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  • Writer's pictureBetsy Irizarry

What is Kanban? (And why do I love it so?) - Part 3: Evergreen

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

We have already "done Kanban" if we set up a board, right?

Trello board
Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

No! Well… creating a board to visualize your work is a really great thing to do… but there are so many more ways that Kanban can foster vitality and growth for your team on an ongoing basis.

I set out to write a short blog about why I love Kanban, and I ended up with a three-part ‘love letter.’ 😍 The heart of my deep enthusiasm is that Kanban feels evergreen: continually reborn and steadfastly helpful. Even after all these years working with Kanban concepts – I’m still learning and growing, still feeling inspired to use these practices, to deepen my understanding, to stretch my limits, to experiment and take action.

In this spirit – this final blog post will focus on my love of Kanban in its evergreen-ness: that it is easy to start with, yet it offers the best kinds of growth and learning challenges to continuously sense, respond, and improve over time. We can look at the remaining 2 practices of Kanban as a way to highlight this lovely ‘evergreen-ness,’ as well as a way to close out this blog series’ pass at exploring the “What is Kanban?” question.

In blog part 2, we looked at the first Kanban practice: defining & visualizing a workflow. Now, we can look at the other two practices: actively managing items in a workflow, and improving a workflow.

Actively managing items in a workflow

Have you heard the phrase ‘Manage the work, not the workers?’ While this idea could certainly be taken to unhelpful extremes, I really love the thought. In your workplace, how much time is spent fussing over countless details at the individual level – sometimes discussing real events, but all too often discussing hypothetical situations – all while invisible, aging work-in-progress is languishing all around you? This is where the Kanban practice of actively managing items in the workflow comes in! Assuming that we understand what represents potential value in our environment, we can recognize how important it would be to actively manage the progression of those precious packages of potential value as they make their way across our workflow. We won’t know for certain if the work items bring the intended value until after they have been delivered… so let’s focus on getting them delivered! Actively manage that journey from start to finish!

Controlling the number of items that are in progress within a workflow is a required part of the ‘active management’ being discussed here. The idea is that fewer items bring greater focus, and greater focus facilitates better flow. (This is a wild over-simplification, and if you are interested in learning more about why controlling work-in-progress is so important, there are a wealth of resources available! Feel free to message me for recommendations.)

Although controlling work-in-progress (WIP) can be done various ways, establishing WIP limits is a technique commonly used by teams. WIP limits specify the maximum number of work items that can be in progress, and they can be defined in various ways: for a specific step of a workflow, for several workflow steps grouped together, for the entire end-to-end workflow itself, etc. If you are looking for a way to start actively managing the items in your workflow, establishing WIP limits might be a great place to start.

Note: while I breezily stated above that “establishing WIP limits might be a great place to start,” I realize that in reality, this can be quite difficult for many reasons. Cultures which encourage us to be busy all the time. Pressure to say “yes.” Workplace politics and imbalances of power. The list goes on and on. Despite a plethora of research, data, and case studies showing that limiting WIP improves the flow of value… this is still a tricky one for many teams and organizations. I don’t have a pithy blog-worthy solution for you, but if you want to talk about it – please reach out! 💚

Another easy technique to get started with actively managing items in a workflow is to look at the age of each in-progress work item. The longer something lingers, the more risk it carries…. After all, stuff happens. The longer a work item is in your workflow, the higher the chances that something derails it. The more an item ages, the more likely that the anticipated value might no longer hit the mark in the way we had initially hoped. The older an item, the longer we’re prolonging that vital feedback loop that helps us know if we’re on the right track. So, by simply being aware of work item age – you might be able to make better decisions on an ongoing, real-time basis about where to focus your efforts to maintain a healthy flow of value.

Watch your work item age... don't let your work die on the vine!

Actively managing work-in-progress can help you increase awareness, responsiveness, and effectiveness. Actively managing items in a workflow is certainly an ‘evergreen’ Kanban practice with some easy entry points, but countless creative ways to grow and improve. Lots to love!

Improving a workflow

“Improvement” requires that we have some way of knowing if things are actually improving. Data-informed decision-making is table stakes in our modern world, using both qualitative and quantitative data. Data is our factual friend, helping us work toward a pragmatic assessment of current state so that we can forge ahead into a better future.

That’s right my friends… it’s time to talk about metrics!

Scatterplots aren't scary, I promise

The Kanban Guide outlines four required flow metrics to help us understand the health and performance of the Kanban system:

  • WIP: The number of work items started but not finished.

  • Throughput: The number of work items finished per unit of time. Note the measurement of throughput is the exact count of work items.

  • Work Item Age: The amount of elapsed time between when a work item started and the current time.

  • Cycle Time: The amount of elapsed time between when a work item started and when a work item finished.

When we think about the practice of improving the workflow, metrics are certainly a good place both to start and to grow on our “evergreen Kanban” journey. Each of the flow metrics described above can be collected in accessible, user-friendly ways. (For example, with a spreadsheet.) As a bonus, many workplaces have tooling available that could help automate the collection of these metrics... which then unlocks many more possibilities in your data-informed decision-making practice!

When we set our sights on improving a workflow, we can collectively review our flow metrics as one component of understanding the health of our system. Do we see any evidence of bottlenecks? If so, what might we try to improve that situation? Are there any interesting patterns we see in our backward-looking data, such as cycle time and throughput? Are any themes emerging that we should talk about?

By the way – improving a workflow doesn’t need to wait for a formal cadence, such as a retrospective! Just like everything else discussed with Kanban – it can be part of a steady continuous flow, with real-time insights and improvements. ‘Small batch’ thinking can prove very helpful in the improvement space!

Just as our world is always changing, the workflows we use to deliver value into the world will need to evolve in order to remain effective, efficient, and predictable. The evergreen Kanban practice of improving a workflow can help us keep a pulse on things and evolve over time.

Now it is time to finish up this blog series!

In summary…

What is Kanban? – it’s a strategy that can be used to optimize the flow of value, comprised of 3 practices: define and visualize a workflow; actively manage the items in the workflow; and improve the workflow.

(And why do I love it so?) Flow exists; it is real. Kanban can help us understand it, visualize it, measure it, and manage it. Kanban can help us make data-informed decisions in very humane ways. Kanban is accessible, useful, and practical for so many. Kanban is a wrapper that can ride along with existing ways of working – it does not require a huge pivot or transformation. Kanban is ‘evergreen’ - easy to start, while offering the best kinds of growth and learning challenges over time. In the ever-evolving landscape of our professional world, Kanban remains a steadfast and amiable passenger on our journey, nurturing growth while keeping us rooted in a focused flow of value. That’s what keeps me coming back, and what I hope will inspire you to invite Kanban along on your own journey!

Thank you for reading my ‘love letter’ blogs about Kanban. I look forward to hearing your own lovely stories as you experiment with Kanban practices and enjoy many successes along the way!

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