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Signpost towards a culture of continuous improvement

With very little effort,  Kanban can change a lot. I witness this often when I visit a company again weeks or months after introducing Kanban. However, I also see that I get contacted by companies where the „Kanban pilots“ have ditched the aircraft in the swirling desert sands. “We have a board, WIP limits and classes of service. Yet the staff are trying permanently to circumvent the system”, is a common complaint I face. A few targeted questions soon reveal that Kanban is not regarded as an evolutionary change but as a hotchpotch of mechanisms pushed on the top of a team.

Kanban is a change initiative

In the principles of Kanban David Anderson has explained what he means by evolutionary change:

  1. Kanban starts at the point where the system happens to be at. It needs no significant adjustments, costly training or process revolutions.
  2. Kanban respects the existing order. It neither places in doubt the existing processes or functions. In this sense respect means granting that what already exists has a meaning. 
  3. Kanban strives for incremental, evolutionary changes. The approach is a step by step one and not a major leap. Equally important is a consensus among all who will be significantly affected by this movement of change. 
  4. Kanban requires leadership at all levels throughout the organization. If continuous improvement is to function, everyone involved should contribute and implement their ideas for improvement. Operative staff knows best of all what needs to be improved in daily operations – we should encourage them to  reconcile their views with the management and to take jointly the next step towards improvement.

I consider it as absolutely vital that these principles are being followed in Kanban implementation. When it comes to creating a cultural change – towards a culture of continuous improvement – it needs even more than this.

Signpost towards a change in culture

In our book “Kanban in IT” – which is about to appear in English soon – Sigi Kaltenecker and I explain that, above and beyond these principles, a profound in-depth understanding of these principles is needed on how a culture of continuous improvement can be created. For this, in our view, the following signposts are vital:

  1. Kanban is a change initiative.  It’s about systemic improvements for which not individual performance but cooperation is essential. Value creation and quality of work increases through better structures and clearer rules with all relevant partners. 
  2. Kanban is about the overall working culture.  Improving this culture requires critical reflection of one’s own attitudes, which are expressed in particular performance and cooperative behavior. This in turn requires the readiness to work continuously on one’s personal development.
  3. Kanban is about people and not mechanisms. People drive sustainable improvement – and they do so essentially through their emotions: Joy, courage, enthusiasm but also frustration, disappointment or grief.  We strongly recommend that these emotions are both respected and put to use – after all, they are to be regarded as a motor of change. 
  4. Kanban is a team sport.  To create a culture of continuous improvement, allies are needed.  Partners, both male and female, are needed to bring these new values to life and to nurture them. Managerial support is needed as systematic problems must be brought to light and solved. Lastly the stakeholders must also be in the boat for without their active cooperation the desired additional value cannot be achieved. 

These signposts stress the complexity of the fields of change, which is created by Kanban. This requires an approach that does justice to it and explains why it is not recommended in general, simply just to kick off with Kanban. In so doing, one runs the risk that it stagnates in short-term steps of change and that long-term steps for improvement are not used.


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