Category Archives: Kanban

How Kanban Saved Agile

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For my working definition of Kanban, please refer to my previous article 14 Things Every Agilist Should Know About Kanban (this contains links to the Kanban body of knowledge, including Essential Kanban Condensed by David J. Anderson and Andy Carmichael).

For my working definition of Agile, please refer to The Manifesto for Agile Software Development.

In reality, Kanban isn’t actually saving Agile nor is it intended to, nor is any thoughtful and responsible Kanban practitioner motivated by this agenda. What I’m really trying to convey is how human thinking about the business of professional services (including software development) has evolved since “Agile” as many of us know it was conceived around 20 or so years ago. The manifesto is the collective statement of a group of software development thought leaders that captured some of their ideas at the time about how the software industry needed to improve. Essentially, it was about the iterative and incremental delivery of high-quality software products. For 2001, this was pretty heady stuff. You could even say that it spawned a movement.

Since the publication of the manifesto in 2001, a lot of other people have had a lot of other good ideas about how the business of delivering professional services can improve. This has been well documented in well known sources too numerous to mention for the scope of this article.

Substantial contributions to the discourse have been generated by and through the LeanKanban community. The aim of Kanban is to foster environments in which knowledge workers can thrive and create innovative, valuable and viable solutions for improving the world. Kanban has three agendas: survivability (primarily but not exclusively for the business executives), service-orientation (primarily but not exclusively for managers) and sustainability (primarily but not exclusively for knowledge workers). Kanban provides pragmatic, actionable, evidence-based guidance for improving along these three agendas.

Evolutionary Theory is one of the key conceptual underpinnings of the Kanban Method, most notably the dynamic of punctuated equilibrium. Evolution is natural, perpetual and fundamental to life. Long periods of equilibrium are punctuated by relatively short periods of “transformation”—apparent total and irreversible change. An extinction event is a kind of punctuation, so too is the rapid explosion of new forms. Evolutionary theory is not only a scientifically proven body of knowledge for understanding the nature of life. It can be also applied to the way we think about ideas, methods and movements.

For example, science has more or less established that the extinction of the dinosaurs, triggered by a meteor impact and subsequent dramatic atmospheric and climate change, was in fact a key punctuation point in the evolution of birds. In other words, dinosaurs didn’t become extinct, rather they evolved into birds. That is, something along the lines of the small dinosaurs with large feathers hanging around after Armageddon learned to fly over generations in order to escape predators, find food and raise their young. Dinosaurs evolved into birds. Birds saved the dinosaurs.

There has been a lot of social media chatter and buzz lately about how Agile is dead. It is a movement that has run its course, or so the narrative goes. After all, 20 years is more or less the established pattern for the rise and fall of management fads. But too much emphasis on the rise and fall of fads can blind us to larger, broader (deeper) over-arching trends.

The agile movement historically has been about high-performing teams. More recently, market demand has lead to the profusion of “scaling” approaches and frameworks. Scaling emerged out of the reality of systemic interdependence in which most Agile teams find themselves. Most agile teams are responsible for aspects of workflows—stages of value creation—as contributors to the delivery of a service or multiple services. Agile teams capable of independently taking requests directly from and delivering directly to customers are extremely rare. For the rest, classical Agile or Scrum is not enough. The feathers just aren’t big enough. Agile teams attempting to function independently (pure Scrum) in an interdependent environment are vulnerable to the antibodies of the system, especially when such interdependencies are merely denounced as impediments to agility.

Some organizations find themselves in a state of evolutionary punctuation (the proverbial sky is falling) that can trigger rapid adaptations and the emergence of local conditions in which independent service delivery teams can thrive. Most large, established organizations seem to be more or less in a state of equilibrium. Whether real or imagined, this is what change agents have to work with. However, more often than not, the typical Agile change agent seems adamant that the sky is always falling and that everyone accepting that the sky is falling is the first step to real and meaningful change. This is not an attitude held by Agile change agents alone. This is a standard feature of traditional 20th Century change management methods, the key selling point for change management consulting.

Naturally, most self-identifying “Agilists” see themselves as change agents. Many of them find themselves in the position of change management consultants. But the motivation for change can quickly become misaligned: Change needs to happen in order for Agile to work. If you are passionate about Agile, you will seek to bring about the environmental changes that will allow for Agile to thrive. We don’t need to follow this path too far until Agile becomes an end in itself. It is understandable then that for some, Agile appears to be a dead end, or just dead.

But if there is a larger, over-arching historical process playing out, what might that be? Perhaps it has something to do with the evolution of human organization. Perhaps we are living in a period of punctuation.

