Making an Impact with Kanban Thinking

This post pulls together a number of ideas  on impact into a single place, and will become the content for a page in Impact on the Kanban Thinking site.

What is Impact

Outputs creates Outcomes which have Impact.

Designing a Kanban System involves the evolution and discovery of a good design. It cannot be pre-determined in advance. Thus instead of defining a future-state and working towards it, we start with the current-state and work away from it, exploring and assessing different alternatives. Each output of a design iteration will create different outcomes, and those that improve the system can be said to have a positive impact, while those that worsen the system have a negative impact.

Impact, therefore, describes the disposition of the system, or its tendency to behave in a certain way. Rather than defining a planned destination, impact points to the desired direction, such that we can check whether any changes are moving us towards or away from the direction we want to be heading. Impact can be assessed by using narrative techniques to capture stories about utopian (and dystopian) futures, and subsequently asking whether an outcome is likely to lead to more of the positive stories and fewer of the negative stories.

Describing Impacts

When imagining what impacts would be desirable, its easy for our experiences and biases to lead us to narrow our thinking and prematurely converge on only one particular type of impact. To avoid this, and encourage diversity in exploring a wide variety of potential impacts, Kanban Thinking describes three types to consider, giving different perspectives.

  • Flow. This is Doing the Thing Right. Stories will be primarily related to the process, efficiency and reliability.
  • Value. This is Doing the Right Thing. Stories will be primarily related to the product, effectiveness and validity.
  • Potential. This is Doing the Thing Sustainably. Stories will be primarily related to people, euphoria and flexibility.

Impacts as Triads

When exploring the impacts, it will become apparent that there is not always an obvious and neat mapping to either flow, value or potential. Thus, the three impacts can be thought of as a triad, with each being a vertex of a triangle.

Triads are concept I learned from Dave Snowden and used by the Cognitive Edge Sensemaker Suite (note that they have a patent associated with this), where a triangle is used as a measuring instrument to assess against three parameters. By using triads, impacts can be placed relative to where they have the strongest affinity, without having to decide on any one in particular. Imagine an impact being connected to each vertex with elastic. The greater the affinity to a vertex, the greater the tension, with the final position being a result of the combination of all three. Thus the story in the triad below has the strongest affinity with the Flow vertex. The next strongest is Potential, with Value being the weakest.

Impact Triad

While triads are an approach not directly supported by the canvas in its current form, the deliberate choice of words to describe each impact creates multiple possible triads which could be explored. Deciding where an impact goes generally requires more thinking, and generates greater dialogue and insight.

Thing RightRight ThingThing Sustainably

Generating lots of utopian (and dystopian) future stories, instrumented with these triads, will generate patterns which can give a sense of where the improvement opportunities are for making an impact.


Here’s an example of thinking about impact from the three perspectives. It is intentionally lacking in direct relevance to minimise the risk of biasing your own answers to the questions.

When I go running, I’m generally wanting to improve my health and fitness. What impact do I want to have?

  • From a Flow perspective, impact could be about pace and speed. I could imagine a utopian future where I can run a 4 minute mile.
  • From a Value perspective, impact could be about distance and stamina. I could imagine a utopian future where I can run 100 miles.
  • From a Potential perspective, impact could be about friendship and community. I could imagine a utopian future where I am the president of a local running club.

None of these are mutually exclusive. If I can run a 4 minute mile, then there is a high likelihood that I’ll be involved in a running club, and training longer distances as well. However, explicitly exploring the different perspectives avoids me just focussing on one thing such as speed, to the detriment of friendship or stamina.

What stories would you like to tell about the impact your kanban system makes in the future?

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Anatomy of the Kanban Canvas

I’ve just added a high level explanation of the anatomy of the Kanban Canvas to the main Kanban Thinking site (where you can downloade the Canvas). I thought I would also post it here.


How to assess the systemic problem and who is experiencing it.

At the centre of the Canvas is the system being worked on.

