What is Kanban?
What is Kanban? And what can we learn from Open Source?
Kanban Success as an Agile and Lean Method
Kanban is becoming an important part of Agile Software Development and IT, VersionOne’s authoritative 2013 State of Agile Survey reveals that Kanban has doubled in adoption among the Agile methodologies, and is frequently used as an alternative to Scrum.
Kanban’s unique position as the first Ultra Light Method, coupled with it’s powerful knowledge library from it’s Lean and Agile influences have motivated people all across Software Development, IT and beyond to use it.
Troubling News and Confusion Regarding Kanban
However, despite Kanban’s Agile & Lean heritage, David Anderson and LKU have distanced themselves from Agile, Software Development and IT. This is surprising considering that David was one of the pioneers of Agile, and his Kanban book and original work at Microsoft and Corbis were all done in the context of IT and Software Development.
Confusion does not end there though, as Al Shalloway mentioned recently in a related article, LKU has also distanced itself from Lean Development. What we end up with is one of the leaders of the Kanban movement and his organization defining Kanban in a way that deviates from his previous work, it’s history, it’s influences and the way it is used today by the majority of practitioners in IT and Software Development.
Add to this confusion, the fact that there are other possible meanings for the word Kanban and you get the added element of ambiguity. Our objective on this article is to bring clarity into what Kanban truly is, especially in the context of Lean and Agile Software Development, and to propose a way forward for the future.
Kanban Meanings - Can We Clear Up the Confusion?
In summary the Kanban word has the following main meanings, also shown on the diagram below:
- A Japanese Word for sign or billboard 看板. It was frequently used instead of a logo to identify a business or store.
- A technique from TPS and Lean Manufacturing. Taiichi Ohno took the Japanese meaning of kanban and associated it with the stages of production flow at Toyota by using kanban cards.
- An Agile and Lean Method for Software Development, IT and Business. At AgileLion Institute we call this Kanban Ace. It is also the meaning most people in IT or Software Development think of when they refer to Kanban. In Japanese this Kanban is usually called カンバン (Kamban.) Al Shalloway calls it Kanban for Teams, Corey Ladas calls it Scrumban. Although Kanban Ace is ideal for IT and software development, it is also the recommended method Eric Ries chose for Lean Startups, and it is also ideal for any business that wants to benefit from Kanban’s lightness and power.
- The Kanban Method or LKU Kanban. Currently a view by LKU and David Anderson about Kanban that denies that Kanban is an Agile method, and takes away some Lean Development practices. To be more specific LKU Kanban moves away from IT and Software Development to focus on management methods and “evolutionary improvement.”
Now given that our list above helps us distinguish between the different names for Kanban, why is it that we still have an issue with confusion? Wouldn’t it be just a benign problem? An annoyance that can be solved with some background information? Unfortunately no.
The problem is that David Anderson, LKU and some other Kanban Consultants have decided that there can be only one valid Kanban method for business or even IT, theirs. In their view if you do not follow exactly The Kanban Method, dare to call Kanban Agile or add any Lean or Agile practices to it you are wrong. It reminds me of the frequent use of the Scrum-But moniker to attack people who adapt Scrum to their own reality, or even improve Scrum itself.
Now please don’t get us wrong, we are grateful with David Anderson whose Kanban books and steady contributions have improved Kanban itself. But we owe the same gratitude to the people behind Lean Development like Bob Charette, Mary and Tom Poppendieck, and several other Kanban and Lean innovators like Eliyahu M. Goldratt, Corey Ladas, Donald Reinertsen, Alan Shalloway, Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria and let us not forget the whole Agile movement.
Kanban the Lean and Agile method is much larger than the Kanban Method, and with over 40 years of knowledge from leading thinkers from Lean and Agile it cannot be ignored.
Do We Need Another Name for Kanban?
Al Shalloway asked in his latest article about this issue with Kanban, if we needed another name for Kanban, the Lean and Agile Kanban method we use everyday. Here is a quote from him:
The way the industry is going now, I see the term Kanban as being usurped by a relatively small number of people to mean the Kanban Method… The rest of us should have a term for Kanban that means the entire range of [Kanban] thinking.
Al Shalloway proposed Kanban Thinking, a term coined by Karl Scotland that is much broader than the Kanban Method, it also aligns with the Lean and Agile nature of Kanban. The problem we see is that the Kanban Thinking concept is still evolving, Karl is writing a book on the subject, and he will certainly modify and expand Kanban Thinking in the future.
Learning from Open Source - Introducing Open Kanban
We believe that we need a term that embodies the Lean and Agile Kanban method under one stable umbrella. A concept for Kanban that we can all agree upon, but which is not controlled by any single person or organization, easily modifiable but at the same time sharing a common core. Does this sound familiar? These are precisely the ideas behind Open Source development! Why not create Open Kanban? Open Kanban would be a very light core, and on top of that companies, thought leaders and organizations can build upon without any Intellectual Property or method compliance issues.
The following are some minimal practices we propose as the core for Open Kanban, but Open Kanban should be agreed by consensus, we hope these ideas begin a conversation:
Visualize the workflow
- When we are doing knowledge work, like programming a method, designing a user interface or writing a business report most of the work is invisible. This means that the output of your effort is much smaller than the effort involved, and the bulk of that effort cannot be easily seen.
- Kanban deals with this challenge by using Kanban boards, visual representations of the flow of work that show how work items move from stage to the next.
