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Kanban or Project Plan? Project Plan with Kanban?

More than anyone else, project leaders and mangers ask me again and again one question: “Does a Kanban board replace a project plan?” The answer is, as is often the case with me, “It depends.” First of all, a plan mostly describes the timeframe of a project in advance. The question is for which type of initiatives this makes sense. For example, the ideas in an innovation process are difficult to generate according to a plan. You cannot simply say, “By milestone X, I will have a groundbreaking idea.” It looks different, however, for tasks and processes that are denoted as highly certain. An automobile supplier knows inside and out how to develop a standard steering wheel and approximately how long it takes. Small modifications don’t have a great effect because the basic principle doesn’t change. In this case, plans help to maintain an overview and give a relatively stable preview of what will and can happen after coordinating with other plans.

What I want to say is: Plans make more or less sense depending on the context.

So. If I hold myself to the definition that a plan describes a timeframe, then the visualization of work on a Kanban board is not a plan, just a part of one. A Kanban system only shows a snapshot of what is relevant right now and why it is being worked on right now and which dependencies exist right now. What happened before the current right now can be found in the Done area, i.e. the work that was just completed. What will, and should, come after the current right now can be found in the Option area. Within a plan, a Kanban system can help keep an overview of the upcoming and completed work, help guide the right players to have the right discussions in front of the board, help manage the dependencies, remove blockers, help bring the work into a logical sequence and help maintain a good workflow by limiting parallel work.

In principle, a Kanban system is an additional tool for the project plan.

Featured image by Kevin on Unsplash.

New Year’s Eve and the Optimal Amount of Work in the System

When a day like 31st December happens to be a Sunday, you are very unlucky if living in Austria. Grocery stores are usually closed Sundays with only a few exceptions. Those exceptions already tend to be crowded on ordinary Sundays, and even more so if it is New Year’s Eve. All the people who didn’t do their shopping for that day and the following holiday on time are then blocking those few grocery stores that are open. So I too was part of a jam in front of the only „Billa“ (a main grocery chain in Austria) that was open on the afternoon of the 31st. Unexpectedly, this holiday madness became a Eureka-moment for me. Because as I told you: I was standing in the jam in front of the store.

Let’s think a few moments about that: If you would let in all these people at once, who are hungry for salmon, thirsty for sparkling wine and killing for fresh baguette – what would happen? Each of them would have a rather shitty shopping experience. None of them could move on as they would like to, you would be shoved around and maybe you wouldn’t even get what you were looking for because the employees wouldn’t be able to refill the shelves on time and suppliers couldn’t get through – classical bottlenecks so to say. Maybe you wouldn’t even try to get everything you need because you would just want to get out again as soon as possible. But even then it would take you a long time to get out if you weren’t one of the lucky ones who were swept into the store at the head of the wave. So in any case it’s highly probable that you would leave without having all that you intended to buy.

The sight of a hysterical crowd would maybe also deter those who are lucky enough to be still outside the store from moving any further because they want to avoid the chaos. So the store would lose some substantial amount of business and altogether it would be nothing but stress for customers and employees alike. Unfortunately, I see situations like this in many organizations every day: Especially in knowledge work companies the gates are never closed because management still believes that people have to be occupied a 100 % all the time. So things like quality und what’s of value to the customers falls by the wayside. If people are pushed into a grocery store uncontrolled – that cannot turn out well. Neither will more work be finished nor will it be finished any faster if you push more and more work into the work system.

Inflow regulation by Billa

The responsible Billa-folks must have thought the same. In front of the main entrance they positioned security who would close the roller shutter whenever they got an „Enough“-signal from the inside. Only when a sufficient amount of people had left the store through the side entrance, the security personnel would open the gates again for the next group of people. So the people inside the store were able to do their shopping rather relaxed and quickly and the system didn’t break down because the shelves were always refilled on time. The people in front of the store could see that the queue was moving forward at regular intervals. So everyone was still able to decide wether they wanted to wait or not. Those who still wanted to enter the store could roughly estimate how long it would take them to get in. In this way, Billa optimized the throughput and I guess that they earned more money by doing so than if they hadn’t taken these measures.

