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.


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!

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 5.0/5 (3 votes cast)

Does A Kanban System Eschew Estimation?

I was recently involved in a brief twitter conversation which started when Mike Sutton tweeted:

estimation is not about the number that pops out. It is about exploring effort and discovering that you don’t know stuff.

Paul Dyson responded:

spot on! This is fundamentally what I don’t like about the kanban “if people find estimation hard, don’t make them do it” mantra.

Which is where I jumped in:

where did you hear that “kanban mantra”? Not one I’m familiar with.

Only to be told:

err, it was actually in the talk you gave at mini-Spa!

Since then, Paul has blogged some more on estimation, and this is my response, hopefully clearing up what I said, or at least meant to say at mini-Spa, in addition to what I’ve already written on estimation and waste.

A simple summary and paraphrasing of Paul’s post would be:

Estimation, as part of time-box planning, leads to whole team interaction and collaboration, to create learning about past capability and forecasts of future capability

Lets start by drilling into these key points from Paul’s post. Essentially the implication is that by eschewing iteration, we cannot have whole team interaction and collaboration, cannot learn about past capability and cannot forecast future capability.

Whole team interaction and collaboration

I can think of 3 ways a team a whole team can interact and collaborate around planning a new piece of work without estimating in a time-box planning meeting:

  • Cadence. The team agrees a cadence at which they will all get together to collaboratively plan new work. This planning cadence looks at what new items the team may be able to pull, given their current work-in-process, rather than estimating what items they may be able to complete.
  • Workflow. The team explicitly models their workflow to make transparent that fact that they need to get together to plan new pieces of work when they are pulled. This stage could be a stage called “Planning”, or even ”Analysis”!
  • Just do it! When the team pulls a new work item, they spontaneously swarm on it to plan it. This probably requires a small and high performing team.

Even so, this is assuming the whole team really does need to interact and collaborate on every piece of work. However, not every piece of work is equal, and there may be some smaller, simpler features that can be planned and delivered by a smaller group.

Create learning about past capability

We can learn about our past capability by measuring data such as cycle time, and tracking it with a Statistical Process Control chart. Common cause variation is to be expected within a stable system. However, special cause variation is something we can look at in more detail to see what we can learn (as long as we don’t change the system in response to special cause variation).

Forecast future capability

Once we understand our past (or current) capability we can use that information to forecast future capability. By understanding how long things have typically taken in the past (with natural variability) we can determine how long things will take in the future (with natural variability). Dennis Stevens has recently written some great posts discussing knowing when we will be done, using classes of service and service level agreements to manage variability.

So kanban teams do not eschew estimation simply because it is hard. Some teams choose not to estimate because they can realise the same benefits that estimation gives with a lower cost. The old joke does still apply (“Doctor, Doctor it hurts when I do this”, “Don’t do that then”). If it hurts to estimate, then find other ways to encourage whole team interaction and collaboration, learn about past capability and forecast future capability. On the other hand, if estimation doesn’t hurt, or costs too much, then it may be the right thing to do in your context.

What I think we do agree on is that when we are planning, we should decompose work for understanding, rather than sizing (thanks to Eric Willeke for this phrasing). As Mike says, the estimate is just a number that pops out of the discovery.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 5.0/5 (7 votes cast)

Is Kanban A Relabeling of Scrum?

Firstly, this post is not an attempt to be divisive or competitive. Instead it is meant to be exploratory. What would it mean for the statement in the title to be true? Actually, the full statement was “People have so misunderstood Scrum, that they’ve reinvented it and called it Kanban”. It was made by Jim Coplien at Scan-Agile, after (but not necessarily the result of) a conversation over dinner where myself and a few others were describing how we used Kanban. Each time we described different aspects of our processes, Jim would say something along the lines of “but I do that with Scrum”.

So what would it mean for people to have so misunderstood Scrum that they have reinvented it and called it Kanban?

  • It might mean that at their heart, Scrum and Kanban have the same intent. That both are really focussed on helping teams think about their processes in order to help them succeed.
  • It might mean that the way that Scrum was originally articulated (and is still articulated according to the latest Scrum Guide) was not as clear as it could have been. That teams might misconstrue the focus on roles, meetings, artefacts and rules.
  • It might mean that there are alternative ways of articulating the same intent. That teams might find alternative articulations valuable.
  • It might mean that Kanban can be equally misunderstood. That teams might be bewildered by a less prescriptive approach.
  • It might mean that we should spend more time on understanding how to help teams solve their problems and less time arguing and fighting over preferred solutions.

