Principles of Kanban: It’s Much More Than Just Post-its-EN

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Miquel Rodríguez

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When we mention “Kanban”, the vast majority of people automatically think of a board with several columns and post-its showing the evolution of work from states of “Pending” to “In Progress” and finally “Done”… usually in the classic To Do – Doing – Done format. Something like this?

principles of kanban_board1

Or a variation with more columns in which we break down the “Doing” by the different states of the workflow. For example, “In Analysis”, “In Development”, “In Validation”. Maybe something like this?

principles of kanban_board2

I use something similar to manage some tasks, with the columns “Pending”, “Next”, “Now”, and “Done”. And I have also used it at home with my daughters, to organize and distribute household chores; one day I will write a post about it.

Well, a board with post-its is exactly what I thought Kanban was about a few years ago, before I read the books by David J. Anderson and Mike Burrows: Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business and Kanban from the Inside. I discovered that, Kanban can become a spectacular management system used in all levels of an organization, from work teams to overall strategy and direction, and passing through intermediate decision-making levels. The Kanban Method can help us design, manage, and evolve services by improving their efficiency and impact.

Principles of Kanban Method

The Kanban Method, created by David J. Anderson in collaboration with the community of Accredited Kanban Trainers and Coaches at Kanban University, is a set of principles and practices that have been successfully implemented around the world. The principles of the Kanban Method are classified into two groups:

  • Change Management Principles: oriented around how to approach change management when introducing Kanban in the organization
  • Service Delivery Principles: applicable to the entire organization, understanding it as an ecosystem of interdependent services

In the rest of this article, I’ll explain our point of view about these principles of Kanban.

Change Management Principles of Kanban

  1. Start with what you are doing NOW
  2. Agree to pursue improvement through EVOLUTIONARY CHANGE
  3. Encourage acts of LEADERSHIP at every level
principles of kanban_change management

Let’s imagine a scenario. We work in a more traditional environment, with a team of 14 people led by a Project Manager who knows the business well and has a technical background. The team is also very comfortable with him and the way he motivates and manages them. Suddenly, a decision is made to implement Scrum to improve delivery times and focus on the value delivered to the customer.

In order to start working with Scrum, it is necessary to make a series of decisions:

  • Who will the Product Owner be?
  • Who will Scrum Master be?
  • Do we divide the 14 people into 2 Scrum teams? The maximum recommended size is 9. Will we then need 2 Product Owners and 2 Scrum Masters?
  • What role is the most suitable for the current Project Manager? What responsibilities should he have?
  • How long will the Sprints be? 1 week? 2 weeks? A calendar month?
  • If it is decided to have 2 Scrum teams, should their Sprints be the same duration? Should they be in sync?
  • When and where do we do the Daily Scrum?
  • How do we manage the Product Backlog? And the Sprint Backlog?
  • Who do we invite to the Sprint Review?
  • Etc.

Answering all of these questions is necessary BEFORE the first Sprint. And we must train everyone involved to understand, agree on, and adhere to this new way of working.

I have used Scrum as an example to simplify and ask a few questions. We can substitute Scrum for any other framework or methodology and similar questions will appear. The focus in this Change Management scenario is based on defining how we want to work (TO BE), knowing the current state (AS IS), and creating a plan that allows us to get from one to another.

But the approach of the Kanban Method is different. It is an evolutionary change approach.

(I will not go into whether it is better or worse; that almost always depends on the context.) Personally though, Kanban’s evolutionary change approach is one of the points that I like the most about the Kanban Method, which at the same time can become its Achilles heel.

This change management approach, with a premise of “start with what you are doing now“, helps mitigate resistance, typically, associated with change. It is an interesting proposal: before we change, we will better understand how we are currently working. This involves:

  • Visualizing the workflow
  • Gathering indicators to measure our evolution against
  • Defining a clear starting point

In addition, we give legitimacy to the current way of working. Whether it is successful or not, this way of working has been put in place for some reason. In some transformations, a new work model, new roles, new responsibilities, and new artifacts, have been defined and applied too quickly, without being certain of the suitability to the organization. Let’s dig a little deeper into the Change Management Principles of Kanban.

