Kanban – A New Hope

The Kanban method to change is great. It is humane, it is doable and the changes are pulled in instead of pushed in. The focus on visualization, improvement of flow, continuous inspection and adaption are all appealing. But can this very approach to change which is the strength of the Kanban method also prove to be a weakness?

Kanban – A New Hope (Part II)

Read Part I here .

Lea’s long and strenuous fact-finding mission was at an end. She was tired but also brimming with a new found energy. Not only was she armed with facts about what didn’t work the last time around, she also had several new ideas about what to try differently going forward. She had met several sympathizers of the resistance and they had all enthusiastically shared ideas and had promised support. And she had in return given them new hope that Kanban would make a comeback.

bright light kanban a new hope

One word summarized what she had discovered – Momentum. This second wave of Kanban wouldn’t be defeated by Stagnation, she vowed.

As she waited outside the CTO’s office to deliver her report, she organized her thoughts.

Kanban works – she knew that. The approach to change was gentle, humane. She had to be careful not to hurt the core of this thinking.

The suggestions in her report were all complementary to the Kanban method. They were more like boosters and enablers. “I have a good feeling about this”, she thought to herself.

Just then the CTO stepped out of his office and with a smile beckoned her in.

She stood up gathered her notes and walked in confidently. The charismatic CTO was just the partner needed for this program to succeed.

“Welcome back Lea! It’s been a long journey for you.” – Said CTO .

“Yes Mr.CTO. I have learnt so much. And my faith is stronger than ever.”

“That’s heartening to hear. Spill it.”

“Well let me start with what was ailing our earlier implementation. The problem was not entirely with Kanban or the Kanban method. But after a point stagnation set in. We lost momentum. We had some ground level support but we weren’t able to mobilize it. Somewhere we lost the plot.”

“Well, I did have my suspicions in this direction. But are you sure Kanban is a good fit for us? You know I am a pragmatist. I cannot afford to indulge intellectual fantasies. Galactic cannot afford it.”

“I assure you, my fact finding was completely objective. I sought out the naysayers and that’s where I learnt the most from. So my report is pro-Kanban but it is based on very sound reasoning.”

“OK. Let’s hear the suggestions you have.”

And Lea presented her get well plan

  1. Quick wins – The Kanban method recommends starting where you are, take small steps, retain existing roles. This is great and we need to continue doing this. But we also need to start right. We need to target places where we have higher chances of gaining small successes. Building up this momentum is crucial for it to become something more people will want to try. And then we need to declare the small victory and celebrate. This positive reinforcement done publicly will gradually build enthusiasm for the change and will attract the late majority. The story to paint and share is “Hey look we did something that worked for us. Its small, its light. Why don’t you give it a try too?” A tipping point where more and more people are trying small improvements needs to be reached – a point from where sliding back to old ways is tough.
  1. Visualization of the change – One of the most popular aspects of Kanban is the power of Visualization. We need to use this same powerful thinking about Visualization to promote the change as well. Since the changes in Kanban happen in small steps, people may not notice the change. The fact that progress is happening slowly but surely needs to be made very visible – impossible to miss. Big Visible Information Radiators about the change program itself need to be established. Whiteboards, televisions, big charts employ every media at our disposal. Metrics, reports, improvements, failures – all transparently shared can be a surefire antidote to complacency.
  1. Management support – While our Kanban implementation saw great ground level support – Personal Kanban was a great parallel movement – a change as fundamental as this must have explicit management support. We need our senior management and leaders to participate fully in the change. We need them to invest time in understanding it, talking about it and trying it. When the time comes to take some decisions which pit the new and old ways against each other, they need to make the right choices – people are watching them. People are watching what they do much more that listening to what they say. As agents of change, we must bring our leaders onboard.