Assuming that the current situation is not perfect, and there is always room for improvement, then understanding the scope of the system helps focus on the biggest opportunities for improvement and avoids “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”. By thinking about the situation as part of a holistic system, and having clarity on the scope of the system, we are more likely to identifying opportunities which improve the whole, rather than making smaller, local improvements, which might worsen the whole.

This leads to the question of what is the scope of the system. Defining the system to be too small, might not lead to any significant improvements. Equally defining the system to be too large, might be like trying to “boil the ocean”.

One way of understanding the system is to look at the people involved, and explore what problems those people are having. Narrative is an extremely useful form of doing this – finding and telling stories about people’s experiences and frustration with their work. In particular, the stories related to the customers and stakeholders will start to identify the boundaries of the system.

One fun way of exploring the system through narrative is by using the Pixar Pitch. This approach makes the final “Because of that…” refer to the current kanban system design, and the “Until Finally…” is left blank to be explored in the Impact section.


How to assess the fitness criteria in terms of flow, value and potential.

The three arrows coming out of the right of the central System are potential Impacts which might be made. These Impacts encourage a focus on what success or failure could look like, before any changes get made.

Given that in most situations, we are dealing with complex problems, where cause and effect are only apparent with hindsight and past solutions are not necessarily repeatable in the future, then we should not try to define a specific future state to solve the problem. However, that does not mean that we cannot determine the characteristics of the outcomes of solutions so we can assess their fitness criteria, or how fit for purpose a solution is.

Impact is an evaluation of fitness for purpose. A successful solution is one which has positive impact and an unsuccessful solution is what which has negative (or no) impact. Impact can be thought of as direction, as opposed to a point solution being a specific destination.

Having explored the scope of the System through narrative, we can also begin to define Impact in a similar way by asking what stories do we want to hear more of, or less off, in the future. When using the Pixar Pitch technique, imaging impossible good and bad endings to the story brings out exaggerated scenarios which can be compared against by asking whether the System is becoming more or less like the suggested endings. Getting both good and bad endings allows both positive and negative Impact to be easily imagined and identified.

When imagining the future, to create a range of diverse possibilities, the Impacts on Flow, Value and Potential are used to encourage thinking from different perspectives.


How to assess the evolutionary potential in terms of studying, sharing, stabilising, sensing and searching.

The five arrows going into the left of the System are the potential Interventions that could be made. These Interventions provide a frame for appreciating the intent behind various practices, learning and discovering which ways of working are the right ones for the current situation, and transforming those practices as the system continuously evolves.

Working through the interventions encourages continuous curiosity about which tools and techniques to use, understanding when and why they are appropriate, and ultimately collaboratively, co-creating an initial kanban system as a baseline to begin experimenting and improving.

The interventions used are to Study the context, Share the understanding, Stabilise the work, Sense the capability and Search the alternatives.

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Draft Kanban Canvas User Guide


This is an initial draft for brief guide to how I use the Kanban Canvas, building on the recently posted Prezi. It will eventually be added to the main Kanban Thinking site. Generally, I use the canvas as the core of a two day workshop, during which I use it to facilitate the collaborative co-creation of a kanban system. The canvas becomes a single, simple artefact which captures a common understanding of how a system is designed, and why it is designed the way it is.


1. First we begin with understanding the scope and purpose of the System. I’m looking to discover key people, problems, frustrations, boundaries and interfaces. I like to get participants to tell their story leading up to the present day, explaining why they are in a room together designing a kanban system.

The output in this section is one or more a simple narratives capturing the essential system elements and interactions.


Next, we need to be able to assess whether any changes we make are improving or deteriorating the systems fitness for purpose. The goal is to be able to describe the general direction we want to go in, without identifying any specific outcomes or end states.

2. We explore various ways we might want the story to end – and what endings might we want to avoid. I ask participants to imagine impossibly good and bad endings – utopian and dystopian futures – using the three Impacts of Flow, Value and Potential to help them look from different perspectives. They are not distinct impacts, but more like triads, where elements of all three could be involved. This generates healthy conversations about how the potential futures relate to the different impacts.

