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Role-based Guidance: How Might the Kanban Method Influence Your Role?

“So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.” — Peter Drucker

“As a job seeker, remember this: You only lack experience if they want it done the same old way.” — Robert Brault

“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” — Steve Jobs

“Out of clutter, find simplicity.” — Albert Einstein

 KLRUS14 – Monterey

In January leading practitioners and coaches of the Kanban Method gathered at the Kanban Leadership Retreat. While preparing our “just-in-time” agenda at the start, a topic suggested for discussion was a variation on a question we had all heard often, “How does ‘kanban’ impact my role: as a Project Manager, or as a Business Analyst, or as Product Manager, or as a Program Manager?” It was definitely interesting to hear responses from others to this question, and for me it was one of the more useful sessions.

First Things First

Confused-Cartoon-Face1Since the Kanban Method is not a specific workflow methodology or process, and therefore is not something that replaces your current workflow process, but rather a tool that can be used to improve any workflow process, it doesn’t prescribe specific roles. It isn’t that kind of tool.

It’s also helpful to consider that improving your current workflow, even in significant ways, won’t necessarily require creating and defining “new roles and practices.” Still, it is important to recognize using it as a tool to improve your current workflow process should clearly result in some noteworthy changes. Right?

A good place to start is to understand upfront that a core component of the “Kanban Method” is using a kanban system, or even more fundamentally using a “pull based system”, to help address obstacles to creating and maintaining a predictable workflow and improving performance over time. That is, if you’re not familiar with “pull systems”, I’d suggest to anyone using the Kanban Method to first focus on understanding the fundamental changes to pull thinking. Allow this new thinking in turn to influence the ideas and experiments (changes) that emerge for improving the design and operations of your workflow process.1 Then, if necessary and only as needed, consider any benefits that might exist from adding (or removing) roles and associated practices. (more…)

Kanban Method: Myths and Misconceptions

The instinctual shortcut…when we have ‘too much information’ is…picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.” – Nate Silver, American statistician, writer. “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t” (2012)

If you want to be competent at continually uncovering the unknown, strategic processes need to be based on learning not planning…in the fast paced world of twenty-first-century business, the focus of strategic work is no longer about making decisions – it’s about making discoveries. It is about discovering what you don’t know that you don’t know.” – Rod Collins, author, speaker, consultant; formerly Chief Operating Executive at Blue Cross & Blue Shield Federal Employee Program. “Why Planning Is No Longer a Strategic Activity”, (2013)

Over the last several months I’ve gratefully appreciated opportunities to present at conferences and user groups in Denver, Chicago, Houston, and Boston, and will have one more opportunity to close the year presenting in Pittsburg come Dec. While discussing possible topics with organizers of these events, most felt a presentation discussing some myths and misconceptions about the Kanban Method would be of interest and benefit for their attendees. [Note: you can find additonal context, and a bit about the initial motivation for talking more about these myths and misconceptions in my earlier post titled “The Kanban Method: Is It Just Scrum With Tweaks or Is There More?”]

The latest variation of my presentations on this topic was at the Agile New England user group in Boston, where they capture many, if not all of their monthly presentations, on video and make them available publicly. You’ll find this video below. If you’re in the Boston area and not familiar with ANE yet, I’d encourage you to visit their website here.

To assist with viewing the video I’ve listed a mini-index (below) indicating a few logical partitions where one might stop and come back to if you’re unable to sit through the presentation in a single sitting. [Note: this particular presentation allowed for a number of questions to be taken throughout, and not just at the end.] I hope you find it interesting. As per a quote I heard once somewhere that has really stuck with me, “the greatest learning occurs at the interface of disagreement” (adding, provided there is some constructive dialogue). So, if you feel I’ve mistated something, could articulate something a bit more effectively, or you disagree with something, please let me know.

Logical partition points after intro material:

07:23 – A taste of LKNA2013 from Chicago via Boston

07:56 – Getting on the same page with the term “kanban”

10:53 – Why is this important?

13:13 – If you take away “one” thing only

14:40 – First of the “myth and misconceptions”

17:49 – Second of the “myth and misconceptions” (including a number of questions from attendees)

42:57 – Notes on the term “iterate”

43:50 – Notes on decoupling activities

45:36 – Third of the “myth and misconceptions”

57:27 – Closing Q&A

I want to thank again here a few of the people from ANE who work hard on a volunteer basis to provide this first class user group in the Boston area. Thanks to ANE Member Shyam Kumar for his persistance, as we started talking about this opportunity some time ago and patitiently working through schedules. Also thanks to ANE’s President, David Grabel, ANE’s Vice-President, Tom Woundy, and ANE’s Program Coordindator, Ron Morsicato, for their efforts that evening and prior, contributing to a first class user group operation. Lastly, thanks to ANE Member Ron Verge who video-taped, edited, and put togther the video.

