Why Kanban Flight Levels?

System User

The world is a model richer: Kanban flight levels. I really do not believe that it has been waiting with bated breath for someone to summarise Kanban applications but it has been shown that the model can make the life of a Kanban proponent a little easier. You can find a more detailed explanation of it in my blog post “Kanban and its flight levels“.

How did the flight levels model come about in any case? I was contacted constantly by companies who formulated their wish something like this: “We would like to introduce Kanban to improve our team performance.“ To tell you the truth I was often a little confused and wondered why the whole world had decided to improve team performance. But it did not take long until I found out that the whole thing was a major misunderstanding of what Kanban was really about: Many people assume that Kanban is a team-focused approach like some Agile methodologies. But it is not!

Kanban does not focus on teams

The core of Kanban comprises four principles and six practises. Neither in the principles nor in the practices is it written that they are applied to teams. David Anderson even quite specifically says that with Kanban he always has in mind optimizing the service delivery along the value chain and never the improvement of individual teams. Nevertheless, one can of course also use Kanban excellently at a team level. However, it is essential to understand that Kanban does not focus on teams and that there’s other space for Kanban in an organizational context. Maybe you are simply not harnessing a great potential, which I think you would agree would be a great shame?

To make understandable the potential of Flight Level 3 – optimisation of the value stream or service delivery –  I like to use the analogy of a keyboard: Let us suppose our company is a keyboard and each team is in charge of one single key, as illustrated in the following figure:

So now along comes our client and wants us to write a love letter for him. Of course, now the “A Team” can optimize as long as it wants with Kanban until it sets a new record for the Guinness Book of Records for hitting the “A” key. However, the letter will not be completed any quicker through this. When it comes to writing a letter, it is logically not so important that you can use a single key super fast. It is much more important that the right key is pressed at the right time to ensure a real increase in performance. Applied to the real business world, you can conclude that it is not only a matter of increasing the performance of individual teams but that much more performance enhancement is achieved through optimizing the interaction between the individual teams.

Flight Levels is a communication model

Using this image you can communicate in a few minutes that it makes a lot of sense to use Kanban far and above team boundaries. And here we are at the core of the Kanban flight level model: it is a matter of communicating where Kanban can be applied in the company. In LEANability we use the model especially in the initial clarification to find for our clients the best possible starting point for the Kanban change initiative and to find out how Kanban can spread further within the company. It is important to understand that the individual flight levels do not build upon each other. You can launch Kanban on each flight level and in most companies you will notice the presence of several flight levels. With each flight level you can address other problems in a company and the model helps you get this message across.

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