Sunday, June 30, 2013

Kanban and Understanding

Thanks to Mike Burrows and his work on the values of Kanban (see this excellent Blog Post) I am more and more aware how important understanding is and how deep it is rooted in Kanban.
Let me give you some examples:

Understanding our work

Why is it so important that we visualize our work? And why do we do demand analysis in Kanban? Because we want to understand our work! How much demand do we have? What are the sources of our demand? Do we have seasonal variance in demand? What are the risk profiles that are attached to different types of work (that’s why we might want to introduce different classes of service)? What skills are required for different types of demand? etc. If we don’t understand our work, how can we possibly balance demand against capability to improve flow? We can’t. And we will sooner or later end up with cargo cult solutions. Of course it’s a long way to understand our work completely, and maybe we will never manage to. But the more we understand it, the better we can manage our system. And even a small bit of understanding is probably better than no understanding at all.

Understanding problems

My observation is that in most contexts we don’t understand our problems – and we don’t really try to do so. My main takeaway from many different contexts in many different organizations: The problem is almost never what we thought it is at first glance! And for me, that’s one major reason why models are so important in Kanban (and not only in Kanban). If we use them wisely, they can guide us in understanding our problems and finding good countermeasures. Reading John Shook’s great book on A3 Thinking really was enlightening for me in this respect. When we discover a problem and start dealing with it, there is most often a mix up between symptoms of the problem („What can we observe that we don’t like?“), deeper roots of this problem („What are the reasons for this symptoms?“) and possible countermeasures („What do we think is a good idea to do in order to make the symptoms go away, as well as the roots of the problem?“) So it is a good idea to think these things through, have structured discussions, talk to people who are involved and might know more than we about the problem, do observations and experiments etc.
And then there is another issue with the way we usually encounter problems: Jumping to conclusions. I thik that agile retrospctives are very powerful for avoiding this behaviour. Let’s look into the „classical“ schema for retrospectives as suggested by Diana Larsson and Ester Derby (look into the book Agile Retrospctives):
  1. Set the Stage
  2. Gather data
  3. Generate insights
  4. Determine actions
  5. Close the Retrospective 

There s a reason why the third step exists: When we have gathered our data and identified a problem, we should not directly determine actions, but generate insights first. And this generation of insights means to understand our problem better (no matter what practices we use to do this). This step ist often the hardest one in a retrospective, and teams as well as facilitators tend to skip it. But it is very valuable! (example Henning)

Understanding people

Of course we will never understand a person completely. What I mean here is the following: If we observe a behaviour that seems to be stupid to us, what do we do? Do we ignore this? Do we tell the person "Stop it!" ? Or do we assume that there is a good reason behind his behaviour and try to understand this reason? Everyone who ever played GetKanban knows the devastating effects that are caused by Carlos the test manager and his policies. Any team playing GetKanban hates Carlos, yells at him and desperately waits for Alison to fire him. But if we step back for a while and ask ourselved why he set up the policies, we can find very good reasons for this. If we did this, it could be easier to deal with him. Here is another example, this time from real life: I trained a team, including a project manager in Kanban. Of course we talked about the advantages of WIP limits and having a pull system in place. They all agreed that they wanted to introduce this. But after a couple of weeks it became clear that the project manager kept pushing work into the system without regard to the WIP limits. My first reaction was „What a moron!“ Luckily, I did not day that loudly. After having talked to him, the picture looked differently. It turned out that he was totally aware of the problems his behaviour was causing. But he had a reason for this: „Look, I am responsible for the on-time delivery and quality of our small projects. I totally get this pull-stuff. But I know that our team members have very different skills and experience. So I don’t have faith in a system where an inexperienced person pulls an item he cannot master. This puts the commitments towards our clients at risk. So I bypass the pull-system by assigning tickets to specific persons and putting them on their desks.“ Now we had a better perspective on the problem. It was not the „stupid project manager“ but maybe a problem of too little training for new people. Or maybe it was only a problem of showing the project manager that the skill level was much higher than he thought. In both cases the way we had to approach the problem was different from getting rid of the project manager.
So the bottom line here is: Let’s not jump to conclusions when it comes to strange behaviour either! When we observe bad behaviour, let’s ask questions like: „Assuming this person is a good guy, what might the reasons for his behaviour be?“, „What does this person see that I cannot see?“, „What are his fears?“ etc. This helps us improving by showing respect for people.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

LKNA13 in Chicago

The Conference Lean Kanban North America (formerly known as Lean Software and Systems) is the mother of all Lean/Kanban Conferences. After a truly awesome event in Boston last year, it took place in Chicago, the Windy City, this year from April 28 – May 2. The tagline for this year was "Managing Flow, Complexity & Risk",
We (that is Naddel and Fridel from Jimdo and me) arrived on Saturday - after a great week in San Francisco where we visited the Jimdo US office as well as the two startups 99designs and foursquare. We took a walk around downtown and went to the great lake where a funny techno charity run took place.


