From Capability to Potential

At Lean Agile Scotland last weekend I was chatting with Gojko Adzic over dinner, and one of the many topics we covered was whether capability was the right word for one of the three impacts I describe as desirable with Kanban Thinking. Earlier this year I described what I meant by capability, but more recently I’ve realised capability is more commonly referenced as a property of the whole system, rather than one specific impact. In other words, if we improve a system’s flow, we have improved the system’s overall capability. Thus I needed to find a new word.

When I referred to capability as an impact, my goal was to ensure as much emphasis was placed on the people who are doing the work, as was on the work itself and its process. This emphasis is what enables a system’s performance to be sustainable over the long term, and even to improve over time. I had been toying with sustainability, but Gojko suggested the word potential and the more I think about it, the more I like it. Potential can be defined as the “possible, as opposed to the actual”, and what is “capable of being or becoming”. This clearly describes that improving a system’s potential is improving the long term future of that system.

Another way of looking at it is the metaphor of a pipe, again inspired by Gojko. If value is what comes out of the pipe, and flow is the progress through the pipe, potential is what can go into the pipe. A system which has a positive impact on potential is one which opens the tap to allow more to be done.

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Then there is also the notion of human potential. Bob Marshall referred to this, and specifically to the waste of human potential, in his Lean Agile Scotland session on Rightshifting, further reinforcing the notion. I also noticed that Matt Wynne has referred to the same waste in his blog post following the conference. This has a nice synergy and helps reinforce the idea that increasing a system’s potential is not about cracking the whip harder. Rather it is about investing in people, unleashing their creativity, and making work fun.

As a result, the latest Kanban Thinking model now looks likes this.

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Linking Flow, Value and Capability

I wrote recently that I have come to think about Flow, Value and Capability as the primary impacts I hope a Kanban System will have. Flow, Value and Capability are not independent entities, however, with Capability being the link between Flow and Value. We can think of Flow as “doing the thing right”, where good flow is the result of a good process. Similarly, we can think of Value as “doing the right thing”, where high value is the result of good outputs from the process. We want both, however, and we can think of Capability as “doing the right thing right”, where a good process delivers good outputs.

Flow Value Capability

Here’s another way of looking at it…

A common scenario is creating projects, and assigning people to those projects to form a project team. This is great for the project in isolation, but when the project finishes the team is usually disbanded, and all the capability that was created as tacit knowledge in the team is lost.

Project Team

A further challenge (amongst many) with this approach is that when another project comes along – and then another – people get assigned to multiple project teams, at which point they’re not really teams any more. This might seem efficient, but it is not effective, and is not good for the people or the work. In the diagram below, the person in the middle on three projects is not in a good place!

Multiple Teams

An alternative idea is to form teams around organisational capabilities – things which will enable the business to make an impact. Small pieces of valuable work which enhance this capability can then be individually pulled by these teams, creating flow. This is what I call a Capability Team.

Capability Team

Pursuing this approach, the notion of the project goes away, replaced by a Flow of Value through Capability teams who are able to “do the right thing right”. These teams can stay together for as long as the capability is important, building knowledge about all aspects of what they are building, and how they build it.

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What is Capability?

I recently gave talk at the London Scrum User Group (LSUG) describing Kanban Thinking and had a very interesting conversation about what I mean by the impact on capability. I realised I needed to think it through in a bit more detail, and this is an attempt to articulate it better.

Defining Capability

In his book Rethink: A Business Manifesto for Cutting Costs and Boosting Innovation, Ric Merrifield used the term capability to define the outcomes which drive business performance. One of the dictionary.com definitions is that a capability is a quality, ability or feature which can be used or developed. Additionally, to be capable of something is to be predisposed to, or inclined to, which ties in with the idea that complex systems have disposition. Putting all these together, we can say that a systems capability is its degree of disposition, which can be used and developed, towards create a business outcome.

Doing the Right Thing and Doing the Thing Right

We can think of capability in two ways – that of the business, and that of the people. The business’s capability is its ability to do the right thing, while its people’s capability is their ability to do the thing right. This can be visualised in a 2×2 matrix, where ideally we want to be in the top right quadrant where we are aligning business capability with human capability.

