Some time ago, I read in a blog post something like "Kanban is good for small teams, but it does not work for bigger teams." A couple of weeks later, someone told me "Kanban is appropriate for big teams, but it is nonsense for small teams." What I hear really often is: "Kanban might be good for maintenance teams, but it‘s not working for development teams." But at the same time people say: "Kanban can never work for operations teams." And of course there are rumors that "Kanban is not working in startup environments" or "Kanban is not working in big enterprise environments."
I think there‘s a misunderstanding about the nature of Kanban that causes people to tell such things. Kanban is not a software development method. And Kanban is not a project management method in the first place. Instead, Kanban is a change method. In this respect the answer to the question: "When does Kanban not work?" should be "If a team or organization does not want to change/improve".
And there is one more thing to this: Kanban focuses on improving the flow of value-added tasks. In his Keynote from Lean Kanban Benelux 2011 (which is highly recommended!) David Anderson argues that Kanban is not appropriate when your process does not suffer from overburdening or variability in flow.
That‘s it! If you want to improve and your process suffers from overburdening or variability in flow, Kanban might be an appropriate method. Of course that does not mean that you will automatically succeed with Kanban - there are still quite a lot of pitfalls.
What I‘ve observed during the past years from Kanban teams I‘ve worked with or met at other occasions is that there is a huge variety of contexts in which teams and organizations benefit from Kanban. For example there is e-netconsulting, a rather small web agency that is using an end-to-end Kanban systems (watch experience report from LKCE11). We have an IT department in an public institution that is using Kanban. Then there is Jimdo, a startup with more than 100 employees in three continents (watch experience report from LKCE11). We have SAP, one of the biggest enterprises in the world, where some teams are using Kanban (watch experience report from LKCE11). I‘m working with a company that is building a big database engine. Then there‘s a major dating platform which I visited recently. And we‘ve just started using Kanban at a company that is building a famous Smartphone App. Not to forget mobile.de - Europe‘s biggest online platform for used cars - which uses Kanban for site ops teams, dev teams as well as on a portfolio level. And theses are only the teams I know directly!
All these teams and organizations are completely different, their work is different, their customers are different, their technologies are different, their problems are different. And still they all find it useful to apply Kanban - all in a different way. Is Kanban the right tool for every organization? No! Is there a very wide range of contexts where Kanban is applicable? Yes!