Now that my Beyond Agile book has been published, I would like to thank people who helped shape its content and ideas. David Anderson has done much to popularize and explain lean and the Theory of Constraints thinking.
The Kanban Method can teach agile practitioners many useful ideas about incremental improvement, successful organizational change, and improved team performance. So, rather than considering it an alternative to agile approaches, I like to think of it as a compliment, another source for ideas, tools, and solutions.
We have a tendency to get attached to our personal favorite agile approach, whether that is Scrum, XP, or something else, and regard alternative approaches as somehow inferior or derivative. However, the Kanban Method has some useful additions, so let us see what it has to offer.
First, many people are confused between kanban and the Kanban Method, so it is worth some clarification. The Japanese word kanban (usually with a lowercase k) means “signal,” “sign,” or “large visual board.” Agile teams often use kanban boards to visualize their work. These kanban boards typically show queues and work in progress (WIP). They may also show WIP limits for activities and expedite paths for urgent work.
The Kanban Method (usually capitalized) is a complete process for defining, managing, and improving the execution of knowledge work. David Anderson developed it in 2007 and, like agile, has its own set of values, principles, and practices. More than just using kanban boards to track and manage your work, it is a full lifecycle approach for running and improving knowledge-work projects.
David and I worked together in the early 2000s on the Agile Project Leadership Network (APLN) board. He appreciated the concepts of agile and combined them with concepts from Theory of Constraints and lean design to develop a method focused on the flow of work that could be applied to any knowledge-work scenario. Unlike agile approaches that suggest a complete switch to agile work execution, Kanban starts with the process you have right now and provides tools to improve its service.
This makes the Kanban Method much easier to adopt, as no big upheaval, retooling or enterprise-wide training is required. Instead, the Kanban Method principles are applied to the way things are currently done.
- Change management
- Start with what you do now.
- Agree to pursue improvement through evolutionary change.
- Encourage acts of leadership at every level.
- Service delivery
- Understand and focus on your customers’ needs and expectations.
- Manage the work; let people self-organize around it.
- Evolve policies to improve customer and business outcomes.
Based on these principles, three parallel and ongoing agendas (themes of work) are employed:
- Service orientation: Look outward and focus on performance and customer satisfaction. Ask How can we meet and exceed customer goals?
- Sustainability: Look inward to find a sustainable pace and improve focus. Make intangible work visible and then balance demand with capability.
- Survivability: Look forward to remain competitive and adaptive to more change. Scan for the emergence of disruptors and value diversity to better handle change.
Throughout all the approaches, a core set of values based on respect and collaboration is embraced. These are:
- Transparency: Sharing information through straightforward terms improves the flow of work.
- Balance: The understanding that competing elements must be balanced for effectiveness.
- Collaboration: People must work together to be effective.
- Customer focus. We must know the goal for the system.
- Flow: The realization that work is a flow of value.
- Leadership: The ability to inspire others through example, description, and reflection.
- Understanding: Kanban is an improvement model that starts with self-knowledge.
- Agreement: The dynamic co-commitment to move together toward goals, respecting, and where possible, accommodating differences of opinion.
- Respect: Valuing, understanding, and showing consideration for people. A foundational value underpinning everything else.
We can use the Kanban Method to help introduce positive change into a team or organization. The “start with what you do now” and “agree to pursue improvement through evolutionary change” concepts are nonthreatening and difficult to argue against. So, if faced with an organization or department that is reluctant to change its ways, the Kanban Method is an excellent approach.
It also brings some great insights often missed in agile approaches. For example, since knowledge work is invisible, managers may not know how much work someone has on their plate. Encouraging people to make their work visible helps them show and explain their workloads to others. It also enables coworkers to see what people are working on and then pitch in where they can…”
Thanks, David, for your popularization of and explanations of Theory of Constraints thinking. They are more relevant today than ever as people in organizations everywhere look to transform their work.