Process Safeguards and Ski Slopes

black ski slope One of the joys of working as a coach for EMC Consulting are the regular opportunities to have deep conversations on various topics with my colleagues when we are in the office together. For example, earlier this week myself and Simon Bennett began to discuss way of talking to our clients about process such that we can guide them towards the most appropriate choice. However much we may have our preferred approaches, they may not always be the best solution in any context. In the course of the conversation we compared various styles including waterfall, scrum and kanban, and looked at them on various scales, including risk, reward and control. None of these seemed satisfying as a language to use, until Simon suggested safety.

Different processes have different levels of safeguards built into them. Safeguards are used by processes to compensate for low skill, low maturity or low trust, but they also reduce speed or reward. With a waterfall process, the heavy up-front documentation is a safeguard to compensate for low trust (and often low skill and maturity). When a customer does not want to collaborate, then waterfall provides safeguards aimed at avoiding them rejecting the final delivery (not that those safeguards always work!). At the other end of the spectrum, extremely productive teams often have very few safeguards because of the high trust, collaboration and capability. Those safeguards that are in place (such as automated tests) are very different. Not having safeguards doesn’t make the process dangerous. It means that team doesn’t need them. So when we talk to customers about process, we can talk about the appropriate safeguards needed for the amount of trust that exists, the capability of the team, the desired delivery speed etc.

While exploring this idea, I became aware that at various points I was referring to kanban at different places on the safeguard continuum. At the high safeguard end was a kanban based process that looked like waterfall, but was limiting WIP and reducing queue and batch sizes. At the low safeguard end was a kanban process with extremely low WIP, no estimation and pure pull. That’s quite a wide range of processes. Similarly, we had Scrum down as a range on the continuum. Towards the high safeguard end, Scrum-but changes Scrum to add safety. Towards the low safeguard end, a highly productive Scrum team will just be using the raw essence of Scrum. Even at this end, however, the Sprint boundary in Scrum could be seen as a safeguard. It’s the opportunity to pause and reset if things are going awry.

In trying to articulate the different types of kanban system in terms of safety, I gave a nod to XP and labelled low-safety kanban “Extreme Kanban”, and high-safety kanban “Safe Kanban”. Not entirely happy with this we bounced some more ideas around and came to the Ski Slope metaphor. “Extreme Kanban” became “Black Kanban” and “Safe Kanban” became “Blue Kanban”. A further iteration led us to “Off Piste Kanban” and “Nursery Kanban”. The ski slope metaphor works quite well at a number of levels. Its a nice way of looking and risk and reward. As a beginner at skiing I don’t want to take much risk, but can get some reward on the nursery slopes. As my capability improves, and as I trust my ability (and instructor) more, I’m prepared to go onto more difficult runs and take more risk to get more reward. Nursery slope groups are generally more controlled, staying in a single file group. As capabilities improve, individuals are given more freedom to try things out for themselves. If I were ever to become an expert, I’d be happy to go off piste to get a high reward. Additionally, when I get to a level where I go off piste, I probably don’t need an instructor anymore, but I may need a guide.

Using the ski slope metaphor allows us to decide what level of process to start a new team with based on how good they currently are. We may want to stretch them a bit, but we may not want them to go straight onto a black run process. We also want the team to be able to move up to more challenging but rewarding levels as they improve. This is one of the reasons I prefer a kanban based approach. I believe it allows teams to start with an safer process to begin with and move to more rewarding processes later by removing or changing safeguards, as opposed to pushing teams straight into a process with less safety before they are ready.

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Kanban Trail Markers

When talking about Kanban Systems for Software Development, I always try to emphasis that the Kanban System is more than the tool, and is a System that should be owned by the team, rather than being imposed upon it. By owning it, and being part of creating it, a team are more likely to evolve the system as part of continuous improvement. Recently, I tried a new analogy to make this point, and while its not perfect, I think its good enough to blog about for further feedback.

