Kanban Is More Than Sticky Notes on the Wall

Dimitar Karaivanov

Dimitar Karaivanov

CEO and Co-founder of Businessmap

Table of Contents:

If you ask 100 people "What is Kanban" probably 50 (or more) will answer "A whiteboard with sticky notes on it, "or should we say a "Kanban wall."

Even if they don't say exactly that, I bet they are envisioning a similar picture, and by the way, 50 is a conservative number here. Kanban practitioners and lean fellows know that Kanban is much more than a few notes on the wall, but this never ever occurs to the regular Kanban novice.

Unfortunately, the adoption of Kanban for some 80% of the teams reaches the "Sticky Note Stage" and either stays there forever or, after a few months of moving stickies on the Kanban board, people go back to their old habits (notepads, fancy mobile apps, MS Outlook tasks, checklists, etc.).

The other 20% (I don't have any official statistics about this, just my gut feeling) survive the learning curve and unlock the true potential of lean. This doesn't happen quickly, though. Not at all...

So, what is it that makes a Kanban implementation successful? There is not a definitive answer to that question, but I will attempt to "prescribe" my own rules that have helped us so far.

Educate Yourself and Your Group about the "Kanban Wall"

At first sight, Kanban seems very easy to follow. There are not too many rules (almost no rules at all), just the sticky notes that have to be moved, a few WIP limits, simple metrics... how complex could it be?

Reality is that doing Kanban is darn hard and unless you have a strong change agent / lean evangelist at hand, odds are that you will fail to achieve great results. There are exceptions to all rules, I know, but...

If you don't have such a person to help you out, you could try to work with an external consultant. These guys are not cheap, but that would be one of the greatest investments you have ever made for your company. If hiring an external consultant is not an option, then roll up your sleeves and read these books:

This should be enough to give you a ton of great ideas to digest for years.

Do Not Quit

The first most common reason for people to abandon Kanban is the lack of discipline. We all know where the concept of Lean started (Japan) and we all know how disciplined the Japanese guys are.

These discipline extremities are almost insane for the western people, but it is how it is and you should do your best to get up on your feet and try once again. And again... and again. Otherwise, you will stick to the basic concept of kanban sticky notes and that's it.

Urrr, but what exactly do we need to do?

Try these:

1. Set the strictest possible WIP limits that work for you.

2. Never exceed them.

3. If things start piling up somewhere, figure out why and improve.

4. Deliver whatever it is that you are doing at strict intervals (establish flow with a short takt time).

5. Reduce cycle time.

6. Do not hide issues under the carpet.

7. Accept the reality no matter how bad it is.

8. Eliminate waste.

The "Kanban Wall" Needs Experiments

The books that I listed above should be used as a source of ideas to try at your company. Do not take whatever they say for granted, but test it.

Do not be afraid to validate your ideas for improvement. As long as you have the means to classify an experiment as a success (or failure), do it, just don't do things that you won't be able to evaluate as helpful or harmful. It will be hard, it will take a lot of time, you will fail a lot of times, some people will hate you, some people will quit, management won't support you, peers will be mocking your new lean-mania but at the end, you will be a winner and that's a promise.

One of the Lean principles is Perfection. Perfection is not achieved, it is strived for, relentlessly, every day. From my point of view, getting closer to perfection is only achieved through smart and well-thought experiments, so just do it.

Hold Yourself and Others Accountable

Did I say that doing Kanban and Lean is damn hard? Yes, I think I did. Truth is that you will always have people trying to somehow escape this way of doing things and hoping to get back to their old ways. It's not their fault and they are not doing it on purpose, it's just human nature to switch tasks when they feel bored, you know?

That is why you should give each-other permission to hold yourselves accountable for the things you are not doing right. When a guy on the team is doing the exact opposite of what they are supposed to do, stand up and confront them (in a polite and constructive manner of course). In Lean/Kanban one should correct others and others should correct him/her back - this is how you move forward as a team, and this is how everyone's understanding of Lean thinking grows.

Define Just a Few Rules, but NEVER Break Them

As a manager, I have always encouraged teams to define as few rules as possible, but whatever rules there were had to be strictly obeyed. If you have a single person "breaking the law," sooner or later, others will follow because, as we know, humans follow the path of least resistance. In Kanban, this is very dangerous, as by definition, the method will surface a lot of issues, one after the other, and the stress of facing these issues is high.

Usually, management has to take an active role in facilitating this change and making sure that people will do what they have promised to do without steering away from the "right" path. The good news is that following one or two simple rules (with no exceptions) will first turn into a habit and then into a necessity. This is where a rule stops being a rule and becomes an inseparable part of a process that people understand and tend to improve.

Well, that was it. I hope you will find my short list helpful and enabling. 



Dimitar Karaivanov

Dimitar Karaivanov

CEO and Co-founder of Businessmap

Dimitar is a lean thinker and a Kanban practitioner with a solid background in the areas of software development and process improvement. He is passionate about achieving extreme performance at scale and applying Lean/Agile principles outside IT.