- This Kanban practice makes it easier to collaborate in a team setting, and also provides transparency about the process and the work everyone is doing. If you are a manager you can easily see at any moment what is the status of things, and if you are a team member you can see your impact on the overall work.
- Visualizing the workflow is not limited to Kanban boards; one can also use signs and diagrams that the team can see in their work environment, like dashboards, performance metrics or other information radiators.
Lead using a team approach
- Unless your organization is composed of just one person, you cannot achieve anything worthwhile without leading a team.
- Although Kanban starts where you are, and does not need to modify any titles or roles in an organization, Kanban cannot work without a team to deliver value.
- Teams and team leadership are crucial to deliver value. Both are needed in Kanban: good teams and good team leadership. No need for new roles or titles, but we do have a need for working teams, with leaders in them!
Limit Work in Progress
- Research in the way the mind works, and countless experiences from Lean, the Theory of Constraints and Kanban itself confirm that to deliver value faster, with better flow and good team morale we need to focus and limit the number of things we do. Multitasking does not work.
- Limiting the number of tasks the team attempts at each stage of the value stream helps us all to deliver value faster. Keeping the team focused helps them finish what they start. Limiting WIP even on a personal level is a key to success. Kanban has focus and limiting WIP as a core of the method.
Learn and improve continuously
- The four previous practices ensure you are doing things better than before, and that you deliver more value. However to make sure you make a significant jump in innovation, morale, and value we must also stop, learn and apply our knowledge to improve!
- It is worth mentioning that this practice aligns with the Agile value of embracing change, and there are many ways a Kanban team can implement this practice, you could have Retrospectives, Strategy Meetings or even Kaizen Groups.
- Learning is the key concept before continuous improvement can ever happen! Once learning is part of the culture, part of the workflow, then improving continuously becomes easy.
These Open Kanban practices should be rooted in values that are Lean and Agile, those values should also be part of the core of Open Kanban. Although Mike Burrows has done some work regarding Kanban values, and how they align with the twelve principles of the Agile Manifesto, we still need agreement on a minimal set of values. Mike proposed 9 values, we propose 5:
Respect for people
- At the core of Lean and TPS is respecting people. Respect for people also means assuming responsibility for your actions, and empowering others to take those actions.
- Respect for people allows for delegation and the demand-pull that is crucial to Kanban. When any developer is able to take a story from the backlog and pull it to development or QA, he is able to do so because we respect him, we respect his skills, and we give him the ability to do so, we empower him through our respect.
- Respect for people also aligns with sustainable pace in Agile, or Muri 無理 in Lean. If you respect your team you will not work them to death, or subject any worker to intellectual or physical demands that make it nearly impossible to succeed. An exhausted developer, manager or team are the perfect recipe for disaster. Kanban cannot succeed this way.
- Respect for people is not enough; like Kent Beck noticed in order to improve or even correct mistakes we need courage. When a manager, VP, or person in authority makes a mistake and someone with lower rank notices it, it takes courage for him to tell us about it.
- Courage combined with respect for people enable effective delegation, proper demand-pull and continuous improvement.
Focus on Value
- One of the key purposes of Kanban is the creation of value. In software development value means the creation of working, good quality code and is also part of Agile. Value implies customer satisfaction, and that is the purpose of our efforts.
- Value is at the center of Lean and TPS, but frequently it is mentioned as the reverse side of the coin: eliminate waste or “Muda.” in Japanese Muda 無駄 represents anything that does not add value to your process or flow. By eliminating waste, we optimize the creation of value.
Communication and Collaboration
- Communication, and collaboration are at the center of teamwork. One value does not work without the other, that is the reason we decided to group them together. To succeed we need to make ourselves heard (communicate) but also we need to be able to work with others to create value.
- Without teamwork Kanban fails, and to be honest almost any business that does not communicate and collaborate properly will fail.
Holistic or Systemic Approach to Change
- Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge and Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints reminds us that no single part of a system can ever bring overall improvement. We need to take a holistic view of the system and understand it. And the key part of the system is people, not just as resources, but also as full rounded individuals who make the system work.
- Kanban agrees with this vision and aims to drive improvement where it counts. An understanding of the whole is fundamental to arrive at steady, successful change.
- A major update and follow-up to this article was the release of Open Kanban. Open Kanban is an Agile and Lean ultra light method to improve any area of your organization. Although it’s main focus is in IT and Software Development, Open Kanban can be used in any business or non-profit to achieve agility and continuous improvement. You can learn more here.
- Open Kanban practices and values outlined above are just a proposal for a common Kanban core. Any organization or person can extend Open Kanban to fit their own reality and needs. When an organization, coach or individual extends Open Kanban they create a new implementation of Kanban, but a valid one, part of a stronger open ecosystem. The new implementations are Kanban Methods that share a common Open Kanban core. The diagram on the right explains this fully (click on it to zoom) given that Open Kanban is a brand new initiative no other methods are included inside of it yet, except Kanban Ace our own extension of Open Kanban that focuses on Software Development and IT.
We welcome your ideas and debate regarding this topic. Does Kanban need a new name? Do you think creating a stable Kanban core like Open Kanban is good for our ecosystem? Can you suggest suitable Open Source licenses to make the Intellectual Property the best to make this project a success? Would you like to make your Kanban method part of the Open Kanban initiative? Please comment here or in our forum.
Founder AgileLion Institute