Capability

Developing Capability

When I first described Kanban Thinking, I said that “to build capability is to develop people and knowledge as a foundation for business success. Kanban Thinking looks to develop people as problem solvers rather than their tools to solve problems”. Capability is more than just how good the flow of value is. It is also how well the flow and value can be sustained and improved over time. Simply swapping in and out different people to an existing process (flow) with existing requirements (value) will not work. Businesses are social and cognitive systems where people have tacit knowledge, and they share and use that tacit knowledge to deliver the work. That is why teams are such as core part of making an agile approach work.

Capability Teams

Feature teams are a great example of how to build capability, collaborating to delivering customer value directly. A more debatable approach, however, is the use of component teams, and the idea of capability can provide guidance on when this may be appropriate.  Where a component or architectural layer provides some direct impact on organisational capability, then it may be worth having its own team. The decision on team structure becomes one of whether the team is a Capability Team. Taking a cue from “Rethink”, a Capability Team as one whose outcomes have a resultant improvement on the business performance, as opposed to one whose activities are needed to achieve a business outcome.

An Example

A financial services organisation had a team dedicated to developing an SOA capability which would be used by a variety customer facing applications to access a common data repository. The ability to effectively manage customer data was a key capability for the organisation, and development of the data repository was a business outcome which enabled a better customer experience by providing cross-application consistency. The same organisation also had a QA team. This is not a capability because on its own it does not deliver a business outcome. Rather, it is an skill or activity required to deliver quality, and which should be built into the work performed by capability teams delivering business outcomes.

Even with the notion of Capability Teams, its not necessarily a simple black or white decision, hence the interesting conversation at LSUG. When unsure about what team structure to go with, I think the more interesting question is “how will I know if the structure is having a positive impact?” As I mentioned at the end of the post on Impact, Outcome and Output, I believe Geoffrey Moore’s hierarchy of powers offers some insights here, which I hope to expand on in a future post.  I’d also be interested in hearing of any other interesting examples of Capability Teams. Please leave a comment if you have one!

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Running the Ball Flow Game

I previously wrote about the Ball Flow Game I ran at the Scrum Gathering in Amsterdam. I’ve updated the game quite a bit since then and its stabilised into something I’m finding very useful when I work with Kanban teams to help them understand some of the concepts behind Kanban Thinking. I hope this write-up enables others to use and run the game.

To recap, the Ball Flow Game is based on the Ball Point Game, with the following rules:

  • Participants play as a whole team
  • Balls must have air time between people
  • No passing to a direct neighbour
  • The start person must be the end person

The aim is to complete 20 balls (as opposed to complete as many in 2 minutes). Thanks to Rally colleague Eric Willeke I now add some fun context as well. I tell the team that they are producing magic balls. Magic is added to a ball only when everyone has touched it. If two people touch a ball at the same time, the magic is dispersed. Further, magnetic fields mean that passing a ball to a direct neighbour also stops magic being added. The start/end person is the customer wanting magic to be added to the balls. Its silly, but it adds an extra element of fun, and reinforces that the rules are constraints in the context that can’t be changed.

I use a spreadsheet to help automatically capture data about the performance of the team. (Download the template). It works using four macros, which are assigned to buttons and hot-keys:

  • Begin (Ctl-B). Begins a round by starting a timer.
  • In (Ctl-I). Captures the time a ball is added into the system.
  • Out (Ctl-O). Captures the time a ball come out of the system.
  • End (Ctl-E). Ends a round by calculating the metrics.

Once the metrics are calculated, three charts on the worksheet will populate themselves.

  • Lead Time. The time each ball took to work its way through the team (assuming balls enter and exit in the same order). The dotted line is the average.
  • Throughput. The number of balls the team completes every 10 seconds
  • Cumulative Flow Diagram. The number of balls either not started, in progress or done every 10 seconds

Upper and Lower Control Limits can also be calculated and displayed for Lead Time. They are currently commented out in the macro code because I found that they weren’t necessary for the core learning objectives. You may also need to tweak some of the macro functions for different versions of Excel (I use Windows Excel 2010). The template has worksheets for 5 rounds. For additional sheets, simply one of the existing rounds.

