Kanban in a nutshell: impulses to frequently asked questions

Whether you have just started your own team, just finished your Scrum training or have been doing it for a while: Sooner or later, everyone who is involved in agile also comes across Kanban. And then questions arise. Today I provide you with impulses to 6 of the most frequently asked questions – all in the spirit of: kanban in a nutshell.
For illustration I use Karla.

Daniel: Hello Karla.

Karla: Hello Daniel.

Daniel: You’ve brought a few questions about Kanban with you today, and we’d like to take a quick look at them together. What is your first question?

Kanban and Scrum at one table

Karla: Yes, exactly, I simply haven’t heard much about Kanban yet. I know Scrum a little better now, since I introduced agile working with my team. But how does Kanban fit into the picture? So, are Kanban and Scrum enemies?

Daniel: Very good question! And on the Scrum point, we can tie in directly to discuss Kanban. Especially when it comes to Kanban in knowledge work (i.e. outside of production companies). Because first of all Kanban and Scrum have significant similarities. They both build on a handful of principles that illuminate facets of agility and also have relatively similar goals, but they achieve them differently.

A key differentiator, on the other hand, is that Scrum only works in teams, while Kanban is also suitable for individual improvement or in workgroups. In addition, Scrum is a tailored tool for development work, while Kanban can also be used to map routine activities.

So instead of an “enmity”, I rather see two tools from the same toolbox: Each has its use case, its advantages and its operating principles.

Karla: So that means that Kanban and Scrum are interchangeable for teams?

Daniel: Well, theoretically I guess it does. But of course, how useful one or the other is for a specific team depends on the specific challenges and context of the team. Where are you right now? How and who are you currently working with? Where do you want to get to? These and similar questions can help you evaluate what is more helpful in each case.

The Why behind Kanban

Karla: And what is the goal of Kanban then?

Daniel: Improvement! So the systematic improvement of processes and ways of working, to be more precise. And one focus of the incremental and continuous improvements, in turn, is the flow of work. In fact, the more consistent the speed at which work can be done, the more realistic predictions and commitments can be made. Then decisions no longer have to be made based on gut feelings or wishful thinking. This is how real learning happens for the individual, the team or the entire organization – depending on where we are using Kanban.

The How behind Kanban

Karla: Systematically improving processes and ways of working … realistic before and after commitments. Sounds good! And like you said, kind of familiar. Scrum also helps me with systematic improvement, after all. And how does Kanban work now?

Daniel: Basically, Kanban enables improvement through a set of practices and principles. The beauty of it is, even a first exposure to the practices can make a huge difference.

Essentially, it’s about visualizing and limiting what is being worked on in parallel. This will quickly reveal how your work is doing and where work is piling up.

Manage your work in such a way that a constant flow of work can develop. Introduce process rules and make them as explicit as possible – again with visual signals.

Then regularly check what you learn about your way of working and processes, what works well and what is currently holding you back, and experiment with them.

If you then take the principle “start with what you are doing” to heart, you are already well equipped to improve systematically. Above all, this means: don’t try to depict what would be good, but first record what is really happening right now. This is the best way to identify where an initial improvement would be good in your specific context.

After all, we can only improve what we understand appropriately.

This is the idea – in a nutshell. But it’s definitely worthwhile to keep looking at it in more depth along the way!

Kanban in a nutshell: first steps

Karla: And how and where do I start to implement these … what was that … practices and principles?

Daniel: Well, it’s best to start with the first practice! Visualize your work. Make a table of steps that your work typically goes through. For each work package that you are currently working on or that has already been brought to you, make a symbolic card and put all the work that you are currently working on under the corresponding work step.

Once you have represented what is currently in progress and what is already waiting to be worked on, start working on it. Maintain the current work status of the cards by moving them from column to column.

And my personal recommendation: record on each card when you started working on it, and when you finished the work. This way you will quickly learn a lot about your work: e.g. which steps are your “bottlenecks” and how long work packages typically take to complete. Now you can take a first step towards continuous improvement.

You can think of the practices and principles as a mantra. It pays off to remind yourself of them regularly, because they can give you clues at any time as to which cogs in the wheel are currently jammed, and where something could still be improved. Also, the best way to establish new practices and principles is to create experience for yourself and others.

From real madness to structure

Karla: Now I have a rough picture of the goal and framework of Kanban and basically know where I can start. But how can I structure my work with Kanban? I can’t really imagine that yet.

Daniel: Well, you get the structure by using visual aids. It is of course like this: If you start with Kanban because you have just lost the overview and are bogged down in work, the visualization of your work will at first naturally show you exactly that: Jam in the system.

But the representation of the chaos itself is already an enormous relief for your head! Where before you had to cognitively digest what you are doing, what else you are doing, and what still needs to be done, you can now rely on a tool and concentrate entirely on the interpretation of signals and patterns.

The work packages will begin to speak to you, so to say. They will remind you and clarify what is bothering you, stopping you and blocking you. From here, you can begin to derive actions for yourself that can help you dissolve the lump of work. How about not starting anything new for the time being? Or to give something away?

Blockages themselves are, after all, an invitation to talk about ways to work together. And jam in the system probably means that nothing new should be started right now – but especially that no realistic promises can be made regarding a delivery date.

So even if the visualization itself doesn’t yet provide structure, it makes actions for structuring much more tangible.

Karla: Ah okay. That makes it a little bit more tangible.

In search of the own board

Karla: One more thing I would be interested in: We talked briefly about how I can get started with Kanban and that visual representation of work is a central part of Kanban. I guess that’s also what is meant by “Kanban Board”. But how do I build a good board? What should I look for here?

Daniel: Oh, this is such an important question! What often happens is that boards are implemented as they are recommended in some management magazine or are already used in other teams in the Orga. Behind this is typically the hope to achieve an ideal state by forcing oneself into a corset of “good practices” of others. This is not how Kanban was intended.

However, what is good for others at the time may have a very different effect on you. And served up processes and boards definitely don’t help teams identify with them. Therefore, as so often, it is important that the very first thing you do is visualize on a board what is really happening. No wishful thinking and no specifications that are not lived at all. From then on, it is then a matter of continuously improving the board and thus the work with the help of Kanban practices.

Karla: Great, thank you for the tip.

Next please

Like Karla, you may have a desire to see more behind the scenes of Kanban and understand what else there is to learn about the method than how I drag sticky notes from “ToDo” to “In Progress” to “Done”.

What questions do you still have about Kanban? And which of the short impulses would you like to deepen?

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Daniel Schauperl

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Daniel Schauperl

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