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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Emergent Explicit Policies

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One of Kanban practices is introducing explicit policies. It is the policy that probably gets least publicity. I mean I could talk hours about visualization and don’t even let me started with WIP limits thing. Managing flow gives me a great starting point for the whole debate on measuring work and using the data to learn how the work is done. Finally, continuous improvement is the axis that the whole thing spins around and a link place to all sorts of beyond Kanban discussions.

Note; I put introducing feedback loops aside for the sake of this discussion as it is still new kid on the block and thus it isn’t covered that well in different sources.

On this background explicit policies look like a poor relative of the other Kanban practices. Seriously, I sometimes wonder why David Anderson put it on the original list back then when he was defining what Kanban method is. Not that explicit policies are unimportant, but their power is somewhat obscure.

After all what does it mean that we have explicit policies? What does it take to have such a thing? When I’m training or coaching I like to use this example: if I take any member of the team ask what random things on Kanban board mean they should all answer the same. I ask about things like, what exactly is represented by a sticky in a specific place of the board or what the meaning of a specific visual signal is, e.g. pins, magnets, different marks on stickies etc.

I don’t subscribe to a common advice that you have to write policies down and stick them to the board to make them explicit. I mean, this usually helps but it is hardly enough to start. Explicit policies are all about common understanding of how the work is done.

And this is where real fun starts. If we are talking about common understanding we should rather talk about discovery process and not compliancy enforcement. If it is about discovery process we may safely assume two things:

  1. It has to be a common effort of the whole team. One person, a leader or not, just won’t know everything, as it is about how everyone works.
  2. It’s not one time effort. As the team approaches new situations they are essentially introducing new behaviors and new rules.

This is a real challenge with explicit policies. Unless you get the whole team involved and make it a continuous process you’re doing suboptimal job with policies.

What you aim for is to have emergent explicit policies. Any time that a team encounters a new situation that calls for a new rule you can add it to the list of policies you follow.

By the way, this is where having policies written down proves useful. I would, however, argue that printed sheet rather discourages people to add something, while a set of handwritten sticky notes or a hand writing on a whiteboard does the opposite. This is why you may want to use more sketchy method of storing the list of explicit policies.

Another thing is what should make it to the list. As a rule of thumb: the fewer, the better. I mean, who would read, and remember, a wall of text. Personally I would put there things which either prove to be repeatedly problematic or those that are especially important for the team.

After all, your policies are emergent so if you missed something the team would add it soon, right? In fact, this is another thing to remember. The last thing a leader might want is to be considered the only person who is allowed to change the list of policies. Personally, I couldn’t be happier when I saw a new policy on the board that was scribbled there by someone else. It is a signal that people understand the whole thing. Not only do they understand, but they do give a damn too.

Without this your policies are going to be like all those corporate rules, like a mission statement or a company vision or a quality policy. You know, all that meaningless crap introduced by company leaders, that has no impact whatsoever on how people really work.

You wouldn’t like this to happen in your team, would you?

in: kanban, project management, team management

5 comments… add one

  • Jason Yip February 1, 2013, 1:16 am

    Would it be more useful to say “make your agreements explicit” rather than “policies”?

  • Pawel Brodzinski February 1, 2013, 4:56 am

    @Jason – It would be very useful to have common understanding what kind of rules / agreements / policies you have in common and how you set them.

    Discussing whether we should call them “policies” or “agreements” means that we enter the land of semantics, and this is where I don’t feel overly comfortable (see: naming issue).

  • Jason Yip February 1, 2013, 4:58 am

    My point is that having an explicit policy does not actually mean we have an agreement: http://jchyip.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/we-agree-but.html

  • Pawel Brodzinski February 1, 2013, 7:26 am

    @Jason – A good point. Much depends on how the policy is agreed. If there’s common understanding that’s great. If some people understand the thing differently or don’t agree but hide the fact, well, it’s another problem.

    I would make a point that both making policies explicit and emergent help to reach common understanding and common agreement.

  • Matthias Jouan February 9, 2013, 12:45 am

    You make a very good point about policies here, but IMO having policies written down does not discourage people from adding something. In our team writing a policy is just another step, when an emergent policy that we tried now becomes “official”. The team goes like “Don’t you think that we should do this every time in this kind of situation?”. If the discussion says “yes” we write it down.

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