One of the things I’ve noticed is how the dynamics of the conversations are different from when I run the traditional Ball Point Game with teams. In particular, the team I was working with today really understood the idea of scientific management and made very small, quick and focussed changes each round as experiments, hypothesising on how the metrics would change. With the Ball Point Game I find teams want to debate in depth all the options in their attempts to get an improvement.

Note that as I said in a post of Balanced Software Development, “scientific management is still relevant for knowledge work, when the workers are the scientists.”

Here are the results. (Apparently we started with only 19 balls due to a facilitator error!)

Round 1

In this round, the customer ‘pushed’ balls into the system when he could. You can see the lead time increase as the WIP increases in the CFD, up to a point when a natural system limit is reached. Towards the end the customer stops adding more balls to let the system flush itself out a bit, which shows as the step in the CFD at about 60 seconds, the drop in lead time, and the spike in throughput. The final two balls went through when the system was virtually empty. Notice the short lead times again!

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Round 2

In this round the team decided to limit the WIP to 6 – one per person. However, interestingly (to me at least) they decided to batch them, by getting all 6 through before they started the next 6. Lead time is much more stable this time. The spike is because the customer forgot to receive the last ball of the 1st batch before starting the 2nd batch, so it got stuck! Throughput is wildly variable though because nothing comes out for a while, and then all 6 come at once. You can see the batching in the ‘steps’ in the CFD.

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Round 3

In this round the team wanted to experiment with an low extreme WIP limit of 1. Lead time is significantly better, but throughput is low because there is too much slack in the system now. Notice the smooth flow in the CDF. The patches where WIP drops to zero are because the customer’s process between receiving a ball out, and adding a ball in, added a noticeable delay.

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Round 4

In this round the team increased the limit to 3, but continued to process those 3 in batches. Lead time remains the same, but with improved throughput. The CFD still shows signs of the batching with the customer delay between batches, but is much steeper due to the improved throughput.

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Round 5

Finally, the team decided to remove the batches and solve the customer’s delay issue by re-organising themselves. This time the customer added 3 balls into the system, and then only added another when one came out. Lead time is slightly increased, probably due to the fact that there were always 3 balls in process which added some complexity. Throughput is improved again though, and the CFD is looking very smooth.

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As you can see, the team made significant improvements over the five rounds by making small changes informed by the data they had about their flow and capability.

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Starting An Agile Transition With Why

In March this year I gave this keynote at the Rally Agile Success Tour in London. This is a video of the talk, followed by a write-up. The slides can be downloaded from here.

People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it. Simon Sinek says that this is the fundamental reasoning behind what he refers to as the Golden Circle, which he describes as a natural law occurring in many forms, in the same way as the Golden Ratio. He cites example of the Golden Circle including Martin Luther King, who said “I have a dream” not “I have a plan” and the Wright brothers, who succeeded first with manned flight despite having less money, education, connections and publicity as competitors. The Golden Circle suggests that we should start with WHY, before determining HOW, and finally WHAT, rather than starting with WHAT.

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Starting an Agile transformation with WHY involves knowing why you want to use an Agile approach, and the goals you are aiming for, rather than becoming Agile just because it seems popular or a good idea. Therefore, begin by defining your WHY, deciding where you want to go and creating a vision of the future that you hope Agile will help create. Then Agile will be a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Your WHY is your destination, and Agile can help with HOW you get there, and guide WHAT you do to get there.

WHY

A WHY is what motivates people to take action. It is a purpose, a cause or a belief. It is a reason to care and want to get out of bed in the morning. A WHY is not to make money. Money is a necessary precondition for business, in the same way that breathing is a necessary precondition to living although our purpose in life is not to breathe. Making money may also be a desirable result, but it is not a WHY.