The output across these three sections is a set up potential endings, placed relative to where they have most resonance. Colour coding is used to distinguish between the utopian (green) and dystopian (red) futures.


Now we have a good understanding of the recent past and desired future direction, we can begin looking at how we can start interacting with the system to make interventions which we hope will have a positive impact.

3. To really understand how we can make effective change, we first need to Study the context. There are 3 areas that I find it useful to study; the customer or stakeholder, the work demand that comes from them, and the way that demand is processed. We usually start by looking at demand, and the group applies concepts such as value and failure demand, the CORE Profile and Classes of Service. Then we’ll explore where that work comes from with a technique such as Empathy Mapping, and how that work is processed with a variation of Value Stream Mapping focussing on the flow of information and its discovery.

The output in this section is a set of sticky notes capturing a summary of customer/stakeholder needs, demand classifications and classes of service, and primary workflow states, transitions or delays.

4. Once we have a good common understanding of the existing context, then we can Share it by visualising our knowledge on a kanban board. First I ask the group to discuss and agree which information is most relevant and important for them to share – trying to show everything will just create noise. Then I introduce the Token, Inscription, Placement concept as a way of thinking about board design patterns, and the group comes up with approaches to visualise their important information.

The output in this section is a set of mappings between each important informational dimension to be visualised, and the visualisation technique to be used.

5. The next step is to begin to Stabilise the current system by introducing explicit policies. These policies will form flexible boundaries to contain the work. Boundaries which are too hard and fixed will lead to rigid bureaucracy, while boundaries which are too loose will lead to chaos. I introduce Work In Process limits as a core policy type, and we explore the various strategies and techniques for introducing and setting WIP limits. Then the group brainstorms some simple quality checklists to agree how and when work should progress across the board. These simple, standard work definitions become the baseline for future improvements.

The output in this section is a set of decisions regarding basic WIP limit strategies and allocations, and bullet points for initial entry/exit criteria on the board.

6. As a system is put in place and evolves, we need a way to Sense its capability in order to assess its fitness for purpose. The two primary means for this are measures and meetings. First, groups decide which outcomes they hope will have a positive impact, typically selecting from productivity, reliability, responsiveness, quality, customer satisfaction and employee engagement. Metrics are discussed and defined for these outcomes, considering the anticipated behaviour and consequences, and potential tradeoffs with other outcomes. Then groups decide what meetings and cadences they would like to use to give them an ongoing rhythm for assessing capability and progress.

The output in this section is a set of simple metrics definitions, and a list of meetings and respective cadences.

7. Finally, the evolutionary potential of the system is explored by beginning a Search for alternative designs. Given everything that has been discussed so far, the groups begins to define small experiments that could be run on possible changes. Each experiment has a hypothesis, a rationale, measures to both validate and falsify, and a mechanism for ensuring safety and reversibility.

The output in this section is a set of initial simple experiment definitions which can be run.

All of this is done in a very collaborative way, using various facilitation techniques to ensure everyone is able to contribute, different opinions are heard, and consensus is reached. At this point, the group is able to begin learning, evolving and improving their kanban system using the canvas as a basis.

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Kanban Canvas Prezi Overview

Yesterday I gave a brief overview of the Kanban Canvas to a few people in the Open Jam area at Agile2014. I used a Prezi to zoom around canvas, showing the order I generally work through it, with some high level ideas of the sort of content that I explore when filling it in. You can find the Prezi below.

I’ll be iterating on this, adding more detail and turning it into a simple “User Guide”.

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Kanban Thinking and the Kanban Method

When I first coined the term Kanban Thinking for the model of how I approach working with teams and organisations, I described how I wanted to encourage more definitions of kanban to lead to less dogma about what it is or isn’t. That’s still the case, but there is always the risk that multiple definitions leads to competition and a scarcity mindset. One of my favourite mantras is “feed the soil, not the plants”, and I prefer a mindset of abundance, so in this post I want  to map Kanban Thinking to the Kanban Method, with a goal of showing the relationship between the two, and how they are complementary rather than alternatives.