The Primary Practices of Kanban that I describe, are not Boolean practices that teams either do or don’t use. Rather they are practices that teams should be constantly revisiting, and re-implementing, as they improve and their context changes. To recap, the primary practices I talk about are:

  • Map the Value Stream
  • Visualise the Value Stream
  • Limit Work in Progress
  • Establish a Cadence
  • Reduce the Kanban Tokens

I currently describing these practices as like trail markers on the team’s journey of process improvement. At any point in time, the team’s Value Stream, Visualisation, WIP Limits, and Cadence identify where the team currently is, and when combined with Kanban Reduction, point the way forward. As when on a hike, only the group knows where it is, and only the group can decide where it should be going. The hiking group must work together, helping each other out and making sure that everyone reaches the destination. If you’ve read Eli Goldratt’s “The Goal” you’ll recognise the comparison to the one he uses.

Trail Marker

Where the analogy breaks down is that a team’s trail markers are only ever unique to that team. They cannot be followed by other teams. Instead, they will only show the journey the team has been on in their quest for success.

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Does Kanban Respect People, Self Organisation and Continuous Improvement

There has been a lot of talk recently about whether Kanban Systems for Software Development include the need to respect people, and allow self organisation and continuous improvement. It is true that the community has primarily focussed on the mechanics of Kanban Systems. I believe that this is because it is the mechanics that are the differentiating factors, and thus generally the most interesting to discuss. However, we should not forget the human factors, as they are inherently part of the Lean Thinking from which Kanban directly descends. This post is an attempt to try and redress the balance by showing how the five primary practices should enable the right behaviours.

A Kanban System should respect people by allowing them to take ownership of process decisions. Mapping the value stream sets up a team where everyone who is involved in creating value is recognised and respected equally for their role. Visualising the value stream enables a team to decide for themselves how best they want to manage the work. Setting work in progress limits gives the team a mechanism to manage their work/life balance effectively and avoid having more work pushed onto them than they have capacity to deliver. Establishing a cadence gives the team a way to create a rhythm which is natural and works well for them. Reducing the kanban tokens guides the team in creating their own process in order to allow the work flow. All these practices are about the people on the team having discussions and making decisions which work for them. They are not about the team having decisions made for them by managers.

By allowing the team to take ownership of all the process decisions described above, a Kanban System automatically empowers them to self organise and continuously improve all the elements of the process. The primary mechanism for enabling this self organisation and continuous improvement is making the work visible. The whole value stream is visualised so that the whole team can see where the problems are and where the improvements are needed. Limiting work in progress makes the bottlenecks or constraints even more visible, and will ultimately shut down the system so that the team has to self-organise fix the problems. The team’s cadence provides a regular rhythm to reflect on the whole system, alongside the spontaneous quality circles and kaizen events triggered by the visualisation and limits. Self organisation and continuous improvement are therefore crucial if the team are to successfully refine the process such that they can reduce the number of kanban tokens and allow the work to flow more freely.

A Kanban System is more than just a basic tool to be used to manage the work. It is a way of working which frees people to think for themselves in the pursuit of achieving success through improved productivity and quality.

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The Fifth Primary Practice of Kanban

I recently wrote what I considered to be the four primary practices of a Kanban System for Software Development:

  1. Map the Value Stream
  2. Visualise the Value Stream
  3. Limit the Work in Progress
  4. Establish a Cadence

During subsequent discussions on the aspect of Continuous Improvement in a Kanban System, I decided that there was a missing fifth primary practice:

  1. Reduce the Kanban Tokens

I originally named this practice “Eliminate Kanban”, but was persuaded that this was probably overly sensational, and as a result potentially confusing or misleading. Its intent is that once a Kanban System is in place, the team should be constantly looking to improve it by creating an environment where the work flows naturally. There is a quote that I believe comes from Rother and Shook which says “flow where you can, pull where you must”. By striving to reduce the number of kanban tokens in the system, a team will move towards an environment where they are more self organising and the work can flow. This can be achieved by either lowering the WIP limits or by collapsing the number of distinct stages.

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