WHY is the equivalent of the System Thinking premise of purpose. Complex Systems have a purpose which influences behaviour, the product of the system’s elements and interactions. Dave Snowden uses the Magic Roundabout in Swindon as an example of a complex system whose purpose is to enable a high throughput of cars with a low accident rate. Reports show that it achieves this purpose, despite also being generally regarded as one of the scariest roundabouts in existence. By starting with WHY, the roundabouts designers created an effective, safe and resilient WHAT. Starting with WHAT leads to the less scary but more common design.

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WHY is always going to be context specific, but one simple generalisation would be that it is to satisfy customer demand. Demand analysis can help understanding of what work adds value, and helps us towards our WHY, and what work doesn’t add value. John Seddon describes failure demand is work that results from not doing something right, or not doing something at all. That is not to suggest that we should strive for perfection and be right first time with up front analysis and design. Value can still be added in small, incremental and iterative steps. Think of it like a ticket machine at your local deli. When a customer first takes a ticket then the request can be considered value demand. Subsequent tickets for the exactly same request can be considered failure demand. However, further tickets could be for similar, related requests because the customer comes back for more of the same, as opposed to exactly the same.

Simon Sinek argues that our brain is wired to start with WHY. Our first brain, the Limbic System is what deals with emotions, unconscious thought, instinct, and governs our behaviour. Our thinking brain, the Cerebral Cortex, is what deals with rationality, conscious thought, intellect, and governs our language. Thus, our natural behaviour is to make decisions emotionally, unconsciously, and instinctively. We then justify those decisions rationally, consciously and intellectually with facts. I have just bought a new car (well, new for me) and spent a not insignificant amount of money in a totally impulsive purchase. I had no intention of buying a car when I entered the garage, but fell in love with the car and ended up talking myself into deciding it was an opportunity I would regret if I missed it. Similarly, both times I have bought a house, which is both an important decision and major investment, the decision was because the house “felt right”. The size, condition, location, price etc. came second.

How

HOW describes the way that a WHY will be realised. It can be thought of as a set of guiding principles that help map a WHY to a WHAT. A HOW can also be a specific outcome that is to be accomplished without detailing the activity and output required to complete it. Additionally, HOWs are often ways of differentiating approaches and describing them in comparison to competitors.

One way of describing HOW an Agile approach enables a WHY is with the metaphor of a Recipe for Success. David Anderson popularised this idea with the following recipe:

  • Focus on Quality
  • Reduce WIP
  • Balance Capacity against Demand
  • Prioritise

Similarly, my colleague Ken Clyne at Rally talks about the fundamentals of Agile as:

  • Focus on customer value
  • Deliver early and often
  • Reduce batch size
  • Pull quality forward
  • Inspect and adapt
  • Create a collaborative culture

These recipes are a guide to HOW to achieve Agility in order to achieve a WHY. However, they are not specific enough to describe WHAT to do.

A common explanation for WHY organisations want to become Agile is “Better, Faster, Cheaper”. These are at best HOWs, and not WHYs. In fact, I would suggest that cheaper isn’t even a HOW. To paraphrase John Seddon, focussing on cost will usually result in cost going up.

Another approach to describing HOW to become Agile is through a transformation strategy or roadmap. Options for which path to take include beginning slowly with a single, fully Agile pilot project from which to learn, diving in and moving all project to an Agile approach in one go for clarity of message, only beginning new projects or initiatives as Agile to avoid risking current work, or incrementally solve specific challenges with certain practices for a more evolutionary transition.

Working Agreements can also be considered as a description of HOW. Explicit policies for how work is done can be created by recognising how value is created, how that creation is visualised and made transparent, how the work in process is limited, what cadences are used for synchronisation and co-ordination, and how continuous learning and improvement happens.

My personal take on HOW to be Agile is in terms of flow, value, capability. Achieving flow involves eliminating delays and focussing on reducing the lead time from concept to consumption. Delivering value involves making sure that the right things are being worked on and the right problems are being solved rather than “doing the wrong things righter”. Building capability involves developing people and their skills working as teams aligned to the organisation strategy.

What

WHAT is done proves that a WHY really is believed. It consists of tangible ways with which a WHY is realised and provides clear data points that actions are according to a WHY.

