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  • Writer's pictureBetsy Irizarry

What is Kanban? (And why do I love it so?) - Part 2: Kanban as a strategy for all

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

Kanban is that process used by software product maintenance teams, right?

No! Well…. Maybe sometimes… but again, there’s so much more to love. 😍

This blog post will focus on the “strategy” bit of Kanban, plus another aspect of Kanban that I really love: that it is applicable and useful for so many different types of teams in so many different settings.

As I shared in Part 1 of this blog, I like the Kanban Guide’s definition as a north star for this discussion: “Kanban is a strategy for optimizing the flow of value through a process that uses a visual, pull-based system.” I think it’s helpful to start from a mindset that Kanban is not limited to any specific “type” of team. Leadership teams, HR teams, marketing teams, software product teams, business operations teams.... teams at companies large or small... teams working in for-profit or non-profit settings... Kanban could be applicable and helpful. Kanban is also not a specific process, framework, or methodology… but rather, Kanban is a strategy that can be applied in any situation where we’re trying to deliver value.

In your work, are you attempting to deliver value? (Yes, hopefully!) Are you using some kind of process to deliver that value? (Yes, there is some kind of process at play whenever you deliver value… although, whether or not the process is known, discussed, or repeated might be a very different conversation!) Do you think it is a good idea to try to improve your delivery of value? (Yes, hopefully!) With these agreements in place, we can understand that strategically attempting to optimize your flow of value is a good and worthwhile pursuit… regardless of the industry you operate within, regardless of the type of team you work on, regardless of the specific type of value you are attempting to deliver.

In other words…. “Kanban for Everyone!”

There are three Kanban practices fueling the engine of Kanban-as-a-strategy-for-all:

  1. Defining and visualizing a workflow

  2. Actively managing items in the workflow

  3. Improving the workflow

When we look at these practices, we can understand the usefulness of them in virtually any work setting. Where there is work, there is workflow. Where there is workflow, there is goodness in trying to improve the *flow* part of the work.

Let’s go deeper on the first practice: defining and visualizing a workflow. I love that the Kanban idea around ‘Definition of Workflow’ is grounded in really knowing what we’re trying to do. We should start with knowing who we are serving and what we think will bring value to them. Then, definine the steps from start to finish that describe how those potentially-valuable chunks (work items) move through the process.

With Kanban, we are trying to achieve the right balance of effectiveness, efficiency, and predictability in our flow of value. This is a tricky balance to achieve. We can take a large corporate environment as an example. If our goal was super-efficient functions within a corporate hierarchy cranking out their functional output - no doubt we can achieve some level of predictability and efficiency. But is that really the goal in modern workplaces? No, not really. Remember the third factor in our balance equation: effectiveness. In this scenario, are the functional (siloed) workflows effective at delivering work which might be converted into real value by meeting real customer needs? Often not.

Kanban’s very lean scope would not necessarily cover things like systemic misalignment between the organizational structures and the value delivery processes. But Kanban practices can help us start to make such misalignment and sub-optimization visible and measurable, opening the door for other types of conversations. Who are we serving, what really represents value in our environment, and how do we optimize for that? Define those workflows!

Back to the other part of the first Kanban practice, defining and visualizing a workflow: “visualization."

Ahhhh, visualization! It’s just so… immediate. Visuals tap into a different part of our brain than words. A part of our brain which goes waaaay back biologically, and is fundamental to the way we move through the world. Why would we want to fight our human nature on this front? Why do we so often turn to words, reports, lists, etc. when well-crafted visuals could shortcut a lot of processing time, and help us understand the situation more quickly?

Visualization is a powerful way to work with our human brains and reduce some cognitive load, freeing up that precious brainpower for something more valuable. Visualizing work could free up mental cycles that we can then use for the care and feeding of an effective, efficient, and predictable flow of value… rather than spending a bunch of time trying to discern where we even have work-in-progress, and how things are going within the workflow.

Here is a great example of the power of visualizing a workflow, from Dominica DeGrandis’ book “Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work & Flow.” <Which is a fantastic book with lots of practical ideas that are useful for many different types of teams - I highly recommend it!>

Look at this picture. Where are things getting stuck in this process? Where should we seek to improve this workflow? Through this visualization, we can immediately understand that we need to look into “validate” in an attempt to improve this flow of value. Also from Dominica DeGrandis: “This is the power of the unified language of kanban boards - the message is communicated instantaneously.” Visualizing a workflow helps us ask better questions sooner, which can lead to quicker and more effective action.

Ask yourself - where do you “see” work in your workplace today? Are you able to get a holistic, systemic view of work in progress? Is there an end-to-end story and a shared understanding that cuts across organizational boundaries? Is the same language being used across different groups and stakeholders, and more importantly, are they thinking the same way about what represents ‘value’ in the environment? Are they aligned and laser focused, pulling in the same direction to get that value across the finish line… or are things getting lost and confused across different handoffs, different priorities, and different perceptions of what we’re actually trying to deliver? If any of these questions gave you pause - you might consider experimenting with Kanban practices in your environment.

At this point, some of you might be thinking - “yes it sounds nice, but my hands are tied because we are mandated to use a certain tool in a certain way at my workplace….” Time to tap into another very human trait: creativity! What do you have available to you within your work environment that has a low barrier to entry, and represents a way to create a shared visualization? Where can you start visualizing and discussing, even if it won’t be the end state? Get some kind of workflow visualization in place, then start sharing it in meetings. Does it change the conversation in any way?

I want to note one more time - nothing that’s being discussed here implies that you have to abandon your current processes, frameworks, etc. This is not a Kanban power play to usurp whatever you hold dear in your current environment. There is no zero-sum game afoot. This is a “Yes, and” line of practical experimentation that might bring some new insights and ideas into the mix, which will hopefully lead to conversations and action toward an improved flow of value and happier customers. These are goals we can all support!

As I mentioned in blog part 1 - Kanban won’t “fix” anything by itself. But, by starting to bring in intuitive, accessible, and widely-applicable Kanban practices like defining and visualizing a workflow… you might be able to have some different conversations about optimizing your flow of value. What’s not to love about that?

The final entry in this blog series will look at the remaining two Kanban practices: actively managing items in the workflow, and improving the workflow.

Until then: Kanban for everyone!

P.S. There is more to the Kanban practices than what I am sharing here. If you have a hankering for more of the “how,” I highly recommend the resources in the ProKanban website as a starting point. This blog isn’t meant to re-define Kanban practices nor to re-explain all of the things which have already been well explained. This blog’s purpose is to share my enthusiasm, with a glimpse into why this stuff makes me so excited!

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