That’s also the way in which we should operate our work systems. We should consider: What’s the optimal amount of work in our system? „Optimal“ means to be occupied well but still the work moves forward smoothly and we have enough capacity for adressing problems if they arise. Through limitation it becomes more predictable when work will be finished and the next work can be started. So we should only start as much work as the system is able to bear without getting out of balance – all new work therefore has to wait outside of the system first. That’s why I like the alternative term for WiP-limits coined by Prateek Singh: „Optimal Operating Capacity“. Or shall we just call it the Optimal Amount of Work in the System?

First anniversary of “Practical Kanban”

I know, I’m a bit late. The German version of “Practical Kanban” was already released in November 2016. But that doesn’t change the fact that the first year of my second book was full of motivating and – I have to admit – flattering feedback and reviews. It took another year to translate the book into English but that’s also done now and the feedback from the English speaking community is just as overwhelming. My intention for this book was to open the eyes of Kanban practitioners to typical traps in which I have seen so many initiatives getting caught. And on the other hand I just couldn’t stand it anymore when yet another one wanted to plug “that new agile team method” into an organization.

The writing, reviewing and releasing of this book took a bit longer than I had planned but in hindsight I think it was released at the right moment – people were ready to hear the message. I don’t want to praise myself too much but it seems that I really contributed to turning the focus from teams to creating value. That was only possible because I had and have the privilege to work with so many people who are open to really changing – or rather improving – things and from whom I am learning a lot every day. Current consulting requests show me that something is changing in the way how Kanban is understood. It seems that the Flight Level Model has really made clear to many that in order to find the most effective trigger, value streams should be examined on different levels of an organization.

Still more books to come

Since a little more than a year now I am travelling the world with my talk about “Lean Business Agility” which continues where “Practical Kanban” has ended. More than once people told me after my talk: “You were talking about my company!” So it seems that another book is due and what a coincidence: the work on this book has already started.

In the meanwhile, the third – German – edition of “Kanban in der IT” (English edition: “Kanban Change Leadership”) will be out 15th January 2018. And if you are still in need of “Practical Kanban”: Besides the download on Leanpub, the English version is now also available as Kindle Edition and paperback on Amazon.

Troy Magennis in Vienna: A metrics training with some Kanban

Troy Magennis is my Chief Executive Hero, I just have to call him that way. He’s one of the nicest people I know and a fantastic partner for trainings as well. On December 4 and 5 we had actually planned to give an „Improving Kanban“ training together for the first time with a bit more input concerning metrics and forecasting. But as soon as we asked the participants on the first day about what they were expecting it was all clear: It would be metrics, metrics, and finally metrics. So we adjusted the training on the fly to deliver this added value to our dear participants. It has been a good idea because out of this training-pilot a pilot-training was born. Troy and I will further develop the format and will prospectively offer it in Seattle and San Diego next year.

Coaching Teams with Data

On the 6th of December Troy also gave a talk on „Data Driven Coaching for Agile Teams“ at the Lean & Agile Coffee in Vienna. It was a celebration for Excel-enthusiasts because Troy showed how a few regularly collected datapoints like team-polls with a capability matrix and timestamps at the beginning and end of a work – can lead to better team constellations and processes. The art, of course, lies in telling relevant stories with the data instead of headlessly collecting data just for the sake of it. If you can show developments and reference points (what should be better/differently in comparison to what?) you can diminish fears within a team that always come along with terms like “measuring” and “data”. A set of few but meaningful metrics concerning quality, responsiveness, productivity and predictability should be the goal and most important: The results should be seen as the system’s performance not as the performance of individuals.

The Lean & Agile Coffee was hosted at Raiffeisen Bank International. A big THANK YOU once more to Christian Biegler for his support! Even at short notice he always organizes something great. Thanks very much for the room, the delicious wine and the chocolate Krampusses!

Tip: Troy is offering a lot of useful tools for free on his website