Heuristics for Becoming a Learning Organisation at Spark the Change

InfoQ have just published the talk I gave at this year’s Spark the Change conference on “Heuristics for Becoming a Learning Organisation“. This was the first time I introduced the Kanban Canvas, and gives some background to the questions it asks.

Please follow the link to watch, as I can’t embed it here.

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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?

Impacts

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

Flow

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

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

Value

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

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

Potential

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

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

Heuristics

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

Study

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?

Share

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?

Contain

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?

Sense

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?

Explore

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?

Answers

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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Kanban Values, Impacts and Heuristics

A recent thread discussing the values behind kanban on the kanbandev mailing list inspired a couple of great blog posts by Mike Burrows on “Introducing Kanban Through Its Values” and “Kanban: Values Understanding And Purpose“, which have in turn inspired me make some updates to the Kanban Thinking model.

The key points for me in Mike’s second post are these. First,

We often say what the Kanban method is (an evolutionary approach to change) without saying what it is actually for! Change what? To what end?

and then,

The Kanban method is an evolutionary approach to building learning organisations.

Impact

I have a different take on the values discussion and how they help answer the question “to what end?” I’ve come to the view that articulating values is not a useful exercise because they often end up being things that anyone could espouse. One alternative is to use narratives and parables to describe the values in action. With Kanban Thinking, I prefer to talk about the desired impacts of a kanban system. Knowing what impact we want the kanban system to have, and how to measure that impact, will inform our system design decisions.

Thus, in answer to the question “to what end?”, Kanban Thinking suggests 3 impacts; improved flow (demonstrated in terms of productivity, predictability or responsiveness), increased value (demonstrated in terms of customer satisfaction, quality or productivity) and unleashed potential (demonstrated in terms of employee satisfaction, quality or responsiveness).

Heuristics

Mike suggests that the purpose of a kanban system is to learn, and in light of the above, that would be to learn how best to have maximum impact. Up until now, I have talked about five leverage points (or levers) on a kanban system, with Learn being one of those levers. As a result of the insights I had from Mike’s post I have switched to referring to those five elements as heuristics rather than levers, with the fifth heuristic changed from Learn to Explore.

This is one definition of heuristic:

involving or serving as an aid to learning, discovery, or problem-solving by experimental and especially trial-and-error methods.

and

of or relating to exploratory problem-solving techniques that utilize self-educating techniques (as the evaluation of feedback) to improve performance

Thus, the five (updated) heuristics of Study, Share, Limit, Sense and Explore help with the learning about a kanban system in order to have the desired impacts of improved Flow, increased Value and unleashed Potential.

Exploration is a more active description of what I originally intended by Learning as a then lever. Exploration requires curiosity (another value suggested by Mike) and experimentation to try things out, observe the results, and amplify or dampen accordingly.

That leaves the updated Kanban Thinking model looking like this:

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