I often find teams that are struggling to get their work done, but many of these don’t see the queues and blockages that are impacting their everyday work. For me, these are key things that can be the focus for initial improvement. Oftentimes, by managing queues and blockages you can get a significant improvement in overall lead time without having to work any harder. For today’s blog post I’m going to talk about queues, a future post I will talk about blockages.

Queues appear where work is waiting to move from one workflow / knowledge discovery step to another. A common instance of this is where there is a handoff between teams or to a specialist. Use the visualisations to help make the queues visible.

Starting from this where the queues are not visible / hidden from the board:

As a first step make the queue visible. Often the queue is unbounded; ie it doesn’t have a WiP limit and we can often see items piling up waiting for the next state:

Once they are visible you can start to apply the WiP limit against it (in this case we created the “Testing – Done” column for those items waiting to deploy and applied the overall testing WiP limit which includes the “Testing – Done” queue):

Using a WiP limit will prevent additional work coming into the system before dealing with the source of the blockage. This creates a catalyst for action as work can’t proceed without the problem being remedied – it forces the organisation to deal with the key issues that are preventing work from getting done.

This can be the case particularly as an organisations size gets larger – usually this means more teams are involved to be able to realise the value which creates a series of hidden wait states. I often find this is particularly the case as you start to track the overall project / initiative outside of the immediate team and within the context of the whole organisation (often this is “upstream”). The more interdependencies between teams, the longer work will take. Usually in this situation it’s futile to try and make the work more efficient because the overall flow efficiency is so low that it’s not worth tackling. Instead, make the queues visible and work on the interdependencies to either remove them if they are frequent or be explicit about expectations for delivery to minimise queue wait times.

Sometimes when I’m first trying to understand the overall flow, I’ll put the queue in place and make it visible. If I see that it’s continuing to be a problem I’ll leave it in place. Otherwise I might take it out and put it as a “Definition of Done” for the step, or an “on the line” transition.

Identify queues and the wait time in the system of work. Determine which ones are having the largest impact to your flow efficiency and start to work towards removing them. In really inefficient systems, you can get lead times down to 10-20% of what they originally were without working harder, just manage the flow.  

On Tuesday 30 July I attended the LAST (Lean, Agile, Systems-Thinking) Conference in Melbourne. This year I presented a talk entitled “An Introduction to STATIK – getting started with Kanban” plus I also did a workshop of “The Ship Game”. This is actually the second LAST Conference I’ve been to this year, I had already been to the inaugural Adelaide conference where I presented “Kanban for Beginners” and ran a session with “The WiP Game”. Thanks to everyone who could attend my sessions – I hope you got a lot out of it.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with LAST Conferences, they were started by Ed Wong (@littlehelper) and Craig Brown (@brown_note) who wanted a small grass-roots conference that was like “meetups on steroids”. Submissions are open to the public and there’s plenty of space, so if your new to public speaking and you want to try it out, it’s a really great way to get out there and give something a go. It’s also kept at a really low cost, as the speakers aren’t paid – just members of the local community. Sometimes not all of the talks are great – it’s been known to be a little “hit and miss”, but generally the standard is fairly good – plus I know a number of other conferences that I’ve paid a lot more for that have left me disappointed with some talks.

The Melbourne session is very popular and tickets usually sell out so we have a full house. It’s often run on two days, so usually if you miss something on the first, you often can catch it on the second. However this year, it was only one day so it felt like you really did miss quite a bit of content. The Adelaide session, by comparison was actually also sold out, but due to its smaller scale, I think it still retained a lot of the grass-roots feel to it.

Of the talks that I listened to, my favourite was from Neil Kingston from Intelematics who was talking about “Do project managers still matter?“. It was a story about how the project managers and PMO went from a project based system of work to a product based system. What was really interesting for me to hear was how Neil and the others in the PMO transitioned from command and control to what is effectively now a servant leadership role. A true tale of evolution, keeping the useful traits and discovering hidden or creating new talents to see how they can serve and support the overall organisation in its goals.

“An Introduction to STATIK – getting started with Kanban”

This was really a short summation of what Day 2 of my Kanban System Design training is all about (more details available here). During this talk, I describe the “Systems Thinking Approach To Introducing Kanban” and take attendees through the high level steps of how to get started with Kanban. Spoiler alert – no you don’t start by putting stickies on the wall!

During this talk, I describe the “Systems Thinking Approach To Introducing Kanban” and take attendees through the high level steps of how to get started with Kanban. Spoiler alert – no you don’t start by putting stickies on the wall!

For those interested, you can find my slides here:

The Ship Game

First of all I have to credit Klaus Leopold (@klausleopold) with coming up with the game – it’s really a great way to learn the difference between push and pull systems – plus it gives an insight into the metrics and data behind Little’s Law works.

