Kanban - an Alternative to Agile?

What is Kanban?

A visual system for managing work (which constitutes the “value stream”) through a process. Kanban is the Japanese term for “visual board” which indicates available capacity to work or a visual cue to begin work. A key aspect is the limitation of work-in-progress (‘WIP’). Applying WIP limits forces a focus on completing a smaller, more manageable batch size of work rather than starting numerous work items. Kanban is a system to stop STARTING! and start FINISHING!

A Kanban method is NOT a project management method nor a software development lifecycle process. It CAN be used to compliment those and other management disciplines of course.

Why use a Kanban system?

Firstly, let’s finish the thought re WIP. Whilst having lots of WIP will drive high utilization and ‘keep people busy’, it is well documented that focusing on smaller batches of work (and ultimately establishing a continual flow of work) is better for the following reasons:

  1. Productivity/Cycle Time. Multitasking is bad. Task switching between many in-progress work items diminishes productivity heavily (task switching between 4 activities in a day decreases productivity by 40%).

  2. Value Delivery/Time to Market. Focusing on completing rather than starting work realizes the business value sooner. Delivering value regular and often reduces the economic metric of “cost of delay” and enables end users to realize the benefits early. Eventually, the goal is to be iteration-less and have a continual flow of work moving through the system/organization.

In addition, the following benefits are standard in Kanban:

- Preservation of Options. Keeping work in a queue until it is appropriate to work on represents a low-cost holding pattern and preserves options. For example, if we leave a set of activities/work until other tasks have been finished, different solutions may be available that we’re when the work was first envisaged – this may enable us to undertake different work, procure a different product/solution to meet the business need etc. that may be better, faster, more reliable than the originally envisaged activity/solution.

- Assumption of Variability. The world is moving quickly. By focusing on smaller more manageable batches of prioritized work, it may be that the requirement to do certain work originally conceived diminishes as time passes. This drives greater efficiency (and reduced ‘waste’) as we don’t do work where the value case or business need has dissipated.

- Motivation/Engagement. Today’s knowledge workers are driven by accomplishment. Regular achievement of goals and the resultant release of value / benefits / outcomes to the end users is a key motivator in line with Daniel Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose model.

- Quality. Focus on fewer things reduces mistakes/increases quality.

- Relentless Improvement. Kanban enables fast-feedback through doing (“validated learning” – “data driven”) so that we may better plan, estimate and execute work going forward.

- Visualize and Map your Value Stream. By depicting the stages of work in the work flow, various classes of work, WIP limits applied to that work etc. the visual system provides visibility into progress, bottlenecks and compels users to review and refine the actual work flow steps. If an existing methodology or work flow process does not reside, it will help you create one.

In summary, a Kanban method enables faster, more predictable service delivery and affords the organization an “adaptive capacity” to respond quickly and effectively to changes in the business environment/customer demand. And looking at the list above, you will note that Kanban aligns and enables fully with the pillars of Lean.

There is one final aspect of Kanban that, whilst could simply fit in the list of benefits above, warrants special attention. Kanban makes policies explicit. In this regard, I’m referring to the “rules of engagement”. Making clear how the board works, what goes on the board, who can modify it, essentially the rules of applying the method in the given context. This is imperative to enable all with the same, consistent approach, practices, principles, behaviors and techniques. This therefore promotes a “system” and not “silo” work paradigm.

To conclude this brief summary and introduction to Kanban, click here to see a worked example of a Kanban Board where you’ll see the various attributes in play and begin to see the power and potential of this approach.

I’ll be publishing several more articles on the Kanban method over the coming weeks where we’ll explore key aspects in more detail, explain how to apply Kanban to agile methods such as Scrum for example and share where you may use an excellent Kanban tool free of charge. Stay tuned!

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