For the uninitiated, I should start by explaining a little about Kanban. Kanban is a technique which focuses on delivering increased customer value and is derived from the lean techniques used in manufacturing. Many of you may be thinking it sounds like Agile methods used by IT development teams, and you would be right. However, there are some fundamental differences.

David Anderson, the chief executive of the Lean Kanban University, outlined that Kanban has wider aims than just software development, Kanban can be adopted into all IT services and business processes. Having implemented both Agile and Kanban for different teams within IT as CIO of Buro Happold, and with some of the engineers too, I can vouch for its wider flexibility.

Anderson recently hosted the Modern Management Methods conference, run by the Lean Kanban University, which I attended on behalf of CIO UK.

David Anderson at Modern Management Methods conference

Anderson has success in seeing Kanban exported into media companies for post-production, and its global reach is rising with adoption in Brazil and Argentina to the UK, Germany and Scandinavia.

There are six core practices for success suggested by the Lean Kanban University:

1. Visualise: The core target here is to create a task board to allow visibility of the work – and this is very much in-line with standard Agile thinking. But as for Agile, the visualisations can be more than a structured task board, and can include any other information that helps show the team how it is performing – but always from a client perspective.

2. Limit WIP (work in progress): A core concept of Kanban is limiting the work in progress, meaning our focus is on the active work which should accelerate its progress through the system. The work should then be 'pulled' through the system by customer demand.

3. Manage Flow: Aim to create a flow for the work, eliminating delays and driving for the shortest time from the start of the work to the completion such that the client receives value in the shortest possible time.

4. Policy: Clearly define your approach and rules to how work gets done, which gives a clear and consistent baseline to work from.

5. Implement feedback loops: Driving continuous improvement through the use of appropriate metrics and indicators.

6. Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally: Implementing those improvements derived from the metrics.

I talked to Anderson in advance of the Modern Management Methods conference, and asked what were his aims for the conference? Principally, he said, he wanted to help people start to change and improve –and it is simple to start. In fact, one of the sessions that I attended attempted to simplify things down further, suggesting that really just three principle practices are enough to begin with – visualise your work, limit your WIP (work in progress) and then improve collaboratively.

Stephen Parry, a speaker at the event, is the author of Sense and Respond: The Journey to Customer Purpose, which introduces his learning’s over a number of years. Having used the book, I was very keen to see how his thinking has developed and for me was the strongest session of the day.

Parry started by clarifying some of the conditions that are needed to allow lean change in some detail. Key conditions as he has experienced are:

  1. The need for reciprocity (helping each other in an unconditional way) and the need to know it is sincere and not manipulative.
  2. Respect for people, such that you do not assume another perspective is not valuable.
  3. A blame free culture where experimentation and learning is encouraged.

Parry stressed how not having the time to improve is ironically the biggest business case for improvement! Again I’ve witnessed this too – seeing teams claim that they are too busy to take on the feedback loops to drive improvement.

Fundamentally, Parry’s message was that you need to help teams to see where they are through visualisations of their performance – not tell them. Teams are often blind as a result of doing what they have always done, and at a higher level, companies may find that their organisational structure is hindering employees, managers and customers to change.

I was particularly taken by a 2x2 matrix that Parry showed. He uses this to map the metrics that are recorded within teams to show if they are focus on customer impact, or internal targets. Such an approach felt fairly compelling as a tool to refocus a team on customer value!

Dr Gary Fisher, research development officer at the University of Warwick has partnered with Parry, and together they have developed a model and a path to improving your organisational climate – something he believes needs to change to drive long term profitability. Their belief is that organisations can create a climate for change in the short term, which is different from the culture which changes over the longer term. A final challenge was that leaders who say “only bring me solutions” are discouraging the surfacing of and discussion of problems – which is the path to change.

Parry continues to demonstrate a total conviction about the need to change processes and then watch the end to end measures and outcomes, rather than relying on measures of individuals within a process. It’s all about transparency – get the lights on was his call to action!

A problem that I’m sure all CIOs have faced, is that of customer commitment throughout a project leading to the lack of support to drive a solution into the live environment on completion of the IT deliverable. Kanban was positioned as a strong antidote to these behaviours through two features of the delivery approach.

  1. Just like Agile, Kanban encourages strong collaboration in delivery to keep the customer close.
  2. Kanban’s limits on work in progress can potentially increase the pressure to drive to a conclusion with your end users.

Another interesting is the adoption of electronic Kanban task boards. I’ve always seen this as a solution for distributed teams working together, but my sense was that more and more teams were adopting these locally as well. I was left wondering if such boards drive efficiency in the same way as a local manual board – a simple and elegant solution.

Perhaps the most re-used term of the event was “mindfullness”. This term was used early in the day, and started to be repeated as the one term that captures the essence of the Kanban approach. It’s not about implementing a set of rules, but more about adapting a set of tools to your environment and problems. And so it is this mindfulness that is required to constantly challenge and adapt your approach to how your IT services are performing and need to perform.

Kanban is not a competitor to Agile, but an evolution focused on service delivery – for all IT services and beyond. It retains the concepts of focusing on your client, with the need to visualise the client focused improvement. If I was disappointed, it was with the lack of focus during the day on IT services other than software development, something very much promised by the Lean Kanban University. However, with David Anderson at the helm, they have a direct leader, firm in opinion and assured in his approach. I look forward to seeing their community and influence expand across the wider IT services and would encourage all to become more mindful.