Agile practices are WHAT teams do in order to enable them to realise their WHY. Further, practices can be associated with HOW agility is demonstrated, in terms of flow, value and capability. The following is one interpretation of some practices. I’m sure there are many others.

Flow

User Stories are a technique to break down functionality into small pieces of demonstrable functionality which can create single piece flow. Time-boxing and kanban-style limits are both ways of managing WIP and enabling a focus on finishing rather than starting to keep work flowing. Visualisation approaches help teams see all the work so that they can focus their energy in the right places to keep flow. Strong teamwork and collaboration minimises the need for queues and batches which cause delays. Test Driven Development, with its emphasis on automated unit testing and refactoring, keeps designs clean and quality high so that new work can progress quickly. Continuous integration and deployment help works flow right through to the customer without lengthy release processes causing delays.

Value

Product Backlogs, User Stories, Minimal Marketable Features and other value-focussed forms of requirements are intended to help teams ensure they are delivering maximum benefit. Similarly, the On-Site Customer, or Product Owner roles are intended to maximise collaboration with people who are determining and receiving the value. Iteration demos and reviews are a means of gaining early and continuous feedback and validation that the product is delivering the intended value. Frequent and continuous delivery means that the value can be realised as soon as possible. Acceptance Test Driven Development and Behaviour Driven Development provide techniques for delivering value through quality and clarity of functionality.

Capability

Dedicated, cross-functional, value focussed teams mean that learning and knowledge is kept, shared and built upon to develop capability. Various collaborative practices, such as Pair Programming, Collective Code Ownership, Group Design, Team Estimation and Planning Poker similarly share knowledge around a team. Regular demos and reviews provide a cadence with which feedback and learning can build product capability, while regular retrospectives provide a cadence with which feedback and learning can build team capability. Visualisation of work, and the way value is created, gives visibility of bottlenecks and constraints and other issues such that they can be resolved to improve capability. Slack ensures that teams have spare capacity to both address these issues, and spend time on other forms of capability development which will improve future productivity and performance.

Conclusion

When embarking on a change initiative using Agile approaches, always “Start with WHY”. Use the WHY as a True North with which to guide the Agile transformation and steer decisions on which Agile practices to use for what reasons. Understand HOW agility is going to help progress towards the WHY, and WHAT Agile practices will provide the means to get there.

A clear WHY, that people are motivated by, will make it more likely that they will want to use Agile. However, Thomas Edison said that “vision without execution is hallucination”, so don’t stop with WHY, but make sure that the Agile HOW is also well known and the Agile practices that form the WHAT are clearly understood to ensure that the goal is successfully reached.

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People and Process: Two Sides of the Same Coin

I wrote this short article for JAX Magazine, but it seems JAX doesn’t want to make it easy for people to access the content (you have to register to get a download link which only works once). So I’ve decided to post the article here as well. Its an evolution of some of my thinking that goes back to the new lean and agile picture I posted.

One of the value statements from the Agile Manifesto is “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. This is often abbreviated to “people over process” with a common interpretation being that the human aspects of software development are the primary areas we should be focussing on for improvement. However, this is counter to the ideas of W. Edwards Deming, who said “a bad process will beat a good person every time”. Similarly, Don Reinertsen has said he prefers “people times process” because if either is zero, then the product is zero.

People and process are two sides of the same coin, both equally important in understanding how to improve capability to deliver valuable software.

People

This side of the coin is about taking a group of people, who form a team in order to develop a capability. Peter Senge wrote in ‘The Fifth Discipline’ that “the fundamental learning units in an organisation are working teams (people who need one another to produce an outcome)”. Creating teams in this way allows people to iteratively learn about the way that they work so that they can incrementally develop their capability in order to improve the outcomes that they produce.

This is the basis of all the popular Agile methods such as Scrum or Extreme Programming, which all recommend creating cross-functional and co-located teams, collaborating with high bandwidth communication. Thus, the people side suggests that forming outcome-focussed teams, rather than activity-focussed silos, will result in an improvement.

