Kanban is a way of visualizing work in a process. Think of it as a real-time status report on work items that are valuable, where they are in the process, and whether they are successfully moving along toward completion. Demonstrating how Kanban works to people unfamiliar with it usually sparks a reaction like no other Agile concept: mouths open and people say, “We could do that.”
Some reasons why people are so eager to adopt Kanban as opposed to an Agile method like Scrum or xP include:
- How seamless Kanban is. Kanban works anywhere with almost anything. If you have work items that go through at least one step before they are done, then you can use Kanban. Kanban can be adopted by an individual for personal work, or it can be adopted by an organization to follow their major initiatives to completion.
- Kanban doesn’t require a lot of knowledge to implement. The Kanban Guide is only a few pages long. If you have a place to put cards and draw columns, you can do Kanban. You don’t need to read a book about management, understand the Agile Manifesto, or even the effects of queueing theory that Kanban can visualize.
- Kanban creates a low amount of friction within current team culture. There is no need to change your organizational chart, your process, the chain of command, or the flow of work. If you build a Kanban board, you won’t create a massive shakeup within the current team.
And while Kanban will help with visualizing your work and show what is happening on your team today, things get really interesting as soon as you start taking lessons from what you observe and making changes.
What Kanban Will Reveal
There are common things that visualizing work through Kanban typically reveals—particularly in a department of a large organization:
- Too much is going on and it’s hard to coordinate all the work.
- There are so many work items that they are often colliding on people’s desks.
- The projects in the company are bouncing around with little evidence-based prioritization.
- There are critical contributors who are overloaded and must be involved with everything.
- Things move slowly through the process, often getting stuck at particular steps for obvious reasons.
- Things often move backward through the process when they shouldn’t have to.
All of these things are generally true for just about any organization that adopts Kanban. For these issues that rise to the surface with Kanban visualizing the workflow, let’s dig into what lessons an organization can learn from each.
Too Much is Going On
When there’s too much going on, the reason is not that the team doesn’t know how to coordinate. Instead, because of all the coordination, the team is trying to do everything at once. Rather than focusing on the 20% of work that will yield 80% of the value or working on items in a serial way so that they can be expedited into the marketplace, teams try and take on 100% of the work all at once. This overloads the pipes, jams things up, and the ROI of the work is not realized until much later.
Work Items are Colliding
With too many things going on and projects competing for attention on almost everyone’s desks, we might seek to lower the amount of work going on and dedicate people to pipelines of work. This is the right answer, but unfortunately, we then find that there are two or three people who are critical to almost everything. These people’s desks are bottlenecks for everything we have going on. We cannot dedicate people to teams, restructure the flow of work, and lower the work in the system when these few people are needed everywhere.
Little Evidence-Based Prioritization
When projects are prioritized or de-prioritized based on arbitrary decision-making, this lowers team morale. Instead of relying on leaders to escalate priorities and move things around, empower your teams who are closest to the work. By dedicating people to product or sub-product teams where they receive a digestible list of work, they can decide what is most important.
Critical Contributors are Overloaded
When a critical contributor is overloaded, you might be tempted to pull these bottleneck people out of the system and let them be shared by all. In some cases, this makes sense, as not every team needs an HR or legal aid to accomplish day-to-day work. However, if the function is needed on a daily or even weekly basis, then it does make sense to expand the number of people who perform the function to relieve the bottleneck—or, better yet, cross-train people to perform the function themselves and push responsibility for it further down to unlock the potential of more employees.
Work is Moving Slowly
When you observe work moving slowly through the system, it could be that the workflow has many gating steps in it which slow things down, some of which may be unnecessary. It might be time to take a second look at the gates and remove those which are not necessary. Consider how many gates were put in place as embellishments to the workflow, leading it to now be overly-complex and filled with single-use solutions.
Work is Moving Backward
The first time you see a card go backward on the Kanban board, you probably feel some anxiety. Work going backward is rework, and it means that an item moved on from a step before it was validated and ready for the next step. Many times this is due to work being pushed along rather than pulled. Pulling only the work that can be performed comfortably at each step helps increase the flow of value through the system and keeps the team empowered to move at the right pace.
It’s not a board on a wall or an electronic tool that makes visualizing work through Kanban so powerful—it is seeing work impeded from flowing, removing those impediments, and the organizational culture change these actions trigger. The true power of Kanban is when it causes us to question how work is done, why gates exist, how siloes negatively impact flow, what motivates and empowers people, where knowledge is hoarded, and our false beliefs about how to get the most work done soonest.
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