Here’s a recap of the elements of Kanban Thinking:

  • Systemic Thinking
  • Impacts
    • Flow
    • Value
    • Potential
  • Interventions
    • Study the Context
    • Share the Understanding
    • Stabilise the Work
    • Sense the Capability
    • Search the Landscape

(Eagle-eyed readers might notice that I have updated some of the language again – I need to blog about this soon!)

How do the elements of the Kanban Method relate to this? Note that this is a very simplistic  mapping – there are richer nuances which would come across is a deeper comparison.  I have included the recent Kanban agendas as part of the Kanban Method.


The agendas relate primarily to the Kanban Thinking Impacts:

Sustainability primarily relates to Flow, in that an efficient and reliable process reduces the burden on people. Equally, it can also relate to Potential for the same reasons as Survivability (see below).

Service-Orientation relates to Value, in that an effective and valid product is the result of providing a good service.

Survivability relates to Potential in that an organisation with euphoric people who can be adaptable is more likely to have a longer lifespan.


Start with what you do now relates to Study the Context in order to get knowledge about where you are starting.

Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change relates Search the Landscape by running small, recoverable experiments on potential improvements.

Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities and titles also relates to Study the Context to understand all those aspects of the initial starting point.

Leadership at all levels has no direct relationship to Kanban Thinking. Tenuously it could relate to an impact on Potential in that having leadership at all levels should lead to greater future sucess.


Visualise relates to Share the Understanding which is the underlying intent of visualisation.

Limit WIP relates to Stabilise the Work by containing the amount of work in the system to balance demand with capability.

Manage Flow relates to Sense the Capability in terms of flow, and therefore also making an impact on Flow.

Make policies explicit also relates Stabilise the Work by creating clear standards of quality as a baseline for improvement.

Implement feedback loops relates to Sense the Capability by creating the mechanism through which performance can be understood.

Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally (using models & the scientific method) relates to Search the Landscape by running small, recoverable experiments on potential improvements.

Kanban Thinking and Kenban Method

What does this tell us?

The key take away should be that there is a close mapping between the two and, and while there are some slight differences in emphasis, they are extremely compatible as mutual approaches. There is certainly no competition or need to choose one over the other! While we could start getting into some form of SWOT analysis of each, I’m not sure that would be worth the effort.

However, it is worth understanding how can they can be distinguished in a way that highlights how they are different and yet complementary. One of the things that is motivating this for me is to be able to put together a “Kanban Thinking” course/offering which would be appealing to anyone who’s been on an LKU approved Kanban Method training.

This is what I’ve come up with:

  • The Kanban Method is an approach to delivering service-oriented knowledge work in a sustainable and survivable way.
  • Kanban Thinking is a model with which to design and evolve a system which can implement the Kanban Method.

So in summary:

  • Kanban Thinking is a model which can be used implement the Kanban Method.
  • Equally, the Kanban Method can be implemented without using Kanban Thinking.
  • And Kanban Thinking can be used to create a kanban system without using the Kanban Method.
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Kanban Thinking: The Canvas

Kanban CanvasLast week, at SparkConf, I announced a new website for Kanban Thinking, which is where I will add new material in a more structured way (I’ll continue to blog ideas here in an un-structured way!). The primary new piece is what I’m calling a Kanban Canvas – a sheet designed to be printed on A0 paper and used to collaboratively explore the model when designing a kanban system.

The canvas is built around the heuristics and related questions, with the goal being to co-create a design by exploring and answering the questions. You can see some more on this in the SparkConf slides below. Please visit the new site, download the canvas, and let me know your experiences.

And of course, let me know if you would like me to help facilitate your work!

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Going Solo

There is often a time when singers and songwriters who have always been part of a band, decide to pursue a solo project. Well, I feel I can empathise with that situation, and having always worked for someone else, I’ve decided its time to go out on my own.

I’m now an independent Lean Agile Consultant, providing services to help businesses become Learning Organisations. I hope to be able to focus more time on developing Kanban Thinking as something which develops problem solvers. More on this very soon!