The game is played in two rounds – the first round is using a push system, the second round uses a pull system. In both rounds we bootstrap the system in the first two minutes to get some ships moving through the production line. We record the amount of ships that are done and are in progress. At the end of the line one person is marking the time of exit for each ship. Then we add the “Red ship” which is the last ship to go through the system (using a FIFO – first in, first out – policy).

What we see is that the throughput is (approximately) the same in both rounds, but due to the WiP limits / pull system in place in the second round, we create less WiP – thus we can reduce the lead time through the system. Here is the data from the day:

Team 1

At two minutes:

EventRound 1Round 2
WiP146
Red Ship Enters2:002:00
Red Ship Exits5:283:25
Red Ship Time in Process3:281:25

Throughput:

MinuteRound 1Round 2
011
144
256
342
44
53

Note that the first an last minute of each round are disregarded as that is the system bootstrapping and winding down.

Calculations:

 Round 1Round 2
Average Throughput4.255
Red Ship Lead Time (decimal)3.461.416
Average Lead Time (calculated)3.291.2

Team 2

At two minutes:

EventRound 1Round 2
WiP166
Red Ship Enters2:002:00
Red Ship Exits6:533:46
Red Ship Time in Process4:531:46

Throughput:

MinuteRound 1Round 2
012
143
234
334
43
53
61

Note that the first an last minute of each round are disregarded as that is the system bootstrapping and winding down.

Calculations:

 Round 1Round 2
Average Throughput3.23.5
Red Ship Lead Time (decimal)4.881.766
Average Lead Time (calculated)51.714

The Results

What you can see from this data is that the “pull system” with WiP limits in place substantially decreased the lead time of ships through the process (to between one half to one third of the original time).  This really reflects Little’s Law in action which is effectively:

Average Delivery Rate = Average Work in Process / Average Lead Time

By decreasing the WiP we proportionately decreased the lead time. Furthermore, if we continued without WiP limits in place, the first round would have continually gotten slower delivery to the point where customers would be walking away because the wait is too long.

Thanks to everyone who could come along to my talks, I hope you’ve enjoyed them. I’ll see you again next year!

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This is the final of the three Kanban Change Management Principles. Often this may start to emerge early in the process with a few leaders willing to try the Kanban journey. However, in order for it to be truly successful those initial leaders must be participant to making the emergence of leadership at all levels.

Why would this be necessary? Essentially, the Kanban process is evolutionary and will require a number of changes over a sustained period of time so that the organisation will continue to evolve to be more fit for purpose and resilient in the face of changing market conditions. In order for that to happen, the acts of leadership should not be focused on one or two individuals – this will not scale. In order to get the most change, we need to encourage others to play a part in this goal. A friend of mine once commented that he didn’t want just one brain (his) directing 20 other people – he much preferred having the 20 completely engaged people and thinking for themselves solving a problem.

So, what is leadership? In my view there are a few key points to leadership:

  1. Vision
  2. Courage

Vision

Leaders must have a vision as to the direction for the group and help move the team / organisation towards that vision. This is also where we can start to see leadership at all levels. Senior leaders tend to focus on the larger strategic vision for the organisation and how they can start to innovate towards or transform the organisation to fit that new vision. Individual contributors can have a vision for how they are going to implement things. Often the people who are “at the coalface” have a far better understanding of how things work day to day and are the source of many smaller improvements. The middle layer of management connect and coordinate the parts towards achieving the goal – having a vision for how this can be improved often has great benefit to an organisation.

Courage

They must have and display acts of courage. Making changes is often difficult – you may be going against the status quo and learned memory of an organisation, so you will need to be able to cut through the existing malaise to make progress. Acts of courage can come in small sizes as well – the act of making your work or problems visible is often a difficult first step because there might be people concerned for their jobs or bonuses preventing the transparency. Making these small changes should be encouraged and rewarded because they help catalyse larger improvements based on new information. Often the first change is to make it safe for others to make further changes and encourage other leaders to emerge.

Encouraging acts of leadership at all levels is probably one of the hardest and more sustained parts of the Kanban Change Principles. Look out for when your people are showing vision and / or courage and ensure that you don’t stifle this behaviour. Make it safe and appreciated – sometimes it’s as simple as just saying thanks.

If you want the change to scale, then it must become a key part of Kanban journey – so start thinking about it now if you haven’t already. These changes will ultimately make your organisation more fit for purpose and less fragile, plus it also has the bonus side effect of improving the engagement of your employees.

See also Start with what you do now, Agree to pursue improvement through evolutionary change

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This is the first in what will be a series of short articles about some of the key aspects of Kanban and how it can help you.

