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Catalyzing Change with a Kanban Flow Manager

| by Ben Linders Follow 25 Followers on Nov 03, 2014. Estimated reading time: 4 minutes |

When organization use kanban mainly for visualization of the work they may be missing out on benefits, says Matthew Philip. Introducing a flow manager role can help teams to reflect and find solutions to the problems that they are facing, thus catalyzing change in the organization.

Matthew wrote the blog post what is a flow manager. He explained how after conducting several depth of kanban assessments with teams they found out that people are interested to improve, but they don’t know where to start and how to do it. Therefor they introduced the flow manager role: a servant leader helping teams to catalyze change:

We needed someone to provide that intentional and disciplined approach to improvement, the flow manager. We see the flow manager as a catalyst of change within teams that believe themselves too busy to focus on improving. (…) We see the flow manager as a bad-habit extinguisher.

At the Lean Kanban France conference Matthew Philip will present his experiences from experimenting with the flow manager role to deepen their understanding and deployment of kanban. InfoQ interviewed Matthew about using kanban for visualization only and on implementing the role of flow manager to catalyze change in the organization.

InfoQ: At the LKFR conference you will talk about why teams who use kanban mainly for visualization are not missing out on benefits. Can you explain this?

Matthew: One of the commendable attributes of the Kanban Method is its low barrier to entry: you can start by visualizing the work in the way you're currently doing it. The recent maturity in the tools market makes this even easier and more appealing. The downside is that if you approach the practice of visualizing work -- in itself a very beneficial and important step -- as merely one of many things to add into the mix of software-delivery practices (like TDD or cross-functional teams), you may miss the deeper reason for doing it and how it relates to other practices, principles and values of the method.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples what you can do to deepen the implementation of Kanban?

Matthew: One thing that we've done at Asynchrony is to simply educate our teams and leaders on what Kanban is, especially the "why" behind why we like Kanban. We've starting that through the values-based Depth-of-Kanban assessments that Mike Burrows, Håkan Forss, Pawel Brodzinski and others in the community have developed. We've had people respond with things like "I had no idea kanban was so deep." In addition, we've begun experimenting with a new role -- flow manager -- to build on the new awareness and help catalyze change in the teams.

InfoQ: You mentioned the flow manager, can you elaborate what this role is?

Matthew: First, I give total credit to Christophe Achouiantz for inspiring us with the idea when he wrote about it on InfoQ in 3 years of Kanban at Sandvik IT: The Story of an Improvement Journey. Chris described its purpose as to helping the team reflect and act on its own policies, discuss and act on exceptions and run experiments to find creative solutions. The flow manager inspires, challenges and coaches. We see the role as the catalyst for Kanban thinking and improvement inside the team, giving the rest of the team eyes to see flow and to sharpen (or return, in some cases) the team's intolerance for the status quo.

InfoQ: How can organizations implement this role, what is needed to make it work?

Matthew: First, it's important to have the team be interested at some level in improving. That's why we didn't force the assessment on anyone but instead offered it as a service to teams and their leaders. Kanban is designed to avoid resistance, so we found it helpful to let teams "invite" us in, even if some people were skeptical at first. We began by giving them a simple overview of the kanban method, likening it to an iceberg, in which the mass of the system is below the surface, beyond simply what you see in the visualization of work. Once teams realize that they do indeed have room to improve, but simply don't know where to start, it's necessary to have people who are educated in Kanban's principles and values -- not merely the practices -- to show the way so that others can own the change. We relied heavily on Mike's new book, Kanban from the Inside, to spread the knowledge.

InfoQ: In your blog you stated "We see the flow manager as a catalyst of change within teams". Can you give some examples of this?

Matthew: For organizations like ours who are oriented toward fast, quality delivery for our customers, we focus on the technical excellence of the product without always thinking about the quality of the process. You can get so focused on the work that you lose sight of the reality that continuous improvement is also part of your job. We've grown quickly, so we're trying to inculcate that mentality to as many people and as fast as possible. The flow manager experiment is a key to doing that.

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