Effective Kanban: Myths and Reality

Original author: Mike Burrows
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Typically, an introduction to the kanban method begins with a description of the kanban board with cards and then explains its basic methods. If you're lucky, you will be able to hear about the fundamental principles of kanban.

Here I will try to present a different approach: one in which principles are equally important (which, it seems to me, should come first - after all, they are not just called “fundamental”), and the basic methods of identifying values ​​that lie in their basis. At the same time, we will cover most of the main elements of the method - it may be a basic introduction to kanban!

Despite the comprehensive nature of values, they are consistent with the main goal of kanban (managing evolutionary organizational change), and also help clarify three misconceptions:

  • that kanban is some kind of software development process;
  • that the kanban method does not contain any special values ​​that are interesting to implement, so that this becomes a real challenge for the team, and at the same time be used as support for organizational changes;
  • that kanban is only suitable for nerds, obsessed with counting indicators, working in organizations where everything is subject to strict control (I exaggerated the last misconception a little).

Moreover, I also hope to show that the value-oriented description of the kanban method is also useful for other, more constructive reasons.

My starting point

Of the fundamental principles of kanban in the order in which they are usually listed, I distinguish four values: understanding, agreement, respect and leadership. The first of them requires some explanation, and the rest can be taken literally.

The values ​​behind the six basic practices of kanban are a little more complicated, not because practices are not based on values, but because there is no literal correspondence between practices and values. I have chosen four more values ​​(now there are already eight): transparency, balance, flow organization and cooperation. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that it would be useful to move away from the obvious sequence presented, and I was forced to add another additional value - customer focus. A total of nine values.

As soon as I talk about each of them in detail, we will reveal a few more candidates for inclusion in the list of values: I will highlight in bold type everything that can be called a value (mainly abstract nouns). They are less important (compared to those already mentioned), less binding, and are more likely to be auxiliary in nature.

Nine Core Kanban Values

1. Understanding

Understanding is one of the least obvious values ​​of kanban. I put a special meaning in the first fundamental principle: "Start with what you are doing now." Understand what you are changing, whether it’s the smallest details of a process, the execution of a process under stressful conditions, or something abstract, like your organization’s general approach to change.

Insist on understanding, because a potentially “workable” process, the essence and purpose of which no one can explain, is a sign that you have forgotten what you are trying to achieve.
The Process Myth , Rands in Repose Blog

In our training on kanban methodology, we teach systemic thinking, which puts understanding very high on the list of priorities. Understanding questions are raised in the first paragraphs of the introduction to the method; they underlie the very first exercise. Where does the work come from? What characterizes the different types of work? Which approaches to problems of change and improvement, as a rule, lead to success, and which ones to failure: in general and especially in your organization? Why can this happen?

By definition, a lack of understanding is what characterizes cargo-cult realizations. Even with good intentions, there is a chance of losing meaning when the change is imposed by the authorities from above, is poorly justified (for example, the authorities rely too much on the attractiveness of best practice) And this change, while remaining unreasonable, goes down the hierarchical steps of the organization. It is not at all surprising that draft changes tend to disappoint. Unfortunately, for lazy or unskilled managers understanding and related values ​​- training and alignment require effort.

2. Agreement

The agreement is mentioned in the second fundamental principle: “Pre-agree on important changes.” I like to say differently: do you expect success in implementing change without this [preliminary agreement]? Could it be that, precisely because of the lack of agreement, your progress will face limitations? Or, perhaps, there is some agreement, but not detailed enough: that is, do you agree that the problem exists, but do not see its causes or impact (that is, there is a lack of understanding )?

This principle seems to imply another value - incrementalism.. However, I would shy away from describing it as a core value, since we are promoting incremental, evolutionary changes, because they have a high chance of success, and not because the alternative options - radicalism or conservatism are no better. And if pragmatism is a value, then it is very doubtful.