Agree to pursue improvement through evolutionary change

There are many aspects of this statement that I really like, in particular the evolutionary change aspect. This is a clear differentiator between Kanban and many of the other agile methods / frameworks out there, many of which prescribe that you will first need a series of larger disruptive changes to structure and roles.

Improvements are often small and continual, but the cumulative effect of many small changes can move mountains. In some cases, however, you may require some help from management to remove larger systemic bottlenecks and problems from your process. I see both of these as evolutionary changes – some are by their nature small, but some evolutions will require a little more effort to manifest. Leadership here is a key component – sometimes these changes are hard and will require some courage to start to implement.

 

All improvements require a change, however not all changes are improvements. Thus, there is a notion that we have to be active in this activity, not passive. Additionally, there is a feedback loop here. Often, we are dealing with complex or at the very least complicated systems and our hypothesis on the effect of a change may not necessarily prove to be true. In this case, some of the evolutions will need to be reverted / dampened down whilst others will need to be solidified and / or amplified. A key part of evolutionary change is the feedback loop and understanding which changes are effective as improvements and which are not. Of course, one size will not fit all, so you will have to look for improvements that will work in your context.

Another key aspect of this statement is the first word – agree. It implies that a level of discussion and consensus needs to take place before we start down this path. Having these foundations in place can avoid a great deal of resistance to the change down the track. At a very basic level you’re letting people know about what the change is and what to expect so they can understand and be prepared for it. However, there’s also another aspect to this where we want people to actually be involved in the change – having the agreement up front about the direction and mechanism for the changes will assist with this. Some transformations rely on a tell approach, however if you try the alternative Kanban approach, you’ll no doubt find that your change will be more effective in the long term. Sometimes it’s just a simple conversation, but other times it can take some time – particularly if the changes are the larger management led ones.

Evolutionary change can be a wonderful enabler for your organisation to grow to provide products and services that are fit for your customer’s purpose. What’s really important is to start to weave into the culture of the organisation a sense and need of continuous improvement so your organisation will itself evolve to become truly adaptive, whilst not running the risk of over-reaching with change. One of the key aspects of Kanban is the evolutionary change approach and I hope you will agree that this can be a lower risk way of introducing the required improvements into your organisation.

See also Start with what you do now, Encourage acts of leadership at all levels

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This is the first in what will be a series of short articles about some of the key aspects of Kanban and how it can help you.

Start with what you do now

This is one of my favourite aspects of Kanban – the “Start with what you do now” change management principle built into Kanban. It’s quite simple and it engenders a foundation of respect for the current organisation that some change initiatives ignore – particularly some of the agile frameworks / methods where it is noticeably missing. I guess this is one of the distinguishing points of the Kanban method – it has an aspect of change management built into it.

There are a couple of additional points worth mentioning that expand on this:

“Understand current processes as they are practiced”
“Respect existing roles and job titles”

One of the key benefits of this kind of approach is that you acknowledge the current organisation and the people in it. “What you do now” has in some way been successful up until now – if not your organisation would likely have gone out of business. The purpose and customers may have changed over time and we can start to make adjustments towards this new purpose, but for now we need to acknowledge the present state. By making such an acknowledgement up front, you’re not going to get people within the organisation off-side when you encourage them to start to make incremental improvements (more on this in a later post). I often get feedback during my Kanban courses that people really love the idea of starting where they are right now.

By respecting the roles and job titles as they currently exist in the organisation, Kanban changes tend to have a low aspect of resistance. People are less threatened and often open to conversation as to how they can be a part of making their system of work better for all involved. That is, it’s often not just the customers that will benefit from this, but the teams involved in doing the work. I find as a coach going in to an organisation, that by using this kind of approach, I avoid a lot of problems before they arise.

Furthermore, with the aspect that we understand current processes as they are practiced tends to be very investigative and requires a curious mind. It should preclude jumping to conclusions as to what the cause(s) of the key issues really are (often this involves symptoms rather than causes of problems). Rather, this will allow us to get a better understanding into the why the problems really exist and to come up with appropriate solutions to those problems based on the specific needs of the contextual domain. Thus, your journey is unique and you’d be doing your organisation a disservice if you just “follow a pattern” to a “standard” end goal. Indeed, how are you competitive if you’re just doing what everyone else is doing?

The bar for change using Kanban has intentionally been set quite low – it allows you to get started rapidly without the large reorganisations and disruptions that other methods often require. That’s not to say you can start to make changes – evolutionary change is a central part to this and will be covered in a subsequent post.

See also Agree to pursue improvement through evolutionary change, Encourage acts of leadership at all levels

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