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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

When Kanban Fails

When Kanban Fails post image

In my story from Lean Kanban Central Europe 2011 I promised I will elaborate more on my session there, titled Kanban Weak Spots. The starting point to the session was analysis of a number of situations where Kanban didn’t really work, finding out a root cause and then trying to build a bunch recurring patterns from that.

By the way I have an interesting observation. Whenever I called for Kanban failure stories I heard almost perfect silence as an answer. It seems everyone is so damn good with adopting Kanban that it virtually never fails.

Except I’ve personally seen a bunch of failed Kanban implementations. Either I’m the most unlucky person in the world and saw all of Kanban failures out there or for some reason we, the Kanban crowd, are still sharing just success stories and not putting enough attention to our failures.

Actually, when I was discussing the session with fellow presenters we quickly came to the point that basically every time we think about Kanban failures it can be boiled down to people. However, and it is one of recurring lessons from lkce11, we should address vast majority of ineffectiveness to the system, not to the people. In other words, yes, Kanban fails because of people, but we change the system and only this way we influence people behavior.

This is exactly the short version of the presentation, inspired by Katherine Kirk and Bob Marshall.

There is the long version too. Symptoms, which show you that something isn’t working, and if you do nothing about them you’re basically asking for failure. I have good news though. Most of the time you will look for these symptoms in just one place – on your Kanban board.

Probably the most common issue I see among Kanban teams is not keeping the board up to date. In short, it means that the board doesn’t reflect the reality and your team is making their everyday project decisions basing on a lie. A very simple example: given that there is a bottleneck in testing but it isn’t shown on a Kanban board, a developer would come to the board to see what’s next and they would decide to start building a new feature instead of helping to sort bottleneck out. Instead of making things better they would make them even worse, thanks to the board which isn’t up to date.

I face the same problem but on a different level, whenever a team tries to make a board showing the way they’d like to work, and not the way they really work. Actually this one is even worse – not only do you make your everyday decisions basing on a lie again but it’s also more difficult to get things back on the right track again. This time it’s not enough to update the sticky notes – you need to fix the design of the board too.

Another board-related issue would be forgetting about a good old rule: KISS. When people learn all these nice tricks they can use on their boards they’re inclined to use a lot of them. Often way too many. They end up over-engineering the board, which means that they bury important information under the pile of meaningless data. Soon, people aren’t able to tell what means what and which visual represent which situation. Eventually, they stop to care to update the board because they’re basically lost, so they’re back to the square one.

Violating limits has its own place in hell. Of course it is a matter of your policies whether you allow abusing limits at all. However it is pretty common situation that it is generally acceptable that limits are violated very often, or even all the time. Now, let me stress this: limits in Kanban are the fuel of improvements; if you don’t treat your limits seriously you don’t treat improvement seriously either. Limiting work in progress is a mechanism, which makes people act differently than they normally would. When a developer, instead of starting to build another feature, goes to help with a blocker in testing it is usually because limits told them so. Eventually they learn to predict such situations and act even earlier, before they fill up the work queue. Anyway it all starts with simple actions, which are triggered by limiting WIP.

The interesting thing is that all these problems can be seen on a Kanban board. The reason is pretty simple: the board should reflect the reality, no matter how sad the reality is. You deal with lousy process the same way as you deal with alcoholism: the first step is admitting you have a problem. Even if your process looks like a piece of crap show it on your Kanban board. Otherwise you’re just cheating yourself and you aren’t even starting your journey with continuous evolution toward perfection.

There is however one driver of Kanban failure, which won’t be seen on a Kanban board. It’s also my recent pet peeve. Treating Kanban as a project management or a software development approach is basically begging for failure. It is asking Kanban to deal with something which it wasn’t designed for. It’s using a banana to hammer a nail. Seems funny indeed, but if you care about a success, well, then good luck – you’re going to need a lot of it.

Kanban can be called change management approach or process-driving tool or even improvement vehicle but it doesn’t say a word on how you should manage your projects or build your software. If you don’t build Kanban on a top of something, be it a set of best engineering practices or project management method of your choice, you’re likely to fail miserably. And then you will be telling everyone that you need to have experienced team to start using Kanban and that it wouldn’t work otherwise.

So here it is – a handful of risks you should take into consideration whenever adopting Kanban in your team. A bunch of situations observed by the most unlucky guy in the world, who actually sees Kanban failures on occasions. However, what I want to achieve with this post is not to discourage you to try Kanban out. Pretty much the opposite. I want you to think of this list and actively work to avoid the traps. I just want you to succeed.

And this is why you will hear me writing and speaking about Kanban weak spots again.

Now, even though I teased much of the content from my lkce11 session above, here are my slides.

By the way, if you happened to be on my session in Munich please rate it.

If you’d like to see some more content on the subject, fear not. As I’m very passionate about that I will definitely write more on this soon.

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in: kanban, software development

2 comments… add one

  • Vin D'Amico October 28, 2011, 1:07 pm

    I agree. I generally think of Kanban as a scheduling or queuing system. It’s more than that, of course, but the essence of Kanban is managing workflow. You can use Kanban to build physical items like cars, computers, televisions, lawn mowers, etc. You can also use it to create intellectual items like software, books, magazines, etc.

    These items have nothing in common except for the need to plan and schedule work. So, you’re right. First learn to build or create the item of interest, then add Kanban to help you manage the process.

  • Stacy March 7, 2012, 9:24 am

    Thank you for this interesting post about kanban and project management! It’s exactly the kind of information I was looking for today, and it was a good read.

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