3. Respect

“Respect for people” is the core of the Lean methodology . Kanban applies it to the problem of organizational change in the third principle: "Respect the existing order, roles and responsibilities."

As in life, it’s good to lead changes with respect . Will your chances of success increase if you start to hint that people do poor work or do not play any important role? Probably not. Is it helpful to suspect them of unreliability? Again, no. But does respecting mean simply “being good”? And again, no:

Showing respect for people does not mean that you are obliged to like them, that you must agree with their views and not dispute unreasoned thoughts.
Steven parry

Such respect requires courage , and this leads us to the next value.

4. Leadership

Leadership is mentioned in many success stories, but only in 2012 it was added to the fundamental principles in the form: "Encourage initiative at all levels in the organization - from each employee to the top manager."

Much has already been written about leadership, and I will not write more, I will only make a few quick observations:

  1. You may dream of a dictator leader, perhaps Steve Jobs (or Steve Ballmer), but leadership types are different at each level.
  2. It is not only leadership that needs to be valued, management also does not need to be despised (remember respect ?).
  3. In addition, neither leadership nor management interferes with self-organization, where individuals, groups, and systems are able to adapt without indicating superiors. Rather, competent leadership and good governance create the conditions in which self-organization flourishes.
  4. Good leadership includes criticism (we already talked about this above). As initiators of change, we must be prepared to challenge other people's opinions and accept criticism.

5. Stream

Turning to the practice, we start with the third: “Flow Control”.

In this practice, the word “management” refers to tactical organization and decision-making aimed at work aimed at optimal results (talking about efficiency ). Although with varying success, to some extent this is a universal strategy.

The flow (“flow”) adds the phrase a more specific meaning - a feeling of smoothness and predictability . Given these sensations, the systematic resolution of issues related to constraints becomes a tool for improvement, which is cited as an example in the Lean methodology.

We also appreciate the flow, as Mihai Chiksentmihaii wrote, as a positive state of complete immersion in what we do. It is difficult to “catch” this type of flow when things distracting attention, temporary stops and constantly changing priorities dominate the work environment.

6. Customer focus

We're not done with Flow Control yet! An extended version of this practice may look something like this: Throughout the entire period of work, strive to complete tasks on time and gradually increase the value of your work for the client.

The word " value " is understood both in the meaning of the goal (why the consumer needs it) and in the monetary sense (the main thing is not to confuse utility with value). If we approach the phenomenon of completion of work , putting the consumer at the forefront, then we must go beyond the process (“The task is fully completed”) or product (“The product is potentially ready for delivery”) approaches. Based on my experience, this is an amazingly complex concept, the impact of which can be impressive.

The work done, which is not yet beneficial to the client, is called irreparable costs. We will return to this issue and consider part of the phrase “throughout the entire term of work” when we get to the value of balance.

7. Transparency

Transparency lies at the basis of three main kanban practices at once: the first “Visualize work”, the fourth “Make policies understandable to everyone”, and the fifth (another innovation of 2012) “Implement feedback”.
Kanban proclaims transparency at several levels:

  1. By making the work visible;
  2. By making visible the work flows through which individual tasks pass, and the states in which individual tasks are located, at any given time;
  3. By making visible the parameters, policies and restrictions that guide the decision-making process and, ultimately, determine the overall performance of the system;
  4. By making visible the impact of all of the above on customer-oriented performance indicators.

The first two types of transparency naturally came from the kanban systems, after which the method itself was named. The first three together create shear points - points in our systems where significant changes can be made with relatively little effort and expense. The fourth type (feedback loop) tells us that change leads us in the right direction.

Kanban, therefore, is a way to develop systems that learn and adapt, it is a strategy of organizations that helps to find an opportunity to adapt to external conditions better than competitors.

