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  • Writer's pictureBetsy Irizarry

What is Kanban? (And why do I love it so?) - Part 1: Flow

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

Kanban is that board with columns and work tickets scattered across it, right?

No! Well…. Maybe yes, in part… but there’s so much more to love!

I started writing what I thought would be a short blog about why I love Kanban – but it quickly became a three-part love letter. 😍 Part 1 will focus on flow.

Kanban is all about flow. I have been captivated by flow for a long time. Life, with all its ups and downs, has such a powerful way of showing us how real change is, and how imperative it is to adapt and “go with the flow.” This is just as true at work as it is at home. We can’t change the change... So to me, it feels both freeing and necessary to “surrender to the flow.”

Thanks to Colleen Johnson for this amazing sticker!

Flow implies movement. It also implies some smoothness, steadiness, rhythm, and harmony. Being “in the flow” feels good – not erratic or frustrating or overwhelming.

“Surrendering to the flow” doesn’t mean assuming constant unpredictability.

(photo by CDC on Unsplash)

“Surrendering to the flow” doesn’t mean putting up with ineffectiveness.

“Surrendering to the flow” doesn’t mean passively accepting inefficiency.

(photo by Christina Telep on Unsplash)

I believe “surrendering to the flow” means observing and understanding the context you’re in, embracing reality, and finding the smoothest way forward. Rather than “surrender” being a negative term, to me it seems to be an important step in dropping illusions and letting go of overly-wishful thinking as we seek to truly understand our context. This is how we’ll have the best chance at improving the situation we’re in… it is how we’ll give ourselves the best odds of improving our flow so that it is more predictable, effective, and efficient. Healthy, reality-embracing “surrender” feels foundational to continuous discovery, continuous understanding, and continuous improvement.

But what about Kanban? Above, I stated that “Kanban is all about flow,” but this is not necessarily an obvious thing given all of the noise, myths, and bloat that we hear about Kanban in different settings. I really like the definition provided by the Kanban Guide: “Kanban is a strategy for optimizing the flow of value through a process that uses a visual, pull-based system.” If we believe that flow is a real and important part of both life and work, and if we like the idea of “surrendering to the flow” (in healthy and effective ways), we can use this simple definition as a north star for using Kanban to comprehend and improve flow.

We can use Kanban's fundamental practices -- defining and visualizing a workflow, actively managing the items within the workflow, and improving the workflow -- to observe and understand our context. As we continuously evolve within our context, we can use Kanban as a strategy to ensure our flow is as predictable, effective, and efficient as possible along the way.

Kanban isn't a magic wand... there are a lot of things it won't fix. (In fact - it won't "fix" anything by itself!) But by staying laser-focused on flow, Kanban can help us make things more visible and quantifiable. It can help us improve the "how" in how work gets done. With Kanban, we are better able to ask good questions, to experiment with improvements, and to find the smoothest way forward as we surrender to the flow.

Parts 2 & 3 of this blog series will go deeper into Kanban as a strategy, and explore some of the practices we can use to optimize flow. (As well as continuing to highlight the things I really really love about Kanban! 😍 )

In the meantime….how are you surrendering to the flow?

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