Process

This side of the coin is about taking a vision, which is developed into a product in order to deliver value. Mark Denne and Jane Cleland-Huang wrote in their book ‘Software by Numbers’ about “an ROI-informed approach to software development in which software is developed and delivered in carefully prioritized chunks of customer valued functionality”. Taking this approach means that a product will maximise its value through being iteratively refined piece by piece in order to incrementally deliver functionality.

This is the basis of Lean approaches such as Kanban, which focuses on creating an explicit understanding of the process in order to learn how to deliver valuable pieces of software more effectively by modelling and visualising the work and associated policies. Concepts such as Minimal Marketable Features and User Stories help break down the work into smaller pieces. Thus, the process side suggests that continuously delivering small pieces of functionality with minimal delays, rather than waiting to release large batches of features, will result in an improvement.

People and Process

It is when we put these two sides together that we can achieve significant improvement. The iterative loops of learning about both the team and the product link into each other enable product value to rapidly flow through capability teams. This is the development nirvana we are trying to reach.

This model also gives some insight into why the “Waterfall” model, described by Winston Royce in his 1970 paper ‘Managing the Development of Large Software Systems’, has proved to be unsuccessful. It is not because the simple work-flow described was inherently wrong, but because the work-flow has typically been implemented with specialist silos rather than capability teams, and with large rather than small batches. It is both these two sides of the coin that should be the focus of learning and improvement in order to help us on our journey to the nirvana of product development flow.

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The Ball Flow Game

I was invited to the Scrum Gathering in Amsterdam this week to give a Deep Dive on Kanban. My Kanban Exploration slides can be downloaded from slideshare. Inspired by an email discussion with Jean Tabaka and Eric Willeke, to introduce the session, and to try and reinforce the concepts of Flow, Value and Capability, I tried a variation of the Ball Point Game that is commonly used in Scrum training.

Here’s a couple of links (Kane Mar) (Declan Whelan) if you’re not familiar with the game. In a nutshell it involves a group working as a team to pass balls between themselves, constrained by some rules. The idea is to pass as many balls in a 2 minute time box. The team has to self organise and inspect and adapt in order to improve its velocity (throughput of balls).

For my variation I wanted to remove the time-box to emphasise flow more, and demonstrate a different way of understanding the capability of a system. In the game, the team are designing a system to meet the purpose of flowing balls quickly between themselves.

The changes I made were to ask the team to pass 20 balls as quickly as possible. I put a unique number (1 – 20) on each ball in case it was useful and also asked the team to time how long it took for each ball to pass through the system.  I took the data that was captured and entered it into a spreadsheet to create a control chart. We ran two rounds of the game twice, with the respective charts below.

Round 1

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In Round 1, the team didn’t capture all the data, and some problems were had towards the end, but that the average time for each ball was 13 seconds. The system could also be said to be ‘in control’ as all the data points were with the control limits  which were calculated as AVERAGE +/- (3 * STDEV). The last measured ball was completed at 3 minutes and 35 seconds.

Round 2

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In round 2, the team improved their data capture process and overall flow. The average time per ball dropped to 12 seconds and the variability also reduced. The Upper Control Limit dropped from 01:10 to 00:18. The last measured ball was completed at 2 minutes and 22 seconds.

What this demonstrates is that even with variability (which we don’t want to eliminate completely in software product development), by understanding the capability of the system over time, we are able to reliably communicate what might and might not be possible. For example, using the round 2 data, there is a 50% chance we’ll complete a ball in 12 seconds and a 99% chance we’ll complete a ball in 18 seconds.

We could also calculate and chart the throughput of balls completed over a cadence of 30 seconds to similarly understand the capability from that perspective also. For Round 2 those throughputs would have been 3, 4, 4, 5, 4.

There are a few areas I’d change next time I try this.

  1. The measurement took a long time and was clearly the significant bottleneck. I made measurement part of the system to add some additional complexity, but in hindsight it was probably too much. Most of the improvements were in measuring the system rather than the performance of the system.
  2. I allowed more time than I probably should have for improvement discussions. With the time-boxed version its easier to start the clock for a round and that usually that kicks the team into action. Similarly, when the measurement fell apart we stopped and restarted a couple of times. I wouldn’t do that next time, although by removing measurement from the system, it might be less of a problem.
  3. It took time to enter the data into the spreadsheet. I need to find a better way! The spreadsheet can be found here. It’s very simplistic. Please let me know if you use it and improve it!
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A Model for Creating a Kanban System

This post is a high level overview of the model I use when I think about Kanban Systems. As the saying goes, “all models are wrong, some are useful”. This is what I currently find useful based on working with teams and organisations in recent years.