If you think I might be able to help you, and would like to discuss and explore possibilities, then please contact me via


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Kanban Thinking Questions

Question MarkQuestions

Kanban Thinking emerged from a realisation that “best practices” are not universal, and that sometimes, continuing to try harder, do better and have more discipline isn’t the right thing to do when those practices are not appropriate. As a result, the challenge became one of how to help people learn and discover their own solutions to the challenges they face when pre-packaged solutions don’t work. The result, Kanban Thinking, is a mental model that guides my thinking, and gives me a framework with which to ask questions when designing kanban systems. This post describes Kanban Thinking in terms of some basic questions.

The System

The starting point is to understand why we are designing a kanban system.

  • What systemic problem, difficulty or frustration are we trying to address?


Next we consider how we will know whether the kanban system is doing its job.


Improving the progress of the work might be a positive impact.

  • How would investing in our process, its efficiency and reliability make a difference?


Improving the product of the work might be a positive impact.

  • How would investing in our product, its effectiveness and validity make a difference?


Improving the sustainability of the work might be a positive impact.

  • How would investing in our people, their euphoria and humanity make a difference?


Then we evaluate what interventions we might make to begin evolving the kanban system.


Studying the context allows a better understanding of the current situation.

  • What could be done to learn more about customer and stakeholder needs, the resultant demand, and how that demand is processed?


Sharing the knowledge gives everyone a common understanding of the situation.

  • What information is important to share, and how can tokens, the inscriptions on them, and their placements, provide a single visual model?


Containing the work, with loose constraints, creates a stable, yet supple system.

  • What policies could help limit work in process, and remove unnecessary or unexpected delays or rework?


Sensing the current capability provides understanding of how well the system is performing.

  • What measures and meetings might create insights and guide decisions on the interventions required to have the desired impact?


Exploring possible interventions leads to discovery of the evolutionary potential of the system.

  • What small experiments could be run to safely learn the impact of different interventions?


There are not necessarily any right or wrong answers to these questions. The intent is that they should lead to dialogue and conversations, which themselves lead to awareness and ideas for how to go about change and improvement.

How do these questions help you? Let me know!

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Estimates as Sensors

Note: this is not an April Fool – honest!

I’ve been watching the #NoEstimates conversations with interest and decided its about time to pitch in with my own perspective. I don’t want to take any ‘side’ because like most things, the answer is not black or white. Estimates can be used for both good and evil. For me they are useful as a sensing mechanism. Put another way, by estimating, I can get a sense of how well I know my actual capability.

Lets take an example. I’m taking part in a 10K run this Sunday (*) and I am estimating that I will complete the distance in 55 minutes. This is based on an understanding of my capability from participating in regular 5K runs, and more general training runs over a 10K distance. I’ve never run an official 10K race, let alone this course, and I don’t know what the conditions will be like, but I’m aiming for 55 minutes. If I run quicker and do better than my estimate, then my actual 10K capability is better than I thought. If I run slower and do worse than my estimate, then my actual 10K capability is worse than I thought. Either way,  I will learn something about how well I know my 10K capability.

What helps even more with that learning is regular feedback! I use MayMyRun on my phone to track  progress and give me feedback every kilometre for total time, average pace and last split. This could be considered a distance-based cadence. I could probably also use a time-based cadence to give me equivalent feedback every few minutes. This feedback on a regular cadence helps me decided whether my estimate was way off, or if I should slow down because my pace is probably unsustainable, or speed up because I feel I can push harder.

How does this relate to product development? Well, we can use estimates in the same way to get a sense of a teams delivery capability, and use regular feedback to learn whether we’re making the progress we thought, and need to re-plan, slow down or speed up. Time-boxing, with Story Point estimates and Velocity can provide this time-based cadence and feedback. Alternatively, how long it takes to complete 10 User Stories can be used as a distance-based cadence and feedback.

To sum up, I recommend using estimates to sense capability and create feedback for yourself. I don’t recommend using them to make promises and give guarantees to others. Or maybe we could just call them sensors instead of estimates?