  1. Moving beyond the initial stage – We did well last time setting up visual boards and introducing new metrics. And we thought this was it – transformation done. But every time the visual board showed us a challenge, our response was to ignore the problem or blame the method. The fact that our implementation barely scratched the surface is a symptom of deeper problems. They point to lack of commitment and conviction to the real change. Going forward, we must consciously use every challenge we face as an opportunity to pursue small, incremental improvements. We could device small experiments for improvements, inspect the outcomes and adapt. Looking for a lot of predictability is probably a fallacy. Accepting that we will need to Probe, sense and then respond is important for us to make progress. Looking to what the industry is doing for technical excellence, for process improvement, for improvement of flow will give us ideas of what to try. Encouraging everyone to participate in the improvement journey will unleash the real potential of our people. But first, before all else, we must start experimenting with WIP limits.

“That sounds like work but it is something we can definitely do! Anything else?”

“Yes, there were many things we did well in the past – we must continue to do those. Whether it was our parallel promotion of Personal Kanban, or the establishing of new metrics or the publishing of the formal big case studies – these are things we must keep doing and do even more.

We have supporters, we have non-believers. This healthy dissent is going to help make our cause stronger, better!”

“One final important thing for me to share – a summary of what we can do to stay true to the Kanban foundational principles in our environment:

Kanban foundational principles The unsaid bits
Start with what you do now And respond to new information that comes to light
Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change And pursue it surely and visibly
Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities & titles And be open to inspecting and adapting them gradually

“Lea, you have done well. You have my backing. I will get you a meeting with High Towers. I would recommend having something more visually impactful and concise for the meeting with him.”

“Thank you Mr.CTO. I will make the most of the meeting –  a causal loop diagram supporting the findings and recommendations should help present the case better! Not only that I will have concrete examples of what to try immediately as a kick-start.”

“That sounds promising. All the best!”

With that, Lea smiled, and walked out with her head held high, with a renewed spring in her step towards a brighter future!

Why start with Why

In a small village in India, every morning at 7 AM the villagers would gather at the local temple to offer prayers and perform various rituals for the local deity. Before doing so, however, they would look for a cat, and tie it (gently) to a tree outside the temple. Once the prayers were done, they would let the cat go. This had been going on for years.

Once a traveler was passing through the village and he observed these events – the search for a cat, typing it to a tree, offering prayers, releasing of the cat. The whole cat routine aroused his curiosity. He felt sure it had a deep spiritual message. He asked one of the villagers why they did that. The villager said that that’s how it has always been. Not satisfied with the answer, the traveler asked another villager and got the same answer. The traveler was still curious and sought out the oldest person in the village, who he was sure would help him solve this riddle. And finally he got the answer he was looking for.

The elderly villager said “Many years ago the priest of the temple (who has since passed away) had a pet cat. Every morning, when the priest would be about to start his prayers, the cat would run around in the temple and get in the way of the priest. So to be able to go about his rituals uninterrupted, the priest would take his pet cat outside, tie it to the tree outside the temple, finish his prayers and then untie the cat.” Mystery solved!

I think the message of the story is clear – understanding why we do what we do is much more important than what we do!

The villagers in this story had observed the practices of the priest and followed it very well. But they never understood why the priest did what he did. It could have saved them a lot of trouble – after all catching a cat everyday can’t be easy to do.

The same goes for Agile adoptions. The journey of Understanding must start with “Why” before going on to “How” and “What”. Once this understanding exists, it may be that the implementation starts with a focus on “How” and “What” with “Why” forming the backdrop.




What happens when we adopt practices but our implementations are not rooted in values, principles, beliefs, philosophy?

  1. Change management becomes much tougher than it needs to be. Unless one is an extremely charismatic leader whom teams will follow blindly, one needs to be able to articulate and clearly communicate Why we are doing What we are doing.
  2. Not having strong foundations based on values leads to inconsistent decisions and confusion. Without values and guiding principles, decisions are likely to be merely reactions to local, transitory events.
  3. It limits our adaptability and agility. If we are faced with a new situation which makes earlier practices invalid, values can guide us to come up with relevant new practices.
  4. Balancing autonomy and alignment is tricky. Alignment on values and autonomy on practices can help strike the right balance.
  5. By simply emulating “best practices”, we may end up adopting a lot of practices. But unless they answer the “Why” question, many of these could just add to our overheads without giving us any returns. By being clear about the Why, we can pick and choose and design what suits our environment best!

Always start with Why!

Without your why you will never know how ~Anonymous