At the heart of the model is Systems Thinking. Without looking at what we do as part of a system, with a purpose to be met by outcomes, we risk focusing too heavily on the activities and practices we perform. Having a clear understanding of a systems purpose, from a customers perspective, helps us to design a method which serves that purpose.

The model then has three foundational building blocks which underpin an effective process; Flow, Value and Capability.

  • Flow – Keeping the work progressing and avoiding delays by focusing more on the movement of the work, and less on the movement of the worker.
  • Value – Ensuring that the work serves the system’s purpose, satisfying customers and stakeholders and resulting in successful organisations.
  • Capability – Creating knowledge of how well the work serves the system’s purpose in order to maintain and improve the system’s effectiveness over time.

In other words, we want to flow value through capability teams.

Finally, the model has five aspects, from which we can look at a process to help us understand and improve it; Workflow, Visualisation, Work in Process, Cadence and Learning.

  • Workflow – how does the work progress through the system? Understanding workflow helps improve how the work moves from concept to consumption.
  • Visualisation – where is the work in the system? Understanding visualisation helps create a common mental model of the current state of the work.
  • Work in Process – what work is in the system? Understanding Work In Process helps identify bottlenecks and impediments to improving flow.
  • Cadence – when does the work in the system happen? Understanding Cadence helps with co-coordinating the work and improving system reliability.
  • Learning – how does the system continuously improve? Understanding further models with which to view and explore the system ensures the system gets better at serving its purpose.

While this is only a model, and contains no specific practices, I believe that it can be useful in describing why some techniques work in some circumstances, and provide context for applying the right tool to the right job.

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From KFC Development to PVC Systems

I’ve been revisiting my earlier KFC Development work in light of my more recent focus on five primary practices. This is an brief overview of what’s changed, and what my mental model looks like now.

Firstly, I’ve stopped referring to the practices as such, in favour of calling them aspects. Practices always felt slightly wrong, but at the time I couldn’t think of a better way of describing what I wanted to be practical, rather than theoretical points. I think aspects still allows that practical focus, without giving the impression of being a prescriptive process. So the aspects are:

  • workflow
  • visualisation
  • work in process
  • cadence
  • continuous improvement

How does the KFC triad fit into that then. Here’s my thought process, which focusses more on conceptual ideas.

  • Kanban. In this context, Kanban is the tool. As I have become more interested in Systems Thinking, I have become less focussed on the tool. What is more important is the concept behind the tool. Kanban is a great way to create a pull system, but there are others; drum-buffer-rope and CONWIP are a couple. Kanban seems to be the one that’s easiest to explain, and the one that caught people’s imagination, but really its about Pull.
  • Flow. Given the first concept is Pull, and we should flow where we can and pull where we must, then I think Flow comes under the concept of Pull. What I tended to find myself talking about with Flow, however, was what should flow. There’s not point having a pull system where work flows smoothly if the work is useless, so the second concept is really about Value.
  • Cadence. Having identified Cadence as a Aspect, it can’t really be a concept as well. I talk about Cadence as a means of achieving predictability and reliability and of demonstrating capability. Cadence is just one way of doing this however, so the third concept is really about Capability.

So instead of KFC Development, I have moved to thinking of a Kanban System as a PVC System – one which exemplifies Pull, Value and Capability, and that can be described in terms of workflow, visualisation, work in process, cadence and continuous improvement. I quite like the ‘plasticity’ metaphor that springs to mind with this new triad; “the capability of being moulded, receiving shape, or being made to assume a desired form”. Its probably not very environmentally friendly though!

For me this also leads to the question of whether a process (such as, for example, Scrum) is a PVC System. That’s the subject of another blog post though!

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