A quick Google chat with a friend of mine today about his company’s implementation of Kanban got me thinking - how many people out there who say they’re using Kanban actually know what it is? They may know there’s a board, and maybe some limits, but is that it? Of course, I can’t change what people in general think, but I can certainly work to influence those around me. This post is part of that effort.
Kanban is pretty simple (with respect to core rules / definition), but it’s not as simple as “just put up a board and some numbers.” Just visualizing your workflow can be a catalyst for change, but a Kanban system needs more than that. Straight from the horse’s mouth, the core practices of Kanban are:
- Visualize the workflow
- Limit Work-in-progress
- Measure and Manage Flow
- Make Process Policies Explicit
- Use Models to Suggest Improvement Opportunities
This is coming from the guy who literally wrote the book on Kanban and has toured the world popularizing its use, training people, and watching Kanban successes and failures.
My friend’s company routinely violates WIP limits (“it’s been this way for several months” or something to that effect), and that never provokes a discussion about changing the limit or analyzing the cause of the broken limit. Product management has not fully bought into the system, seeing it instead as a generalized queue. Developers are rather independent (no development manager), and apparently sales has not been pushing for any SLAs, so no one has bothered to analyze flow, measure lead / cycle time, or anything else that can drive toward systematic improvement based on what the board is telling them.
Now, this is not to pick on my friend’s company - he’s a bright guy, as are others he works with. I’ve seen this within my own company as well. I routinely walk by other people’s Kanban boards and say “Hrm, WIP limit 4, 5 items - what’d you decide to do about it?”, which usually prompts some action. Some teams are trying to implement specific policies / standardized work, and I’m the only one that I know of trying to analyze lead and cycle times. Even there, I’m not doing everything that I could do. And yet, I still here Kanban being touted throughout various bits of the organization as “the next big thing”.
Why does any of this matter? Well, it doesn’t, really. Unless, of course, you actually want to get the most out of your system. Presumably, these teams adopted Kanban for a reason - they liked the idea of flow, had seen success stories, and wanted to see what they could do to improve their organization. Is that not still the case? Using Kanban “properly” isn’t that difficult technically, it just requires a bit of buy-in, social capital, and a willingness of people to examine the situations they find themselves in and look for improvement. It doesn’t personally bother me if you’re doing Kanban “wrong”, any more than it would bother me if you were a birth-control using Catholic or a beer-swilling pork-eating Muslim. I just think that Kanban, when used properly, can be a very powerful change catalyst, so if people have a passing interest (enough to adopt the term “Kanban”, at least), I’ll help them out if they want me to.