Recently, I ran a session of “The ship game” that was created by @klausleopold (read up more about it in my earlier blog from LAST conference). During that session, a couple of the attendees looked to me disbelievingly as they saw lead times halved. The look they gave me was “what kind of trick is this” as if I waved some kind of magic wand and magically sped everything up. The answer in the end was that there was no special magic, just the use of Work in Process limits.

Some teams experience lead times halving, some experience even greater improvements. What this group also found that they also had slack in the system when they introduced WiP limits – they were actually not working as hard and they were achieving better results compared to when they didn’t have WiP limits. To me this really highlights one of the key parts of Kanban is really the WiP limit.

Many people have the misconception that “the Kanban” is just the board. So many times, I’ve heard “we’ve got a board so we’re doing Kanban”. Although a board can be useful, you’re really not getting the full benefits out of Kanban – you really need to start limiting WiP to get the benefits. So much so, that I distinguish between the two – now I refer to “the Kanban” as the slot created by the WiP limit that allows you to pull new work in. I refer to the Board as simply the “Visual Management Board”. I really don’t consider it “Kanban” for knowledge work without the use of WiP limits (see https://www.kanbanmaturitymodel.com/ for more details on different kinds of WiP limit implementations).  

The WiP limit is important because it:

  • Allows you to see the capacity available
  • Creates focus to avoid task switching overheads
  • Prevents you from overburdening teams by pushing too much work into the system
  • Stabilises the system such that you can get meaningful lead time metrics
  • Catalyses change by stressing the system (as opposed to the people in the system)
  • Creates slack to allow improvement opportunities to take place

Sometimes it can be hard to introduce this and it certainly may seem counterintuitive when you start, but if you can stick to it, you will get many benefits like those mentioned above. So, please help your team, your customers and ultimately your organisation become more successful by implementing this small change.

If you want to find out more about how to implement a real Kanban system, please check out the upcoming Kanban System Design courses.

I often find the answer to this question misunderstood. Often people see Kanban as just the “board”, but there is a lot more to it than that. When answering the why would someone want to use Kanban, I often point to the Kanban Agendas. The three agendas each answer problems that many organisations experience and they each feed into and support each other to allow a more fit for purpose organisation to emerge.

Sustainability

I often find teams that are struggling with too much work to do. There always seems to be an endless “To-do” list and teams can hardly keep their heads above water with all the incoming demand. Some teams that I’ve started working with are working nights and weekends just to try and get everything done. It’s really not a long-term strategy because it kills morale and people leave – which leads to more strain on those who are left. Using Kanban, you can start to limit the work in your system to allow teams to focus on what’s important. You can also start to shape demand so that you can get control of that monstrous “To-do” list.

Service (Customer) Orientation

Once your team get some space to breathe, often you want to the focus on what’s important to your customers. It’s now time to start to evolve your system to better service their needs. You may have different customers with different needs and trying to service all of the competing needs can be difficult. With Kanban, you can start to modify your system to suit not just one type of customer need but being able to serve multiple concurrently. It can help you deal with the seeming different demand and help solve the varying problems your customers have.

Survivability

Now that your able to keep your team to a sustainable pace and serve your current customers, it’s time to look to the future. What are the changes in the market that are occurring? How do you get ahead of the curve? What strategies are you going to employ to get there and how do you balance that with current customer needs? These kinds of questions are all very important to be able to answer to ensure that in the long term your business not only survives but thrives. Kanban can help here as well, helping to form the new strategy, alignment throughout your organisation and then through execution with the required feedback to make sure you keep on track and adapt to changing conditions.  

Getting to this point isn’t an overnight change. You will need to make many small adjustments to the way that you’re working to get to this point. Essentially, this is evolutionary, but you can start now to make things better for your teams, your customers and your organisation.

Another major cause for long lead times are blockers. Blockers are things that prevent the flow of value / work from being done. Often these blockers are caused by things outside the system that we often have little or no control over. As these are a major cause of “tail lead time” issues, you should identify blockers and come up with countermeasures to prevent the key problems from affected your customer delivery.

Some examples of blockers include:

  • Waiting for a particular specialist to perform work
  • Waiting on another team / group to provide a something such as:
    • Waiting on procurement for setting up agreements
    • Waiting for security / compliance to provide a review
    • Waiting on legal for advice
  • Defects / quality issues (although often we separate these out as a specific kind of blocker)

Often times, I see boards that take blockers and place them in a separate column or waiting area. For example:

You should avoid this kind of mechanism for a number of reasons:

  • These areas are out of sight / out of mind. They often get forgotten and don’t get solved in a timely manner
  • They are (usually) not WiP limited – this will cause unpredictability in your system of work
  • They don’t become the focus for improvement
  • When they become unblocked, often you forget where in the flow they were up to before they became blocked and it becomes hard to place them back on the board

You should try, instead, to block the ticket in place and record it with a blocker stickie such as the example below:

The blocker stickie should also contain enough information that you can use it for analysis at a later date to combat commonly occurring blockages that are having the largest effect on your lead time or other fitness criteria (I’ll cover blocker clustering in another post). Here’s an example blocker stickie:

Key things to capture:

  • The work item that was blocked
  • A blocker description (what is blocking the ticket)
  • The date the item became blocked
  • The date the item became unblocked

Along with this, you should also work with your leadership team to let them know what these mean. Leadership should be on the lookout for blocker stickies and actively engage the team asking questions like “how can I help”, “what can I do to remove this blocker”. Keeping your blocked item in the flow will ensure that eventually your WiP limit will be reached which will force you to deal with the blocker.

Blockers are a commonly occurring event in Kanban systems (particularly new ones) and they should be identified in the right way with the right data. The Kanban system should be set up with feedback loops and policies that force you to deal with the problems that cause blockages to ensure that you maintain a healthy flow. If you don’t deal with blockers in this kind of way, your system of work will continue to be unpredictable and experience much longer lead times than it should.

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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.  

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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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