8. Balance (balance)

The second main practice is “Limit the number of tasks in work (WIP)”. There are several advantages to this limitation:

  1. Thanks to Little’s law , Lead Time, and therefore the feedback loop, is shortened; the client gets what he wants sooner and training [of the system] is accelerated.
  2. Work starts only when it is possible to complete it. From the point of view of an individual work, this creates a flow , and from the point of view of a team or employee (remember respect !) Keeps supply and demand in equilibrium .
  3. With just one small detail, we can easily find a balance between different types of operational work, as well as between operational work and work to improve the system.

This paragraph suggests another principle: “Accept diversity.” About systems that work well in different directions, they say that they are stable , which is good for the client, for the organization, and for the employee - another example of balance. As part of the development of system sustainability, the kanban method can add predictability to various types of individual jobs over the entire duration of the job (terms can vary from a few hours or days to several months or more), and this is a really powerful improvement.

More information about the value of balance in the kanban method can be found in David Anderson’s speech “When Kanban is not suitable for you” [ video ], [ slides ]. My talk “When Kanban Isn't Easy” [ video], [ slides ] includes an explanation of the concepts of diversity and sustainability.

9. Collaboration

Collaboration is featured in the sixth (and last) main practice, “Improve collaboration, develop experimentally [using models and a scientific approach]”.

Taking into account the agreement , respect and customer focus , cooperation forms the expectation that the borders within our own team will be erased for the time being when resolving issues related to flow-blocking factors.

The full wording of this practice includes reference to systematic work aimed at improving understanding through observation, model building, experimentation and measurement ( empiricism ).

“The use of models” also has a second meaning, implying the existence of such values ​​as curiosity and even generosity . Kanban actively encourages its followers to seek solutions that are not yet reflected in the methodology in order to expand the existing knowledge base.

Kanban recognizes the foundations of the Lean methodology, the theory of constraints and Agile, the principles of queuing theory and the complex sciences and has [the development of companies] the same varied influence as the concept of Lean Startup. Individual kanban followers have their own favorite models - for example, I rely on the A3, GROW, and Influencer.

Why are nine values ​​enough?

I was worried that the value of “ customer orientation ” of the Lean methodology could not be inferred logically from the standard wording, basic principles and methods of Kanban - you could say that I must have deceived you! But I think she fully deserves her place.

And here are the other values ​​that I have identified:

  1. Learning and alignment are strongly associated with understanding . I fully admit that you can think of a situation where both of these values ​​will be important, but I think that my situation best reflects the essence of the basics of kanban in systemic thinking. The article I most often refer to emphasizes the importance of learning, so it was difficult for me [not to write about learning]!
  2. Challenge (as well as vision ) and courage are implied within the framework of leadership , so I do not consider these two values ​​to be fundamental. Here is a post on this topic.
  3. Self-organization would be necessary in the design of the organizational structure, but respect seems to be a more adequate guide for the initiator of change. Other things being equal, respect involves making decisions that allow or develop self-organization.
  4. I often think of sustainability as a value, but it describes the outcome more than the approach itself. With smoothness and predictability , the same thing comes out.

How to make values ​​work

Let's look at our nine values:

Understanding, Agreement, Respect,
Leadership, Flow, Customer Orientation,
Transparency, Balance, Cooperation.

This is a pretty long list. Longer than the initial of three or four values, which I quoted for some time at every opportunity, but also not so long that we could not discuss them all, recall and refer to them.

Do some values ​​resonate with you more than others? What does this tell you? I could illustrate this with a leadership example - the differences between practicing method followers can be very revealing!

Do you think something is missing in your current [working] environment? Again, what does this tell you? Does this help identify things that really need to be properly organized?

For example, I recall times when the lack of the right type of agreement led either to a slowdown in the pace of change or to changes from which it was too easy to return to its original state. Based on what I read, I believe that I am not alone in my opinion. PS Mike Barrows (author of the original) is one of the speakers at the Lean Kanban Russia thematic conference , which will be held in Moscow from October 2 to 3, 2015. Registration is already open - we invite you to participate actively!

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