(*) Of course this post is primarily an excuse to invite readers to sponsor me. If you’re so inclined, or would like to show support for this post in a charitable and financial way, then please head over to my JustGiving page and do so there 🙂

Update: My final time was 49:23 based on the timing chip, or 49:30 from the starting gun. I’ve learned that I’m better than I thought I was, and next time I’ll be estimating 50 minutes!

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Announcing The Lego Flow Game

I have just published a page for the Lego Flow Game – a new game that I have co-created with Dr. Sallyann Freudenberg. Its based on an ‘experiment’ I originally ran in 2010 at the SPA conference. Then I used an exercise of matching, solving and checking equations to explore and experience workflow with different types of processes and policies. While this worked in terms of having a game that consisted of knowledge work, it turned out to be painfully tedious and hard work, which detracted from the main learning objectives. Sal was in the audience that day, and took the concept and evolved it by swapping in Lego building instead of the mathematics. We’ve run the updated version a few time over the last 6 months or so, and made some tweaks to the rules and timings, and we’re pretty happy with the latest version – hence publishing it.

The most recent outing was at the Kanban Coaching Exchange in London last week. It was pretty chaotic with around 50 people attending in a relatively small space, and only 3 full kits – we need to stock up on staplers! That meant that there were lots of observers – if you were there, we thank you for your patience. It didn’t help that we were also missing the right cable to connect a laptop to the TV in the room, so we had to explain the exercise without any supporting slides, and I had to show the end-result Cumulative Flow Diagrams by holding my laptop over my head. Given all that, there seemed to be high energy, good discussion and overall the feedback seemed positive. If we can run the exercise successfully in that environment, then it’ll probably work in most situations!

You can find the full instructions on the main page – please let us know if anything isn’t clear. You’ll also find the slides and spreadsheet to go with the exercise there. There are some photographs from the Kanban Coaching Exchange session on the event page and I’ll add any others that I come across here as well.

Here are the final spreadsheets for the 3 teams. I’ll briefly describe what I interpret from one of them (team 1).

Round 1 is a ‘waterfall-like’ process, or batch and stage. In other words, the work flows through the process in a single batch, one stage at a time. You can see the work build up in the Analysis stage until all 5 are complete, and then moved together into Supply stage, and then Build, where the team ran out of time. Thus no items were completed. The debrief of this round mentioned that the person working felt very pressured, while everyone else was very relaxed. Waterfall is great if you’re not the critical path – and you don’t care about getting anything done!

Team 1 Batch CFD

Round 2 is a ‘scrum-like’ process, or time-boxed, with 3 x 2 minute ‘Sprints’. The time-boxes themselves are not obvious from the CFD, but its clear that there is some more flow, even if it is fairly ragged. One item is completed in the the first time-box, but the team estimated, and started four items. However, they must have learned from this, because they didn’t start anymore work in the second time-box (between minutes 2:00 ad 4:00) and they completed one more item on this time-box. For the final time-box, they decided to start one more item, and complete 2 more. If they had seen the data and the graph (I didn’t show anything until the end) they might have realised that it probably wasn’t worth starting anything in the final time-box either. Four items were completed in total. You can also start to see some predictability at the end as the built in retrospective cadence generated learning and improvement in how much work the team took on. The debrief discussed how this round tends to feel fairly chaotic with strong focus, punctuated by the retrospectives.

Team 1 Timebox CFD

Round 3 is a ‘kanban-like’ process, or purely flow-based with WIP limits. The flow is much smoother this time, and the WIP limit of 1 in each stage is clear. The slope of the graph is also fairly smooth, and its would probably be fairly easy to predict the future performance of the team. Five items were completed at almost one per minute. The debrief discussed how this round tends to be more relaxed, with a more gently hum of activity.

Team 1 Flow CFD

I hope this is useful in getting a feel for how the game works, and making it possible to run the game yourself. Please try it for yourself and let us know how you get on. In particular Sal and I would love to hear about modifications you make, or what other policies you experiment with.

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