Sunday started with two meetings of the Lean-Kanban University - the organization which is dealing with professional designations for Kanban trainers and coaches. This time we talked a lot about the market needs for Kanban trainings in different countries and continents as well as the freshly inaugurated coaching program (Kanban Coaching Professional, KCP). During the second meeting, Mike Burrows said something that made me think: "We don‘t want to teach teams tricks! We want to help them improve their learning capability."
The meetings were quite shorts, so I had time to meet Naddel, Fridel and Katrin and have a sandwich at Hannah‘s Bretzel - the ├╝ber sandwich makers!

At the welcome reception on Sunday evening we met a lot of old friends and had a couple of beers - what a great start for a conference!


Monday I was track chairing the Kanban at Scale track. We had two speakers dropping out, but (once again) it was really easy to find very good replacements with Bill Foy and Dan Vacanti. Bill started the track with his talk "What is your best performance strategy?" He presented some of the results of the interviews he did with managers from different organizations. The one that resonated with me the most was "Managers have to switch from the big picture to details, back and forth. This leads to clearity, because we see something from one perspective and still have the other perspective in mind". After this, Joakim and Anders presented the scaling mechanism at Spotify. You can find the basics in this PDF document, but the presentation contains much more. So if you ever have the chance to meet them, don‘t miss it!

Dan Vacanti presented an case study from Siemens Healthcare. They reached impressive outcomes by understanding their system, measuring the flow and limiting WIP.

Another case study was presented by Ramon Tramontini and Marcelo Walter from Peru: "The Spice must Flow" They described some emerging practices that helped them and their team to manage their flow, gain more effectiveness and sustainable pace.

The last talk of the day was "Kanban, Leadership and Alignment at Jimdo" by Fridel and me. We presented the way Jimdo is working. Especially the importance of the company culture and different formats for structured communication. We will publish this material in more depth soon. Meanwhile you can have a look at our slides.
We received a lot of positive feedback, so it was time for a little bit of posing;-)

My main takeaway from the Kanban at Scale track: We shouldn‘t try to scale Kanban. First we need to understand the organization we are dealing with, its history and the problem it is facing. If we come to the conclusion that Kanban helps us deal with these problems, we have to develop our own Kanban implementation. There is no one right way to do this!

In the evening I gave an interview with infoQ about implementing and Scaling Kanban. You can find it here.

Later in the evening, Jim Benson facilitated an OpenSpace. I was sitting at the table with the topic "Military Doctrine". There were so many very smart people at this table, that I learned a whole lot in 90 minutes - and also wrote down four pages of notes and drank a couple of beers - all at the same time! Whoever wants to learn more about Auftragstaktik (which is really enlightening, even for pacifists like me), should read these two books: The Art of Action and Certain to win.


The day started with Stephen Parry‘s keynote. I had heard a lot of his stuff (i.e. climate model) before, but it was still interesting to hear it again.

After lunch the Brickell Key Award ceremony took place. I was lucky enough to hand over the Trophy to Troy Magennis for his amazing work with using Monte Carlo Simulations for forecasting with Kanban. This stuff will change the way projects are run in the future. So watch out for Troy! The second trophy was given to Yuval Yeret, Kanban Pioneer in Israel and a real practitioner and out-of-the-box thinker. Congratulations to both winners, well deserved!

After a sneak preview for Mary and Tom Poppendieck‘s new book in their talk, I was lucky to hear Simon Bennett speaking. His talk Rules, Reactance and Gaming was really entertaining and useful! I will not even try to summarize his great story about speed-detector-detector-detectors. One big main takeaway for me was: If we want people to follow rules, we must make clear that they understand (and agree with) the intent behind the rules. And it‘s more likely that they follow the rules when they were involved in the creation process.

In the evening it was Deep Dish Pizza time (a must-eat for every tourist in Chicago). Gaetano who knows a lot about Pizza said: "It tastes good, but it has nothing to do with Pizza!" We had a great evening with the awesome guys from The Library Corporation! Thanks for the conversations and the invitation.


Douglas Hubbard‘s keynote "How to measure anything" was mind-blowing! One thing I learned: "We have more data than we think. And we need less data than we think!" And: We can measure whatever we want - as long as we know what we are talking about and why we want to measure it. I strongly recommend reading his book!

After this, Jim Benson delivered, once again, a very insightful (and quite weird) presentation about "Orwellian Management". I loved it, but I cannot summarize it.

Wrap Up

The conference was absolutely worthwile! I learned a lot, met a lot of interesting people and had a lot of fun! Special thanks to Naddel and Fridel!
LKNA14 will take place in San Francisco - I will be there!

And by the way, Chicago can be quite beautiful, especially at night:-)

Lean Kanban Central Europe

For all the Europeans who missed the Chicago event: Lean Kanban Central Europe 2013 takes place in Hamburg, Nov 4-5. A lot of great speakers already agreed to come. Check out the website!

P.S. If you understand German, you should also read Naddel‘s blog posts about the chicago conference!
P.P.S. If you are waiting for the videos from the conference: This year they are only available for attendees, sorry.