Take care,


Does Data Shape Policy Or Does Policy Shape Data? Yes!

“Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all.” – Charles Babbage, English mathematician, philosopher, inventor, mechanical engineer, invented the first mechanical computer (1791 – 1871)

“I always avoid prophesying before hand, because it is a much better policy to prophesy after the event has already taken place.” – Winston Churchill, British orator, author, and Prime Minister during WWII (1874-1965)

“Policies are many, Principles are few, Policies will change, Principles never do.” – John C. Maxwell, evangelical Christian pastor, speaker, and author of 60+ books primarily about leadership (1947 –   )

“We’re entering a new world in which data may be more important than software.” – Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media, supporter of the free software and open source movements (1954 –  ) 


This question below came up recently on our Agile Denver Kanban SIG (special interest group) LinkedIn discussion list.

“I am working for an organization that has ‘Lab Week’ six times a year. Lab Week encourages innovation by setting aside time for engineers to work on whatever they want. My current conundrum is, what do I do with the work items on my team’s Kanban board, specifically those in To Do or Doing, during Lab Week?

It feels wrong to put them back in the backlog, but keeping them in To Do or Doing will affect lead/cycle time. While this is reality, it is only reality six times a year. In the interest of predictability I think I would want to know what lead/cycle time is without the impact of Lab Week and then factor in Lab Week when we hit a Lab Week.”

I had two immediate responses to this interesting question. First, teams in software development and IT/IS organizations are familiar with the basis for this question, and I’m guessing it comes up in a number of non-IT/IS or non-software development contexts as well.

Second, there is already an upfront discomfort with the idea of moving work items back to the “backlog” that have been “pulled” into the ToDo (or Ready, On Deck, etc.) workflow process states. I’m wondering what signal is this discomfort providing to us? I’m guessing the discomfort is even greater with the idea of moving work items back to the backlog that made it to some state of Doing in the workflow process. In essence, this would be “resetting the clock” for a number of work items already considered work in progress for some period of time, and with expectations, I’m sure they would be completed within some known SLA.

Just what I like, “real world” questions in particular when they come with some “pain points” clearly identified upfront. As I continued to think about this one more, it felt like a “perfect” opportunity to raise what I feel is a related question and discuss them together in this post. When discussing metrics as part of measuring and managing flow, the question below is one I raise often with others who are applying the Kanban Method to their workflow processes.

“In your workflow process context: Does Data Shape Your Policy or Does Policy Shape Your Data?”

How might we in the case of a “Lab Week” produce the metrics we want and visualize this information without any “discomfort” of doing post-collection adjustments or moving (resetting) work items back into the backlog? What can we learn from thinking about and responding to this “Lab Week” question that applies beyond the original basis itself in how we develop policies for managing our workflow processes?


The Kanban Method: Is It Just Scrum With Tweaks or Is There More?

“Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.” – Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., U.S. historian. “The Challenge of Change,” New York Times Magazine (July 27, 1986)

 “A myth is an image in terms of which we try to make sense of the world.” – Alan Watts, British-born philosopher, writer, and speaker (1915 – 1973)


“What is the Kanban Method?”

  • It’s not about replacing your current software development process.
  • It’s not about changing or removing your team’s current titles and roles or adding new ones.
  • It’s not about a process that is only for support, maintenance, or “dev-ops” teams.

Does any of the above surprise you?

If so, maybe it would be useful and helpful to take a closer look at the Kanban Method from a different perspective.

Kanban Leaders Retreat (KLRUS) 

In November 2012 I attended the Kanban Leaders Retreat (KLRUS) in San Diego. Over two days there I had an opportunity to take part in a number of break out sessions with several other leading coaches, trainers, and practitioners of the Kanban Method. In one of the sessions we focused on identifying some of the “surprising” myths and misconceptions we were hearing about the Kanban Method while coaching, training, and working with others. As summarized by some participating, “there really is a lot of surprising ‘stuff’ out there!” In the context of this post I’ll limit myself to providing a taste of our discussion there at KLRUS. In particular, focusing for the moment on a misconception I hear often, the Kanban Method: It’s just Scrum with tweaks.

