Insights from a Kanban Board

Donkey DerbyI was working with a team this week, part of which involved reviewing their kanban board and discussing how it was evolving and what they were learning. There was one aspect in particular which generated a number of insights, and is a good example of how visualising work can help make discoveries that you might not otherwise unearth.

The board had a “On Hold” section, where post-its were collected for work on which some time had been spent, but which was not actively being progressed or had any expectation to be progressed, and which wasn’t blocked in any way. Quite a lot of work had built up in “On Hold”, which made it an obvious talking point, so we explored what that work was, and why it was there. These are the things we learnt:

  1. Some of the work wasn’t really “On Hold”, but were really requests which had been “Assessed” (the first stage in the workflow) and deemed valid and important, but not urgent enough to schedule imminently. This led to a discussion about commitment points, and a better understanding of what the backlog and scheduling policies were. In this case, items were not really “On Hold”, but had been put back on the backlog. In addition, a cadence of cleaning the backlog was created to remove requests that were no longer valid or important.
  2. Some of the work was “On Hold” because while it was valid and important, the urgency was unknown. It was an “Intangible” class of service. As a result it was always de-prioritised in favour of work where the urgency was clearer. For example work to mitigate a security risk wasn’t going to be urgent enough until the risk turned into a genuine issue which needed resolving. To avoid these items building up, and generating even greater risk, a “Donkey Derby” lane was created as a converse of their “Fast Track” lane. Work in this lane would progress more slowly, but at least there would always be at least one “Intangible” items in process.
  3. A very few items were genuinely “On-Hold”, but they were lost amidst the noise of all the other tokens. Thus any discussion about what to do, or what could be learned, was being lost.

In summary, by visualising the “On Hold” work (however imperfect it was), and creating a shared understanding, the team were able to improve their knowledge creation workflow, better manage their risk and increase their ability to learn from their work.

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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?

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