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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Three Kanban Reminders

I seem to have had a number of conversations recently which have all had some common themes. The general pattern has been that someone wants to talk about Kanban and let me know how its not working for them in some way. When I enquire further, and dig into the background some more, I’ve found that there are generally 3 things missing or misunderstood.

  1. You still need discipline. I hear of teams who find traditional agile practices difficult, for various reasons, some which may be valid, and some which may not. They decide to drop those practices, which may or may not be due to a lack of discipline. Dropping those practices, and just keeping the board, does not mean they have a Kanban System. In fact, if the board doesn’t have WIP limits, its not really even a Kanban Board! Whether or not teams have the discipline to follow their original process, they do need to have the discipline to define their own process by creating explicit policies.
  2. You still need cadence. The most common instance of a dropped practice that I hear is that of the time-box. The complaint is then that the team loses their rhythm, and that they have nothing to give them short term focus. They lose their sense of capability. What they have done is gone from a tightly coupled metronomic cadence, to an asynchronous, random and imperceivable cadence. There is a middle ground of a loosely coupled, poly-rhythmic cadence which is more resilient to the nature of their work, yet provides an ability to sense. As described above, it takes discipline to define this cadence.
  3. You still need people. The last misconception is that a Kanban-based approach is removing people from the equation again by trying to simply optimise the current process. Personally, this is why I talk about increasing Potential as one of the impacts we want a Kanban System to have. The potential of a system – its ability to improve over time – is grounded in the human potential of the people who are a fundamental part of the system. Its the people, and their connections and collaborations, who are best placed to know how to change the system for the better now, and be able to continue to change the system as the landscape changes.

I believe that attendees at the recent Kanban Leadership Retreat in San Diego were having similar experiences and I saw on twitter that the phrase “there’s a lot of sh*t out there” was used! This is partly why I came up with the Kanban Thinking model. As I alluded to when I talked about Cargo Cult Kanban, the Kanban community is not copying Toyota’s Kanban implementation tool, but the thinking behind it. If you trying a Kanban-based approach and its not working, think about why, identify something to change, and run an experiment. See, its not really that different to Agile!


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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.


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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Three Cynefin Ahas

Over the last year I’ve been increasingly influenced by ideas from Cynefin, created by Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge. If you want a good introduction, Liz Keogh recently blogged a good explanation. I’ve realised that there are 3 key changes in my thinking, some completely new, and some reinforced by a better understanding of cognitive complexity. None of these are unique to Cynefin, and Cynefin contains much more. This list is my take, rather than any official list, although if you know Dave’s work I’m sure you’ll recognise a lot of the language!

1. Evolutionary Potential. Even though I’m a fan of Systems Thinking, I’ve realised that in complex situations, defining a future state and closing the gap isn’t the right approach. I still find system archetypes such as Tragedy of the Commons useful, but more in understanding the current situation than defining a future one. Instead I prefer to explore the evolutionary potential. There may be many different answers, some of which are not yet know, so experimenting, in a safe to fail way, helps evolve to the potential. An interesting case of this is exaptation, where a function is used for a purpose it was not originally adapted or selected for. My most recent aha related to evolutionary potential was that even though complex systems aren’t controllable, they are dispositional. In other words, while we still might not be able to know what the outcome of a change will be (let alone the output or activity to get there), but we can determine whether a change has a positive or negative impact on the overall system.

2 Sense-making. Cynefin is primarily a sense-making framework. This means that the data precedes the framework, as opposed to a categorisation framework where the framework precedes the data. Thus, rather than trying to figure out where an example should go in a matrix, examples are positioned relative to each other based on some criteria, and then boundaries are drawn subsequently. This makes sense-making much more dynamic, and what becomes interesting is not the classification of whether something is complex or complicated, but how things transition across the boundaries. No domain is better than any other as each is contextual. Moving from complex to complicated may be appropriate when optimising or exploiting. Equally, moving from complicated to complex (via a shallow dive into chaos) may be appropriate when wanting to innovate or explore. Further, any scenario is often in multiple places at the same time (after all Cynefin translates from Welsh into “place of our multiple affiliations”). Elements may be simple, complicated and complex, and narrative becomes an useful tool for understanding the differences.

3. Narrative. One of the main benefits of Kanban Systems that attracted me was the power of the contextual approach. A Kanban System is something that is overlaid on top of an existing approach to better understand and improve it and narratives are a great way of discovering, exploring and understanding aspects of a context. Collecting a set of anecdotes about best and worst experiences in a context creates a form of knowledge against which to pattern match for similarity of new situations, leading to better insights and decisions as to how to manage those situations.

Putting those three ahas together, I can imagine applying them through working with organisations to collect a range of narratives, help make sense of them by contextualising them with Cynefin, and then facilitate the creation of appropriate actions to make an impact on the business. Those actions might be safe to fail experiments, based on lean and agile principles, to explore the evolutionary potential for complex problems, or a more direct application of lean and agile practices for complicated problems. Or more likely a hybrid of both!


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