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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Kanban: The Culture Challenge

Kanban: The Culture Challenge post image

My focus for past months drifted a bit away from the core of Kanban. I either focused on more enterprisey applications of Kanban in the context of portfolio management or on what’s blood of every company, which is organizational culture. Every year though I use Kanban Leadership Retreat as a perfect occasion to reset my focus a bit. It wasn’t different this year.

Those of you familiar with the method please forgive some of the basics in the post.

The classic definition of Kanban Method is as follows.


  • Start with what you do now
  • Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change
  • Initially, respect current roles, responsibilities and job titles
  • Encourage acts of leadership at all levels


  • Visualize
  • Limit Work in Progress
  • Manage flow
  • Make policies explicit
  • Implement feedback loops
  • Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally

A side note: a super-common observation is that teams would understand and know the practices but would be almost completely ignorant of the principles. This is a pattern that leads to very shallow implementations that don’t yield sustainable improvements and typically stop at just better work management.

Another perspective we may use to define Kanban is through its values. The approach was proposed by Mike Burrows. What Mike achieved was translating the original principles and practices to more generic values.

The end result is a following list.

Kanban Values

  • Understanding
  • Agreement
  • Respect
  • Leadership
  • Flow
  • Customer Focus
  • Transparency
  • Balance
  • Collaboration

Since the values originated in the principles and practices there’s also an interesting exercise you can do to map one to the other.

The important part of this perspective of looking at Kanban is that it describes what values should be embraced by an organization so that Kanban implementation will have deep and lasting impact. In other words if an organization doesn’t embrace for example transparency or respect I would expect resistance during the implementation, rather ephemeral improvements and very limited sustainability.

Now, let me share yet another perspective of describing Kanban, which is Kanban agendas. Just to tease you there are three agendas: sustainability, service orientation and survivability. One nice thing is that the agendas nicely fit the values. Each of the agendas covers a few values.


  • Transparency
  • Balance
  • Collaboration

Service orientation

  • Customer focus
  • Flow
  • Leadership


  • Understanding
  • Agreement
  • Respect

Now we have a frame for further discussion (and some of Kanban 101 in a pill too).

Why I would bring this up, you may ask. One session that I attended at Kanban Leadership Retreat was about reintroducing an idea of maturity of Kanban implementations in the context of values. The workshop and the exercise we run there is a topic for another story. The important bit in this context is that Mike, who unsurprisingly run the session, decided to put Understanding, Agreement and Respect aside for the purpose of the exercise.

We may look at it from at least a couple angles. We may say that Understanding, Agreement and Respect, since they all were derived from principles and not practices are much more difficult to assess than the rest.

We may point that they are some sort of prerequisites for starting with the whole rest and thus we base on an assumption that these values are already in place.

Both of these points of view are, in fact, valid. I see a big problem here though.

First, this is a bit like saying that Understanding, Agreement and Respect are second-class citizens in this picture. The whole focus goes to the other six values. Now, let me remind one thing. The second-class values are derived from principles not practices. In other words it means petrifying the situation we have, where we discuss practices all the time and principles are relatively ignored.

Second, Understanding, Agreement and Respect all belong to survivability agenda, which puts that very agenda at risk. What does it mean?

If we get service orientation right this translates to doing things right and doing the right thing (at least as far as Kanban covers that part). If we get sustainability right it means that the evolutionary change is feasible. The problem is that without survivability it simply won’t last. We’ll see a pattern that is pretty common across Agile and Lean adoptions. Promising results and early success that is followed by systematic reversal of the change.

Third, there’s one of my recent pet peeves, which is organizational culture. Obviously the culture relates to all the values by definition. However, Understanding, Agreement and Respect summarize the most common missing bits of culture. Also, these bits are least related to specific solutions we have in our toolboxes which means it is much more difficult to influence the change in these areas than it is in the rest.

Finally, the assumption that we have Understanding, Agreement and Respect in place before we start with Kanban is simply not true in my experience. We wish it was, but that’s not what I see. Sorry. It is a common case with pretty much any method that reaches a specific level of maturity by the way.

It all boils down to the challenge I teased in the title of the post. The challenge is to think about methods that aim to change or improve how we work from a perspective of organizational culture. A starting point would be answering a few questions.

  • Do we understand the existing culture of an organization?
  • Is the existing organizational culture well-suited to support the change we want to introduce?
  • Which elements (behaviors, values, beliefs) of the culture are missing?
  • How can we influence the culture so that it evolves toward the expected state?

Before we can answer these questions in a meaningful way introducing a major change is simply gambling. And the odds are against us. Bad news is that in majority of cases the answer for the very first question would be negative and the further we get the sadder the answers would be.

A good thing is that, at least as long as it comes to Kanban, we advance our thinking toward better understanding of what it takes to make the change survive. It should help to shift the perception of Kanban from a simple, light-weight tool that can help you with organizing work in one’s team toward deep and sophisticated model that requires understanding of quite a lot of related concepts.

A word of warning: don’t expect the end results of the latter if you treat Kanban as a former.

in: kanban

2 comments… add one

  • Mike Burrows (@asplake) June 28, 2014, 7:23 am

    Hi Pawel,

    Correction: I didn’t put those 3 values to one side. In my writeup of the same session [1], I noted:

    > I should explain that “Leadership & the Leadership Disciplines” pragmatically lumps together leadership, understanding, agreement, and respect. I was actually rather gratified that Pawel Brodzinski expressed the concern that I didn’t give them sufficient individual prominence.

    Calling those three values the “leadership disciplines” does them no disservice. If you look at the detail of the assessment, *understanding*, *agreement*, and *respect* provide the most of the detail behind of the *leadership* category (6 out of 7 questions).

    The rest of your post I’m strongly in agreement with (no pun intended). As I’ve been saying for perhaps 3 years now: “understanding, agreement, and respect – how would you expect to succeed without those?”

    [1] http://positiveincline.com/index.php/2014/06/how-deep-rebooted


  • Pawel Brodzinski June 29, 2014, 12:17 pm


    Thank you for the comment.

    I should have been more clear that this was my impression after the workshop and you intent.

    In any case the values give a nice frame to discuss which traits an organization lacks given that they want to succeed with a change. The sad part is that many organizations try to succeed without understanding, agreement and respect. I fear that merely backing you up with your question: “how can we succeed without those?” is not enough to change that.

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