Kanban and Shifting the Burden

Following on from a look at the Limits to Success system archetype, lets now look at the Shifting the Burden archetype.

I like my coffee in the morning. In fact I usually need a good cup of coffee before I start to feel human. Some days I like a coffee to start the afternoon as well, and occasionally I’ll have a few more in-between to keep me going. This is an example of ‘Shifting the Burden’ archetype. I feel low, so drink coffee to pick me up. However this is just a short term fix and I eventually need more caffeine to maintain my energy. The real problem is why I have low energy; late nights, a poor diet and little exercise. Rather than getting more sleep, eating a healthier diet, and exercising, I am shifting the burden to the caffeine. If I were to shift the burden to a stronger (and less legal) drug, then it is likely that my need for the drug itself would become the problem, rather than my lack of energy. At this point, the archetype has moved from Shifting the Burden to Addiction.


Shifting The Burden begins with a Problem Symptom. The quick or easy answer to this problem is the Symptomatic Solution which creates a balancing loop. However, there is also another answer – the Fundamental Solution – which can create an alternative balancing loop. The Symptomatic Solution only eases the symptom though, and doesn’t resolve the underlying problem, so the symptom consistently returns. The Fundamental Solution does address the root cause, but has a delay though, which means that it is more of a long term answer than a quick fix. The more the Symptomatic Solution is applied, the more a Side Effect takes place, which over time with delays reinforces the need for the Fundamental Solution, while at the same time making it less feasible. When the Side Effect becomes more of a problem than the initial Problem Symptom, is when the Shifting the Burden archetype becomes one of Addiction.


Recognizing the archetype leads us to examine our solutions to problems and to question whether they are Symptomatic or Fundamental. When problems re-occur over time, then using Root Cause Analysis techniques may lead to finding alternative Fundamental Solutions. Continually depending on technical specialists or coaches may be a Symptomatic Solution, whereas investing in training on knowledge sharing may be a better Fundamental Solution. As the well-known Chines proverb says, “give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime”

A Kanban System can help cope with Shifting the Burden, once a problem symptom has been identified, in the following ways:

  • Signalling occurrences of the identified problem symptoms so that they are transparent and appropriate focus can be made on the fundamental rather than symptomatic solution. A brightly coloured tag or shape can achieve this.


  • Visualizing what problems symptoms are being addressed by various symptomatic or fundamental solutions. The Concern, Containment, Countermeasure pattern can be useful here where problem symptom is defined and stated as a Concern. The Containment action is the symptomatic solution taken to resolve the problem quickly. Then, after root cause analysis, the Countermeasure action is the fundamental solution to prevent repeated recurrence. (Thanks to Jason Yip for pointing me to this pattern)


  • Allocating capacity and limiting work in process for work related to fundamental solutions using a dedicated swim-lane and WIP limits. This treats the improvement efforts as first class work types, with equal visibility to the rest of the work.


What other examples of Shifting the Burden have you experienced, and what other techniques have you used to visualise them?

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