These are just some of my thoughts. They do not mean that I think Scrum is bad – just not perfect. They do not mean that I think Kanban is perfect – although it’s currently my first language.  The topic drew a good crowd at the Scan-Agile Open Space and we had a good discussion. What else might it mean?

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 3.7/5 (3 votes cast)

Does A Kanban System Eschew Iteration

There has been some recent discussion on the blogoshpere and twitterverse about the relationship between Kanban Systems for Software Development and the concept of iteration. The often raised concern that a Kanban System is “Waterfall 2.0” came up again, along with the suggestion that a Lean perspective might view iteration as rework, and as a result be waste.

One of the conclusions was that both a Kanban and Time-boxed approach are independent of iteration. I like Jeff Patton’s description of iteration. Iteration is used to find or improve a single solution. Incrementing is used to build up additional solutions.

It is perfectly possibly with a time-boxed approach to define a product backlog based on already decided solutions, and then prioritise User Stories to incrementally build up the functionality for those solutions. I don’t think this is that uncommon. Similarly, a Kanban System could be used to only incrementally build up the functionality for pre-determined solutions.

Done well, both a time-boxing and Kanban approach will prioritise work to generate knowledge and feedback which will help discover or refine solutions. What is really being prioritised in this case is a problem, or an ROI Component (as the Real Options tribe like to call it). This is where I think a Kanban System can help by explicitly managing the work at both levels. The ROI Components, which I prefer to call Minimal Marketable Features, can be prioritised and limited as Work In Progress. The MMFs can then be expanded to candidate User Stories which can also be prioritised, managed and limited in order to iterate the MMF. Eventually, the User Stories will be collapsed back together to actually deliver the MMF as an increment.

Thus a Kanban System can explicitly visualise that MMFs are being delivered incrementally, and are being iterated using User Stories. While this same approach can be used with time-boxes, it will often be implicit.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 5.0/5 (1 vote cast)

What is Cadence?

Mark Stringer gave me some good feedback recently, that I clearly hadn’t described what I meant be Cadence at the recent miniSPA conference. In order to try and correct that, I thought I’d try and clarify with a blog post that it not simply variable length iterations.

The purpose of a cadence is to establish a reliable and dependable capability which demonstrates a predictable capacity. Cadence gives some confidence in the upcoming work when we are triggering rather than scheduling work.

Time-boxing is one specialised form of cadence. It’s like a metronome, giving a single tick. All the main process events are based around this single tick, as shown below where the dotted vertical lines represent the Sprint boundaries. In this example, the unit of work is a User Story, and User Stories should be small enough to be scheduled into a Sprint, and subsequently completed in the same Sprint. Stories in Progress are limited to two, as a good Scrum team might, but Stories don’t always fit exactly into a Sprint. Note also, that while releases can happen each Sprint, User Stories are only potentially shippable product increments.


Kanban on the other hand has a cadence which is more like a drummer. The rhythm is more complex than the single tick of a metronome, and can be more varied, as shown below. In this example, the unit of work is a Minimal Marketable Feature, which while needing to be as small as possible, is not constrained be being required to fit into a schedule. Instead, an MMF is able to flow over a number of process events while it delivers some releasable value. Planning, reviewing, retrospection and releasing all still happen regularly, but they are de-coupled. They can happen independently, at differing rates, which may provide more freedom in creating a natural process which enables the team.


A cadence is usually ‘harmonic’, in that there is a neat overlap between the different rhythms, as in this example. However, it does not have to be. A look at some definitions of cadence can show why. These are some favourites I picked off dictionary.com

  • In music, the ending of a phrase, perceived as a rhythmic or melodic articulation or a harmonic change or all of these; in a larger sense, a cadence may be a demarcation of a half-phrase, of a section of music, or of an entire movement
  • Music. A progression of chords moving to a harmonic close, point of rest, or sense of resolution.
  • The flow or rhythm of events, esp. the pattern in which something is experienced: the frenetic cadence of modern life.

Thus cadence is what gives a team a feeling of demarcation, progression, resolution or flow. A pattern which allows the team to know what they are doing and when it will be done. For very small, or mature teams, this cadence could by complex, arrhythmic or syncopated. However, it is enough to allow a team to make reliable commitments because recognising their cadence allows them to understand their capability or capacity.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 2.8/5 (17 votes cast)

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.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

How Is Kanban Different From Other Approaches?

