Monday, March 14, 2016

Is you Kanban board healthy?

Have you ever stood in front of a Kanban board and wondered whether the team is actually doing fine?

Here we will discuss a few key concerns that will easily help you discern whether your Kanban board has problems:

What do you see on your Kanban board?

Broken Priority

When picking up a new piece of work, you should choose the top item on the board which is not yet completed. Sometimes people pick the item they prefer doing - ending up with lower priority items getting done first. The good news is that this becomes visible immediately.
If this happens frequently - or your Kanban board looks more like a dotted map than a flow system, you should seriously raise the question "Why do people not work on the highest priority?"

Unfinished Pile

The objective of Kanban is to get as many things into "Done" as fast as possible, where "Done" means "Delivered to the customer". Unfortunately, a wrong definition of "Customer" (e.g. "The next person down the line") invites team members to simply hand over an unfinished item, and work on yet another unfinished item.
When team members do not pick the rightmost "not done" item on the board, but rather any other, this should lead to the question "What prevents us from getting those things done quickly?"

Broken WIP Limits

Specialists often fall into a habit of simply working off their portion of a backlog item, completely disregarding what happens around them. This may cause an "Inventory" problem: The next step down the line may be clogged, with more and more undone work piling up.
Kanban suggests setting WIP limits on queues and stopping the production of ever more inventory before something new gets started.
Observing WIP limits makes it very easy to recognize when this point is reached. Sometimes, teams ignore this and individual columns on the Kanban start cluttering up. In this case, you should raise the question: "How can we avoid clogging this queue?"


Another problem of specialists is that they may be a limited resource in completing a specific step in the delivery workflow. If this is the case, we often observe that this step becomes a bottleneck: Some teams permit a huge WIP limit "because it's normal that a lot of stuff is there". Even worse, some abolish the WIP limit for such a step "because we always break it". A bottleneck should never be taken as irresolvable impediment.
When a bottleneck is observed, the team should be even stricter on setting a very low WIP limit. As this WIP limit is broken, this should trigger the question: "Can we re-organize work so that the bottleneck is resolved?"

Queue Mania

Some teams go crazy on Kanban boards - specifically, on electronic boards. It is very convenient to add a column whenever needed, because people feel it helps them organize their work better. Unfortunately, this fails to consider one underlying problem: Each column represents a queue, and each queue is actually a representation of a handover in the process. Handovers cause delay and are considered wasteful in Lean.
When you observe more columns on your Kanban board than you have fingers on one hand, you should ask: "How can we de-fragment our workflow?"


Starting Kanban is easy, customizing it is also easy. A Kanban board only visualizes what you are doing. To get real benefit out of Kanban, the layout of the board should continuously be put under scrutiny.
When the board looks unhealthy, the team should "stop and fix", using a Retrospective and define measures for Continuous Improvement. Only then will you get real value from doing Kanban.

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