Fika Stories 1 – “Help! Our Kanban died!”

In Sweden, we love to ‘fika’. Fika requires you to take time to sit down and sip coffee (usually strong and black) with your colleagues to chitchat about this and that. Visiting different organizations, I tend to fika a lot and hear all these stories about how things are going.

Today, I’ll like to share three classic fika stories about Kanban, more specifically how Kanban doesn’t “work”. It turns out that these stories are usually epic, picturing people and teams valiantly trying to implement Kanban in organizations that, unfortunately, turn out to be quite unfit for value delivery. Thus, the struggle and angst perfectly fitted for an entertaining fika. So, you have the one…

  • Where the org turns out to not be ready for transparency and flow management: ”We tried Kanban but it didn’t work for us: we ended up with too much on our board to handle”.
  • Where the org exposes it has an inflexible and long tradition of classic, command and control management: ”We could not control our WIP because our manager kept pushing new stuff on our board”.
  • Where the org reveals it has structures that are unfit to deliver new stuff (e.g. using component teams): “We could not limit our WIP because we got blocked all the time by other teams, so we kept starting new things” (or the opposite, which I’ve heard only once, “We followed the WIP limits but quickly starved because everything always got blocked!”).

Tough! But it’s OK because, in all these stories, Kanban is actually working as it should! It is already helping by being instrumental in all these disquieting revelations, and making the problem blatantly visible: it died! What can you more ask of the poor thing? You see, Kanban is like a canary in a mine: when it dies, it shows you that you’re in real trouble. It means that the most basic preconditions for flow and continuous improvement are not (yet) in place. You must fixe these preconditions to get your Kanban back to life.

Kanban is like a canary in a mine: when it dies, it shows you that you’re in real trouble.

What to do then? There are several ways to mitigate some of these problems (start by better training and coaching, perhaps some new policies), but if you really want to get at the root causes, you need to fix cultural and/or structural problems. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts here: you “just” have to engage senior management. Explain what the dead kanban system means to their organization’s capability to deliver value and improve/innovate; get their commitment and do some change. Feeling up to the task? Look at Jason Little and his excellent Lean Change Management for guidance.

Oh, and by the way, a kanban system does not need to be advanced at all to act as a canary. Any kanban system, even (especially) simple/proto Kanbans, will do it, as each deeply connects with its environment and context.

Now, Good luck!

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