Cargo Cult Kanban

A couple of weeks ago I got involved in another conversation about the appropriateness of the software development community’s use of the name Kanban. This comes up every now and again, and I usually sympathise and try and talk more about the higher level system, as in the Toyota Production System. This time, however, I had a different thought. While Taiichi Ohno did call the TPS’s central tool Kanban, he was also against codifying methods, so why do we insist that the name Kanban has to refer to a copy (or codification) of what Ohno’s TPS Kanban looked like?

The Agile Community has referred to Cargo Cult Agile for some time, and it seems that there are increasing occurrences of Cargo Cult Kanban. The term Cargo Cult is used to describe the copying of practices to achieve a goal, without understanding those practices. From the Wikipedia page:

Cargo cult activity in the Pacific region increased significantly during and immediately after World War II, when the residents of these regions observed the Japanese and American combatants bringing in large amounts of material. When the war ended, the military bases closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them.

Cargo Cult Kanban is the copying of another Kanban System without understanding why it is designed the way it is, and its appropriateness for another context. This applies whether the Kanban System you are copying was designed by Taiichi Ohno, David Anderson or Arlo Belshee. Taiichi Ohno’s TPS Kanban System was a solution in Toyota’s context. However, its the thinking behind the tool that was more significant, and I’d like to think that he would appreciate the software development community’s use of the name Kanban to describe its systems thinking approach to evolutionary change.

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One comment on “Cargo Cult Kanban

  1. Isn’t that inevitable when you share your experiences with the world? You can’t control what people will do with your ideas. You can’t even be sure they percieve it the same way you do…

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