 

 


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14 Things Every Agilist Should Know About Kanban

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So you are embarking on an Agile transformation. One important thing you need to figure out (and hopefully you have some consultants helping you) is how many Scrum Teams you will need for product development and how many Kanban teams you will need for operations, deployment, support, maintenance, keeping the lights on, etc. Because when you create a bunch of cross-functional teams they will have gaps in their Agile engineering practices and their definition of “done” will have to be limited by several organizational factors. The teams won’t have access to many of the environments and there won’t be enough specialized resources to assign to each team. Plus, the nature of the work coming into the ops and support teams are much more finely grained and varied than user stories in a Sprint Backlog and it’s important that the Scrum teams focus on their products and are not disrupted by every little change request from the business. So you need Kanban teams to do the work that the Scrum Teams can’t do yet as well as the stuff that you don’t want your Scrum Teams to be distracted by.

That’s more or less the popular consensus on the role of Kanban in the Agile community. Some acclaimed thought leaders have even written popular books and blog posts about it. But if one digs a little deeper, one finds that there is much more to Kanban than meets the common agilist’s eye (although clearly this is changing, evidenced by the existence of this piece of writing). So here are the 14 things that I can think of off the top of my head:

  1. The Kanban Method is not about transformation. At least not the radical, deep Satir J-Curve brand of transformation that has been attempted in many organizations. All too often with the radical approach, there is enough resistance to change and enough ensuing chaos for the leaders of the organization to lose patience with the change initiative before the system has a chance to recover.
  2. Moreover (and dangerously), many so-called champions of change are not aware that Satir was a psychotherapist and that her J-Curve method was employed to change the identity of her clients, breaking them down and building them up again. What’s important here is that Satir was a psychology professional working with willing clients to help them transform into the people they wanted to be. This is not the case with most professional knowledge workers. Knowledge workers tend to not be seeking this kind of service from managers and coaches. A more brutal version of this technique has been employed to transform teenagers into deadly soldiers.
  3. Instead of deep J-Curve transformation, the Kanban Method proposes small, rapid J-Curve experiments. This approach to change provokes less resistance, avoids extended periods of thrashing in chaos and the severe testing of leadership patience. Well-designed small J-Curve experiments produce just enough organizational stress to stimulate change without drop-kicking people into deep chaos and despair and forcing the regression of an organization to lower levels of trust and maturity.
  4. The Kanban Method is a management system for the design and evolution of the interdependent services of an organization. Such services are often composed of several Scrum Teams, shared services, managers, senior staff and specialists and are often themselves served by other services. Every service is delivered via a system of stages of knowledge discovery (rather than hand-offs). See more on this here.
  5. The design of a system determines the fitness for purpose, flow of value and quality of the service (as demonstrated by Deming’s Red Bead Experiment). It’s not about high-performance teams. It’s about the performance of the system.
  6. Transparency of the system empowers knowledge workers to self-organize around the work because they understand the system and are trusted to know what to do in order to deliver the service.
  7. Kanban managers are systems managers, not people managers and not coaches.
  8. Team-level Kanban is actually a form of proto-Kanban—still Kanban, but in an immature state, an incomplete rendering of a service delivery system.
  9. A Kanban system is a pull system. The capacity of the system is calibrated for optimum flow. New work enters the system when there is sufficient capacity to absorb the new work without overburdening the system and disrupting flow. Demand is balanced against capacity.
  10. All demand is potentially refutable. When there is capacity in the system to start new work, sources of demand collaborate to determine what is the most important work to start next and the system is replenished.
  11. Deciding what to start next is based on economics—transparent and rational risk assessment.
  12. Once the system is replenished and there is a commitment to deliver the newly-started work, risks are managed with explicit policies such as classes of service, work-in-process limits, pull-readiness criteria, feedback loops and relevant metrics (i.e. not team velocity).
  13. Average lead time from project or feature commitment to completion is a basic metric. Improving the system results in a reduction in both lead time and lead time variability. Delivery forecasts are based on historical lead time data. Deadlines are also managed with lead time data (i.e. deciding when to start something).
  14. All of the above is the responsibility of management. This should leave little management capacity for monitoring individual performance and story point velocity of teams (white bead count). A sign of a mature Kanban system is that managers have improved their behaviour and are focused on improving the system and that knowledge workers are free to self organize around the work as skilled, adult professionals.

If you are interested in the history of the Kanban Method, start here.

Best starter book: Essential Kanban.


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Link: Scrum Vs. Kanban

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Vandana Roy writes a most succinct and clear description of Scrum and Kanban in this exceptional article.

Although I was first introduced to OpenAgile in 2013, Scrum and Kanban are relatively new to me this year. While not working in a tech-based department which uses these methods, I am interested in learning as much as possible about each system. I found her explanation and chart very helpful.

Here is a quote and chart she features in the article:

“Both Scrum and Kanban are unique and emphasize on more productivity with quality and efficiency for business. The table below shows advantages of both Scrum and Kanban and the commonality in both is  to keep delivering quality product.”

 

Advantages of Scrum

Advantages of Kanban

Transparency

Flexibility

Improved credibility with clients

Focus on Continuous Delivery

High Product Quality

Increased productivity and quality

Product Stability

Increased efficiency

Team members reach sustainable pace

Team members ability to focus

Allows client to change priorities and requirements quickly

Reduction of wasted work/wasted time


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