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The Kanban Survivability Agenda

Posted by Mike Burrows on Feb 20, 2014 |

The first two instalments of this series introduced the Kanban Method through two of its three “agendas”:

  1. The sustainability agenda, whose values of transparency, balance, and collaboration represent five of the method’s six core practices
  2. The service orientation agenda, which adds customer focus, flow, and leadership

In this final instalment we’ll look at the third, the survivability agenda. The values associated with this agenda are understanding, agreement, and respect; these say much about the philosophy that underlies Kanban, the humane, start with what you do now approach to change.

Value: Understanding

Collectively, three words do a good job of describing much that is wrong with the attitudes of many organizations and their managers towards change:

  1. Bravado (after Jim Collins) describes a tendency to overreach, initiating change with little understanding or attention to its implementation, putting the integrity of the organization and the well-being of its people at risk.
  2. Complacency was Russell Ackoff’s bugbear; he repeatedly identified management inaction as a major cause of organizational failure.
  3. Tampering was a favorite word of W. Edwards Deming. It describes that compulsion of managers to respond to events and thereby to interfere ineffectively and even unsafely with process.

In other words: too fast, too slow, or too random!

Understanding could be taken as a commitment to avoid the above perils. More positively, it’s the value that underpins Kanban’s start with what you do now principle, a pointer to systems thinking, and a reminder of the need to take change seriously.

Starting (all the time) with what you do now as opposed to some defined target state is what makes Kanban an evolutionary method.  This doesn’t mean however that a big current state analysis is called for ­– in fact we’d recommend against anything that introduces unnecessary delay or generates the kind of products that the organization will struggle to maintain into the future. Instead, we like to start with these two simple perspectives:

  • How what we do now both serves and frustrates the customer
  • How what we do now works and fails to work for those inside the system

It might seem a little negative to start with those frustrations, but when they and their possible root causes are brought to the surface, made visible in kanban systems, and made the subject of feedback loops, change starts to happen.

With each change – even the unsuccessful ones – learning takes place and understanding deepens. This in turn generates more opportunities for change and increases the likelihood that it will be implemented safely.

This organic approach works very well at team scale but at larger scales it may be necessary to take a more deliberate approach, especially where the organization’s ability to change is recognized as a constraint.

Value: Agreement

Agreement represents another explicit commitment, the collective commitment to pursue evolutionary change. This is the deliberate and parallel pursuit of adaptability and fitness, the organization’s ability to survive and thrive in its competitive environment.

If this agreement is to endure beyond the four walls of the kick-off meeting, a number of things are required:

  • Some idea of what “better” looks like – not a solution, but some objectives by which fitness can be measured (avoiding the problem of “random” change).
  • The commitment to keep bringing together the right people at the right place and right time to solve problems and to innovate, a process that must somehow be institutionalised if it is to be sustained.

Real progress depends on agreement in practice between the people who:

  • Request, recommend or suggest change
  • Understand what needs to be done and its likely impact
  • Implement it
  • Will be impacted by it

Clearly, the more these different constituencies overlap, the easier this will be. In front of the kanban board, all of this happens naturally, often in a matter of moments. Away from it, and at larger scales especially, we typically see it happen through the action of “T-shaped leadership”1, leadership that seeks effective collaboration across the organization whilst fostering deeper collaboration internally.

Value: Respect

When we’re considering the organization’s survivability, the simple fact that the organization still continues to exist should be worth something! And to the individuals involved, their current roles, titles and responsibilities contribute significantly to personal identity. No matter how logically the way forward is presented, when change is implemented without due respect for people and these realities, the result will be stiff emotional resistance.

Whilst it may seem paradoxical to seek change and yet to avoid making threats to role-based identity, there is no contradiction. Kanban’s first focus is not on the person but on the work. The same people that would resist change when it is imposed are often highly motivated to bring it about when the working environment makes the need for change apparent.

Respect for people (a pillar of Lean) is a thread that runs through the Kanban Method, documented as a primary motivation of its early pioneers and embodied in each of its nine values. People should have transparency over and balance in their workloads. They have relational needs: collaboration, leadership and so on. Predictable flow - especially the flow of work that meets meaningful customer needs (customer focus) - brings benefits to stakeholders both inside and outside the system. Understanding and agreement are inherently respectful and representative of the safety that all participants should enjoy.

Implementing the survivability agenda

The survivability agenda’s values of understanding, agreement and respect demand commitment, both initially and ongoing. These leadership disciplines are key to the impactful adoption of the Kanban Method - they’re protective of the pursuit of organizational learning that takes place inside the boundaries of the change initiative and they’re catalytic at its outward interfaces. Ostensibly about fitness – fitness relative to the competitive environment and fitness for purpose – the survivability agenda is really cultural.

Reflection

Kanban’s three agendas highlight the degree of choice available to organizations in its introduction, though with that choice comes of course some trade-offs.

The sustainability agenda offers easy adoption at team level but says very little about how the benefits will spread. Whilst transparency and balance scale well (I have for example first-hand experience in limiting work-in-progress at the business initiative level), collaboration at scale is challenging. Highly collaborative teams do not always make for highly collaborative organizations – especially when they turn inward, compete against each other, or raise barriers.  

The service orientation agenda addresses the most obvious weaknesses of the sustainability agenda though customer focus, flow, and leadership. It is strong on purpose and outlook (albeit of a rather generic kind); whilst there may be expectation of change, no attention is paid here to the commitments and disciplines that seem to characterize the most successful Kanban implementations.

The values of understanding, agreement, and respect point to the underlying philosophy of the Kanban Method. Cast as the survivability agenda, we make it clear that big things are at stake, namely fitness for purpose and organizational adaptability. These things are best approached deliberately. Cast alternatively as leadership disciplines Kanban sets down a cultural challenge: what if all change was conducted with understanding, agreement, and respect?

It should be apparent that Kanban is not a delivery process but a management method. As a management method, and one whose principles and practices are scale-free in their formulation, scale is no barrier. Whether then it scales is more a question of opportunity than of practice, and in identifying the agendas we hope we have made clearer the choices organizational available.

The nine values resonate at a more personal level, but they are useful guides to organizational climate also. They are not prescriptive, and yet they challenge. What better perspective on the humane, start with what you do now approach to change?

References

1 Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground, and Reap Big Results, Morton Hansen (Harvard Business Review Press, 2009)

About the Author

Mike Burrows (Twitter:@asplake) is UK Director of David J. Anderson & Associates (djaa.com) and Director of Training Programs at LeanKanban Inc. His book Kanban from the Inside is due later in 2014.

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