creating feedback loops

Helpful Response: You are managing your flow and that seems to be producing results, for now. The market you are in, and company you are part of and the work you are asked to do, is continuously changing; do you have approaches in place to identify and adjust to those changes? Kanban addresses this with feedback loops , aka a series of meetings with defined purpose, appropriate cadence, suitable input of both data and people.  Perhaps we could review them and understand which would provide value for your situation.

We are doing Kanban; we don’t waste time recording the process

Sarcastic Response: That is elegant; your process is so simple, that all of your staff have memorised all of the rules and regularly enacts them correctly, that is very lean. 

Missing Element: Practice of Creating explicit policies

Helpful Response: You do have a process though? Yes of course you do. What good is a process is only some people know it? What good is a process if some people are deliberately doing something different? Assuming those people are acting in the best interests of the company (which is likely) that would indicate the process is either wrong or incomplete. Kanban is a very process driven approach; that empowers everyone equally and removes heroes as the only way things get done. Explicit policies and the next practice of evolving collaboratively and continuously and tightly linked. Without explicit public policies how can your staff collaborate to change the policies?

Some lines of inquiry to help with creating explicit policies

  • Where are the policies currently recorded? 
  • Do they cover the whole approach? Are they consistent? Are the simple?
  • Are the WIP/Constraints visualised next to the work? 
  • Can your staff see the policies when deciding what next step to take?
  • Can your staff see the policies when they are reflecting on how the current system is working? 

We have been doing Kanban for over a year it has been great from the start

Sarcastic Response: Brilliant, so you got your process completely correct from the start. No need to tweak, improve or refine it, that is amazing! Ah I see so you do refine it, by yourself, ah yeah, no need to involve the others who do the work, better to keep them busy, they aren’t interested in how the system works as long as it works. Plus, you have a much better understanding of what changes are needed anyway. And no need for experiments, just make the changes that you know will work, you are the manager after all.

Missing Element: Practice of evolving collaboratively and continuously.

Helpful Response: You have all of the other pieces of the puzzle; it is time to unlock it through continuous evolutionary change done in a collaborative manner. It is the practice that ties Kanban together and delivers significant benefits over the long term; both in terms of staff engagement and achieving all of you other objectives. To get started it is ideal to have all of the principles and practices of Kanban in effect. We then need to add in suitable metrics and a scientific approach to running experiments on your system. The feedback loops we established earlier provide ample opportunity to carry out the work of evolving your system. Overtime the validated experiments that embed as the new way of working will maximise the value you deliver.


You don’t have to use Kanban. You can “under cook” Kanban and get some value out of it. To maximise your outcomes from Kanban, I recommend you apply all of its principles and practices. For assistance with this please contact me, to discuss how I can support your business to achieve more.