Kanban, the dark side

This is content that goes a bit beyond Taiga as an Agile platform and tries to convey a self-conscious approach to Kanban. We hope it leads you to a better Taiga experience. For a straightforward approach to KANBAN using Taiga please read The 5-min Kanban module overview first.

Why would we want to do Kanban? What is Kanban’s promise?

Kanban’s promise is simple “if you can achieve individual empowerment (lean) and clear policies, I can deliver organic succession of finished work while avoiding bottle-necks”.

Kanban’s promise is deceptively simple and it’s considered to be one of the most challenging Agile methods. The reason is that for a team to fulfill Kanban’s promise, the team has to be much more mature than what is required for Scrum. Actually, it is often seen that some Scrum liturgies are borrowed by Kanban teams as a way to establish a safety net.

What is Kanban and what purpose it serves

At first glance, Kanban is a set of columns or states and cards that go from left (initial states) to right (final states). When we picture it, we can instinctively see ourselves creating a Kanban for a personal project, like a book we are writing. We are the sole master of the whole Kanban, we don’t need to ask anyone whether we add a new chapter or a new commissioned illustration. We know when things can move to the next step, we know when things have to be cancelled or restarted and we know when things are done.

The simplest Kanban is not the most common either...

The simplest Kanban is not the most common either…

Kanban tries to solve this at scale, when instead of one person, you have a team of, say, 8 people, and you are all writing the same book. With one key difference, most often you’re writing another person’s book.

Kanban critical challenges

The main challenges Kanban implementations face are no real individual autonomy and no clear policies.

Individual empowerment in a team is almost always required to have functional Kanban method.

By individual empowerment we don’t mean that every individual is the master, can make any decision and knows it all. Taking from the lean approach, we mean that every individual is trusted with the most autonomy that is possible within a specific workflow. In Kanban, autonomy comes with responsibility but also with freedom. This makes sense, without some degree of freedom, the concept of responsibility is devoid of any purpose.

This freedom is individually exercised and collectively enjoyed.

What is the waste issue and how Kanban deals with it?

In Agile (and so it applies to Kanban) waste is undesired sub-product of a development process that reduces future delivered value, increments technical debt and introduces friction in team dynamics. It leads to frustration, disorientation and lack of predictability.

Examples of waste: meetings with almost no value for at least one participant. Many and undistinguishable communication channels. Context switching. Rushed work item closure. Misalignment around key decisions. Fine-grain work item effort estimation. Lack of peer review or leaving all quality controls to a team member. Long term planning.

Kanban is also faced with the waste issue. The way Kanban tackles with it is to have a clear set of policies that can be enforced by any individual at any time without giving it much thought. Kanban streamlines the decision making process and functions as a set of triggers and reactions.

A policy is a rule or a set of rules that determines what to do with a Kanban work item depending on a particular state or event. We say it is a clear policy not simply when it is deterministic (this is very difficult to achieve) but when any individual would implement it the same way in the future.

You have autonomous individuals when they are free to interpret the best way to apply a policy.

Isn’t this a contradiction?

No, a clear policy embodies a path to deal with the present certainty, while autonomous individuals embody the future uncertainty. Team members in Kanban are like judges. They know the law, they apply it to new cases to their best of their knowledge.

Good clear policies evolve based on team members feedback.

Further reading

We would encourage you to read the Taiga Blog’s article “Why is Kanban not working for me?" where you will see particular antipatterns that lead to a disastrous experience with Kanban. Your ability to avoid them will surely contribute to not only feel but know you and your team are in control.