[Originally posted on positiveincline.com September 16 2013, restored to blog.agendashift.com February 13, 2018. Links are to web.archive.org.]
My last post was on the provocative side; to restore this blog’s usual balance, here are some antidotes to some of the problems I described. These are ways to use your kanban board to help you look at your process from the perspectives of customer focus and flow, two values from that middle direction layer [2018: the other one being leadership].
Imagine you’re facilitating a stand-up meeting in front of your board. If you have a physical board, you’re probably heading (in your mind at least) towards the board’s right hand side so that you can stand looking left across the board. If you use an electronic kanban tool, you can achieve a similar effect by turning your laptop or monitor monitor to the left a bit (ok, I’m kidding).
Now scan the board from right to left (in other words working your way backwards from the end of your process towards the start) and ask these questions of the columns:
- Whose needs are explored in this stage of the process, and how? Whose aren’t, and what risks does that pose?
- What do we learn in this stage that we don’t (or can’t) know earlier? In what ways do the activities of this stage help us anticipate what will be needed?
- What is still to be learned? Are outstanding uncertainties best dealt with by pressing on or by going back?
- How do work items leave this stage in the process? By what criteria do we know that they’re ready? How are those criteria expressed? How is the state change communicated?
- Typically, how much time do work items spend in this stage? How much (if any) of that time is spent in active work?
- What are the most significant sources of unpredictability? In the work in or the waiting? Waiting for internal availability or for external dependencies to be resolved?
- How much of this stage’s capacity is absorbed in rework? Or in failure demand, which arrives only because previous work failed to meet customer needs adequately?
- How do work items arrive into this stage? How do we know that they’re ready to be worked on?
You may find it helpful to ask some of these questions of individual work items too.
What we’ve done is to turn a popular protocol for standup meetings into a thinking tool. You can try it with other values, for example transparency (is it sufficiently clear what’s going on here?) or balance (are we overburdened here?), or some other concern that seems relevant.
Caution: questions like these already assume the following:
- That the process has sensible objectives (to deliver the right kind of things)
- That the work flow is scoped sensibly (starts with the right kind of questions, finishes with the right kind of result)
- That the work flow is organized sensibly (sequenced to generate high value learning as quickly as possible)
I’ve encountered plenty of processes where these assumptions are open to challenge. For example:
- A change management process whose objective was the approval or rejection of design changes, disconnected from any actual implementation process. Needless to say, any customer satisfaction delivered out of that process was somewhat short lived.
- My bank’s account opening process. A frustrating process and several weeks later and I still don’t have online banking, let alone two additional products that I would be willing to pay for. I sense an institutionalised lack of curiosity into my needs and what might be in the way of delivering on them.
Some acknowledgements are in order:
- The first set of questions questions are heavily influenced by Michael Kennedy and the model of the Knowledge Discovery Process. That’s a Lean product development model, but I find that many processes are usefully understood in those terms.
- The “whose needs?” questions (the first bullet) point to the very important question: “who holds a veto on delivery?”. This is one of many good customer focus takeaways from Lean Software Strategies by Peter Middleton and my friend Jim Sutton.
- The idea of understanding a process by walking through it backwards is an old Lean trick. I don’t know for sure how it was discovered and popularised, but Steven Spear describes very well its use as a leadership routine inside Toyota in his book The High-Velocity Edge.
- Failure Demand is a concept I associate (in the nicest possible way) with John Seddon.
These are all great ideas. Combining them with visual management and practised routine makes them (as well as the values) accessible and actionable, don’t you think?