There has been a lot of discussion recently around trying to define what Kanban is. Is it a tool? A process? A philosophy? During a discussion on the kanbandev list, Ron Jeffries led me (probably unintentionally) to an idea for a different way of trying differentiate Kanban from other Agile approaches. Rather than attempt a direct comparison and identification of unique differences, I realised that the various approaches are different only in where they place their emphasis. XP places a lot of emphasis on the technical practices. Scrum places more emphasis on the project management practices. Kanban, places its emphasis on business and value flow practices. As Ron would say, its all the same elephant, but each approach has a different view of it. At the end of the day, its having the most appropriate elephant for any given context that is most important.

Using Kent Beck’s distinction of Primary and Corollary Practices in XP (2nd Edition), I think that Kanban can be differentiated by identifying its Primary and Corollary Practices. As such, these practices may not be unique to Kanban, but are considered the most important. High performance Scrum and XP teams will inevitable use these practices in some form, but I don’t consider them to be clearly described as Primary Practices in those methods.

The Kanban Primary Practices I see (at the moment…) are:

  1. Map the Value Stream. A Kanban approach looks at the whole stream of work, from where it enters the scope of the team, to where it leaves. Thus typically, a Kanban system will explicitly include the transformation of work from the problem or idea, through to its release. i.e. Concept to Cash (or Consumption), or Incubate to Liquidate.
  2. Visualise the Work. A Kanban approach will make all the work as visible as possible, across the whole Value Stream. In particular, this includes the visualisation of expanding/contracting, or zooming in and out, of work items to make their value/solution, or other hierarchical relationships visible.
  3. Limit Work in Progress. A Kanban approach will explicitly limit work in progress. This is distinct from managing work in progress through the use if time-boxes as described by David Anderson. This absolute limiting of work in progress is what makes Kanban a pull system, rather than a very small batch push system.
  4. Establish a Cadence. A Kanban approach will create a natural rhythm by setting up a cadence which will help the team deliver. This will typically de-couple the input (planning and prioritisation) from the output (release), allowing more freedom than the time-box, but still providing a framework to release regularly, measure performance and continuously improve.

A Kanban team will almost certainly use Corollary Practices which may be considered Primary in another process. For example, a high performance Kanban team will inevitably use technical practices from XP, such as TDD and Continuous Integration. Other Corollary Practices from other methods might be the use of MMFs and User Stories to manage the work items. Equally Use Case Scenarios and Steps could serve the same purpose. Metrics such as Cycle Time, Throughput, Velocity, Cumulative Flow Diagrams and Due Date Performance are further Corollary Practices which could be used alongside the Cadence. The list is probably endless. The above Kanban Primary Practices set the foundation for a team use whatever other techniques help them be successful.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Isn't Kanban Just a Task-board?

While the word Kanban comes from the Japanese for “visual card”, the term Kanban as used by the Kanban Software Development community, represents much more than a standard task-board, or team-board. Additionally, the Kanban Software Development community have not tried to replicate the mechanism of the Toyota Production System kanban tool exactly, but have taken the underlying principles in order to achieve similar effects in software development. So what is a Kanban System for Software Development?

A Kanban System visualises some unit of value. This unit of value could be a User Story, Minimal Marketable Feature, Plain Old Requirement or something else. This is different from a task-board, which generally focuses on visualising the current tasks.

A Kanban System manages the flow of these units of value, through the use of Work In Process limits. This is different from a task-board, which generally has no WIP limits, but aims to have all tasks complete by the end of a time-box.

A Kanban System deals with these units of value through the whole system, from when they enter a teams control, until when they leave it. This is different from a task-board, which generally only deals with the work in the build/test stage, but shows no information about what work is being prepared, or what work is ready for release.

By putting these 3 properties of a Kanban System together, we can describe a Kanban System for Software Development as one which allows value to flow through the whole system using WIP limits to create a sustainable pipeline of work. Further, the WIP Limits provide a mechanism for the Kanban System to demonstrate when there is capacity for new work to be added, thereby creating a Pull System. Finally, the WIP Limits can be adjusted and their effect measured as the Kanban System is continuously improved.

A task-board simply shows what development tasks have been predicted to be done in the current time-box, with their status.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)