If you’re just beginning to learn for yourself about the Kanban Method, I hope this post provides a useful foundational perspective to keep in mind as you continue learning, researching, and reading articles, posts, etc. For others more familiar with the Kanban Method already, I hope it provides a little insight into the misconceptions you’re likely to run into, if you haven’t already run into this one, and how some in the community are discussing them in ways we feel will help others see the Kanban Method from a more useful and different perspective. (more…)

Bottlenecks – Revisiting the Reading of Cumulative Flow Diagrams

“Queues lie at the root of a large number of product development problems. They increase variability, risk, and cycle time. They decrease efficiency, quality, and motivation.”

“Large queues form when processes with variability are operated at high levels of capacity utilization. In reality, the misguided pursuit of efficiency creates enormous costs in the unmeasured invisible portion of the product development process, its queues.”

“Since high capacity utilization simultaneously raises efficiency and increases the cost of delay, we need to look at the combined impact of these two factors.”

“We have already pointed out that companies do not manage product development queues. What do they manage? Timelines...In contrast, when we emphasize flow, we focus on queues rather than timelines. Queues are a far better control variable than cycle time because, as you shall see, queues are leading indicators of future cycle-time problems. By controlling queue size, we automatically achieve control over timelines.”

– Don Reinertsen, 2009 – The Principle of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development

If you’re new to or rusty on CFDs, it would be helpful to review “Basics of Reading Cumulative Flow Diagrams” first. This earlier post covers basic definitions and the mechanics of reading WIP (work-in-progress), lead-time, and an average completion rate (throughput) from a CFD. It also includes links to external sources, one showing a basic example of how to create a CFD using MS-Excel, and another providing a quick overview of their use in the kanban method context. From this foundation I’d like to shift here toward a visual analysis perspective, exploring a few contexts where a bottleneck in our workflow is more or less present and see how it might appear on a CFD.

To be clear, I don’t think CFDs are the only way or “the best way” for spotting a bottleneck in your workflow. If you’re adequately visualizing your workflow on a board and diligently measuring and managing work items as they flow through your process, you’re well on the way to being able to identify where any bottleneck might be occurring. That said, don’t under-estimate the value of using the CFD as well for learning about what happened, is happening, or will happen in your workflow. It can be a very effective tool for creating an easily accessible visual historical record and a trending perspective of a workflow in your context.

What is a Bottleneck?

Let us get a shared understanding of the term “bottleneck” by first looking at these selected Wikipedia definitions:

  • Metaphorically a bottleneck is a section of a route with a carrying capacity substantially below that characterizing other sections of the same route. This is often a narrow part of a road, perhaps also with a smaller number of lanes, or a reduction of the number of tracks of a railway line.
  • In engineering, a bottleneck is a phenomenon by which the performance or capacity of an entire system is severely limited by a single component.
  • A bottleneck in project management is one process in a chain of processes, such that its limited capacity reduces the capacity of the whole chain.

As we continue our discussion, a key point from these definitions to keep in mind is the “singular” characteristic. Additionally, I’ll infer a “stationary” characteristic as well for the bottleneck throughout the time reflected by the example CFDs that follow. (more…)

Little’s Law: Isn’t It a Linear Relationship?

“Here’s the bottom line: the number one driver for shipping products quicker is by focusing on the important ones and killing the unimportant ones.”

“You might be thinking: ‘True, but couldn’t we also increase the average completion rate’? You’re right, but the impact of doing that is much lower than reducing the TIP (things-in-process) — that is, influencing the average completion rate is rather difficult and is often a function of available resources, scope creep, market demands, and changes, etc.”

– Pete Abilla, Nov 2006, Little’s Law for Product Development

A few weeks back Arne Roock (see his posts here), a fellow kanban/lean-agile practitioner, pinged me with a question related to Little’s Law and utilization. Paraphrasing, essentially it was “Queuing theory states that the speed of networks decreases dramatically (non-linearly) as utilization increases more than 80%. But according to Little‘s Law (given a stable system), Lead Time increases linearly if we increase WIP (which increases utilization). Why doesn’t Little’s Law show lead time going up exponentially from a certain point on (ex. past 80% utilization)?” This resulted in exchanging a couple of emails discussing the use of Little’s Law, and why and how in the software development context an increase in work-in-progress could result in a non-linear increase in lead time. This post captures and reflects some of the thoughts we shared. My assumption is you’ve wondered too about similar questions. If so, I hope you’ll find this post interesting and helpful.