1. Start with what you are doing NOW.

Understand the processes as they are currently being executed, while also respecting the roles, responsibilities, and positions of the people. This simple yet powerful approach can break down barriers that could bring a disruptive change to a screeching halt.

2. Agree to pursue improvement through EVOLUTIONARY CHANGE

Reach agreements that pursue continuous improvement thanks to evolutionary changes.
But this principle of “start with what you are doing now” can become its main defect: if we are not committed to continually evolve, we can fall into complacency, staying stagnant rather than moving forward. Therefore, we need to be aware that we must change to adapt.

3. Encourage acts of LEADERSHIP at every level

Promote leadership and decision-making at all levels, from individual contributions to the organization’s Management. Propose a change in the process, suggest a redistribution of tasks after observing workloads, raise your hand to communicate a risk, hire more people, modify an internal policy, prioritize and limit work, and self-train in new skills. These are acts of leadership necessary for continuous improvement and customer satisfaction. Seeking efficiency, effectiveness, and the delivery of value for the customer and the business are pillars of the Kanban Method.

In short, through this evolutionary change approach, Kanban enables us to get started quickly and jointly design the way forward. A natural evolution. Continuous adaptation. Survival.

Service Delivery Principles of Kanban

1. Understand and focus on CUSTOMER needs and expectations.
2. Manage the WORK, and let people self-organize around it.
3. Evolve POLICIES to improve outcomes.

principles of kanban_service delivery

Let’s imagine another scenario: You are on your way to an important meeting, and all of a sudden you have a flat tire. You would change the wheel yourself, but you remember that your spare is also flat! You can call your insurance company, which will arrive in about 1 hour and fix the puncture at no cost. Or you can go to the service shop that is conveniently right in front of you. You’ve never been there before, but they have said they could fix the tire in 15 minutes for $40.00.

What do you decide to do? It is very likely that, despite having a cost, you choose the workshop so you can get to the meeting on time. It is not about your insurance company providing a better or worse service; it is about understanding the needs and expectations of your client, in every moment.

When the Kanban Method emphasizes providing Fit for Purpose services, it is focusing precisely on this concept. And that’s one of the principles of Service Delivery. Let’s look more into this and the two other Service Delivery Principles of Kanban.

1. Understand and focus on CUSTOMER needs and expectations.

Put the focus on the customers, on the service provided, and on the level of fulfillment to meet their expectations. There is no point in efficiently doing something that shouldn’t be done.

2. Manage the WORK, let people self-organize around it.

Once we have made sure that we are doing the right thing, we have to do it right. This principle focuses on work. People need to organize to get it done, and some practices like Visualization and Limiting Work in Progress (or WIP) will be of great help. By making the work that is being done visible, it is easier for the stakeholders to know what is being worked on, how the work is being done, who is doing it, what the priorities are, which parts of the process we have bottlenecks, etc.

3. Evolve POLICIES to improve outcomes.

Continuous improvement in how we manage work and how we do work also includes how we share the criteria that facilitate decision-making throughout the process. The focus should be, once again, on improving business results and on improving customer satisfaction based on meeting their expectations. Make policies explicit; modify them, improve them, evolve them, and make them visible to all interested parties.

See? It’s More Than Just Post-Its

After all this information on Kanban, we haven’t even talked once about boards, post-its, cards, etc. – that is, everything we normally associate with Kanban. Instead, we reviewed the fundamentals: the three change management-oriented principles and the three service delivery principles on which we will base our decisions when managing, defining, and improving a service using the Kanban Method.

I hope this helps,


Bring Kanban to Your Company

While the visual element of a Kanban board is important, there really is so much more! Our Kanban University courses offer a full curriculum and certification to accelerate To Do, Doing, and Done.

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Sobre el autor

Picture of Miquel Rodríguez

Miquel Rodríguez

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