Kanban and Quad Biking

I’ve recently been using a newer language to describe the model I apply when introducing Kanban to teams, which has been generally working well. I now talk about:

  • Studying – understanding the current system structure
  • Envisioning – creating a common mental model of the system
  • Limiting – bringing the system under control
  • Sensing – having an awareness of the system’s performance
  • Learning – improving the system’s capability

imageAt the Kanban Leadership Retreat in Reykjavik this week, I talked about sensing and was teased by Daniel Vacanti about how fluffy it sounded. (To be fair, I was giving as good as I got). Later that evening in the bar, I was chatting with Katherine Kirk, and I realised why it sounds fluffy. It’s because sensing is not just about the mechanics of measuring the process the capability of a system. Its also about the human aspects of a system, which are too easily forgotten. So for now I’m going to stick with it.

And that brings me to quad biking.

The day after the Leadership Retreat, a small group of us went quad biking over the Icelandic landscape. Its an amazing way to see the country and highly recommended. While I was driving over the rocky ground, I realised it was a great metaphor for sensing.

To begin with, it takes a bit of time to get used to driving the bike. More control is needed while learning the basics. When driving at speeds up to 70kph, however, you’re never actually in full control. The more firmly you try to gain control, the more likely you are to lose control. I soon realised that by gripping and steering too tightly, I was getting thrown about too much when I hit a large hole or rock. By holding more loosely, relaxing, leaning back and going with the flow, I could sense how the bike was behaving and move accordingly. By doing so, I learned that when going round tight corners, pushing the steering to force the bike round was hard work and ineffective, but leaning back and pulling the steering was a lot easier and more effective.

This is why I like sensing as a word to describe the way I work with kanban systems. While establishing a cadence and measuring are key ways that we can understand capability, sensing describes a more instinctive awareness of how a kanban system is performing, and conveys the way teams are able to adapt, anticipate and experiment as they explore the limits of the system.

Katherine Kirk has also taught me about equanimity, “a state of mental or emotional stability or composure arising from a deep awareness and acceptance of the present moment.” Sensing a kanban system involves having equanimity when  dancing with the system.

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4 comments on “Kanban and Quad Biking

  1. Pingback: Dew Drop – July 1, 2011 | Alvin Ashcraft's Morning Dew

  2. Awesome. The sensing immediately made sense to me…
    But the metaphor gives it additional power.
    Will stick with that information now!
    Thank you.

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  3. Hi Karl,

    great post, and as you know, I shared the experience. In fact I used to be into Mountainbike racing a lot in my younger years. And there we made the same experience also: If you want to go fast, you need to i) give up control and b) need to work on your senses.

    In fact it’s also the same in skiing. As a beginner you learn how to control ‘the system’. That’s fine as your sensing cannot be trusted. At a certain point you don’t make any progress. In Mountainbiking at that point we called for the help of skiing and Motocross trainers. They knew for ages that you couldn’t go faster AND stay in control at all times. Basically in the cases of skiing and MTB racing, you learn to trust your edges and learn to trust them so much that you put all your weight on those edges. It seems to be high risk but it’s also the best you can do. You learn to never know where you will be going but rather use the whole of the piste or race track – you know it’s going down hill and you will stay on the track.

    Comes time you get better and giving up control and still find an even faster course on the track. Basically what you do is the same what we’re doing in Kanban – we’re going fast and as we get better and more used to the pace we are coming into a position were we can – again – reduce the spread between the upper and lower control limits. Actually, we know that we would be paying a high price for reducing that variability to near zero: We couldn’t go fast any more.

    It’s exactly what I felt riding the Quad over the Lava fields of Iceland, also. Great that you have captured it.

    The funny thing is – I don’t know of any other system like Kanban in software development that would be abstract enough to capture this analogy on that level.



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  4. Great post once again, Karl. I like the vocabulary you use in your model, best I’ve seen yet. I’ll be incorporating that into the training I do as well.

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