The 10 Benefits of Kanban

Kanban is a decision management framework, more powerful than it looks

Key Takeaway

The most powerful attribute of Kanban is its predictability based on actual data.

While the Scrum and Kanban opposing camps have many zealots in the blogosphere, this is not yet another battle between the two prominent Agile methods.


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Despite the emerging popularity of the topic in the circles of Kanban sceptists towards the new kid of the block, the concept of product development flow –that Kanban represents– is not so ‘new’ after all. Its core philosophy has been widely known since the early 1950s (although not in software development).

“Economy of scale is a myth. Economy comes from flow.
– John Seddon”

The repurposed key ideas and principles that originate from Lean Manufacturing and Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System (TPS), unlock the secrets of flow-based Product Development and Creative Knowledge Work through Kanban.

Kanban is positioned as a decision management framework, which is far more powerful than what it looks, from an outsider’s point of view.

Managing work –instead of people– with flow creates a balanced, humane, creative and synergetic environment for talented individuals to unleash their greatest potential. It’s non-intrusive, yet the simple change management strategy of “start with what you do now” has been embraced by a rapidly growing number of organisations, operating in product/software development, as well as other, non-IT-related domains.

How could your organisation benefit from Kanban?

  1. Kanban Puts Business Value First

According to the pioneer of the Kanban Method, David Anderson, Kanban is not yet another methodology to manage your projects. Kanban is positioned as a decision management framework, which is far more powerful than what it looks, from an outsider’s point of view.

Kanban is not a board on the wall: it promotes economically-based decision making by prioritising and managing work based on specific economic goals.

Our organisations try to survive in fiercely competitive environments; therefore we need to identify, prioritise and execute –as quickly as possible– the most value-added work, in order to keep ourselves afloat and ahead of competition.

“If you only quantify one thing, quantify the Cost of Delay”, according to Don Reinertsen.

Particularly, we ask “What is the cost of delaying the implementation of one feature over another”? Which is the feature that will differentiate our brand over the competitors’?

  1. Kanban Improves Visibility

Another phenomenon in our environments is the amount of work that takes place under the parapet. ‘Make invisible work, visible’ lies behind Kanban’s core practice of Visualisation.

Using Kanban boards as information radiators, in addition to the other merits of the method, offers a holistic view of progress, bottlenecks, impediments, blockers and process inefficiencies at a single glance.

Information is readily available not only to team members, but to external business stakeholders and observers, promoting boundaryless information flow across the entire organisation. Through Work-In-Progress (WIP) Limits, it is evident which work items are prioritised and are currently being worked on.

  1. Kanban Reduces Context-Switching

With improved flow, reinforced by reduced WIP Limits, the amount of work items that team members committed to deliver are numbered. Such focused delivery expedites high-priority/high-value work items, while delivering value to the business earlier.

With the introduction of Personal WIP Limits, Kanban relieves teams from overburdening (i.e. reducing muri, a key concept in the Toyota Production System that is considered one of the key sources of inspiration of the Kanban Method), as they focus on a finite number of work items.

They move on to start on other items, which wait in the Input Queue, only when the items that they committed to deliver are finished completely. This behaviour is summarised in the following quote “Stop starting; Start finishing”, which helped many teams focus on downstream activities and successfully deliver.

Pull-based systems, like Kanban, encourage synergies and break the wall down between different specialisations, resulting in cross-functional collaboration.

  1. Kanban Improves Collaboration

Typically silo-ed organisations, with battles between product management and software delivery teams, are more integrated with each other in the development value stream.

Pull-based systems, like Kanban, encourage synergies and break the wall down between different specialisations, resulting in cross-functional collaboration. The transitions of work items between different columns on the Kanban boards offer opportunities for knowledge discovery, collaboration, communication and –most importantly– engagement and involvement for all.

  1. Kanban Reduces Wasteful Activities

Most project managers tend to focus on timelines rather than process queues. Timelines are deeply embedded in the project manager’s psyche, with spreadsheets, Gantt charts and other time-bound documents.

We favour highly granular planning, as our comfort blanket, because we fail to embrace uncertainty.

On the contrary, we make an effort to institutionalise up-front design activities, which prolong our timelines, increase project risk and –definitely– our process queues.

By reinforcing Work-In-Progress (WIP) Limits, the Kanban board becomes a pull-based system, which maintains a reliable amount of high-quality ideas delivered just-in-time, while eliminating wasteful work and reducing our queues.

Upstream activities –such as requirements gathering, discovery workshops, business cases– take place on-demand and when absolutely needed, forcing timely decision-making. Therefore, Kanban teams have invested interest in coordinating activities across the board that are only relevant to prioritised and validated ideas.

  1. Kanban Introduces True Sustainability

Kanban systems manage work at a smooth, humane and sustainable pace, without distressing peaks and uncontrollable nadirs, which lead to frustration, lack of commitment and high employee turnover.

Sustainable development fosters creativity, as work-in-progress limits control the pace dynamically –without the fear of committing initially and breaking that promise down the road–, that allows them to innovate, address issues in novel ways and create solutions with fewer quality issues.

  1. Kanban Puts Quality Centerstage

For conscious software professionals, initial high quality has always been part of their recipe for successful delivery. As a large number of identified defects can dramatically impact team throughput, tackling quality issues from the get-go is likely to boost productivity.

Even from a non-technical perspective, there is a plethora of activities that contribute to high quality software, such as user documentation and collaborative analysis. Even in disciplined teams, collective behaviour is governed by a set of rules.

These policies solidify the professional standards agreed across the board, including software teams, project and product managers, and business stakeholders. Kanban makes such policies explicit in every stage of the process.

  1. Kanban Improves Morale

For many Agile and traditional teams, Kanban is the exit strategy from command-and-control and pressure. Team members self-organise around work that is managed by the pull-based system –not their line managers!

They deliver work at a steady, rapid and sustainable pace –that creates eustress (beneficial stress!)– and sees the fruits of their own labour as visualised progress on their Kanban board. As Kanban manages their work, the teams are less likely to be disempowered; they still get on with what they do best: unfold their creativity and talents.

  1. Kanban Instills Kaizen Culture

Flow-based software delivery (or any other form of creative knowledge work, e.g. marketing, advertising design, journalism) encourages reduction in inventory, aka open tickets on the Kanban board, through WIP Limits.

As mentioned previously, queues are more controlled, buffers are shorter, hand-offs are briefer; therefore, pull-based systems expose any process inefficiencies (bottlenecks), delivery issues (impediments, blockers), and collaboration issues (silos, miscommunication, lack of clarity and synergies).

They draw our attention to the issues –some more evident than others– and invite us to resolve them, once spotted, otherwise development stalls. Kanban introduces the concept of Kaizen, aka continuous, incremental improvement across the board.

  1. Kanban Introduces Predictability

The simplification that Kanban is fundamentally an information radiator (or just a board!) belongs to the past.

From a project management and business standpoint, the most powerful attribute of Kanban is its predictability based on actual data –away from relying on any project manager’s best guesstimate.

With just 11 data points –see Troy Magennis’ presentation on Monte Carlo’s Simulation–, our existing system, despite its current pathogenic areas, flaws and issues, becomes a reliable and predictable delivery mechanism. Surely, by introducing improvements through constant reflection, the predictability, lead times and delivery throughout gets better over time.

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