Kanban as an Approach to Helping Teams Mature

January 9, 2019
4 minute read

Kanban is often seen as an evolutionary approach to Agility, rather than a revolutionary one.  Unlike other Agile frameworks, that may sometimes promote wholesale changes to the process, the roles, and the engagement, Kanban starts with ‘what you are already doing’, and uses an empirical approach to help identify methods to improve and reach a more mature Kanban state.

At its core Kanban places focus on the work and not on the individuals, which can help a team develop and mature as a cohesive, collaborative entity.  As a team’s approach and maturity in using Kanban evolves, so does its’ unity.  At BERTEIG we find Kanban can be an excellent approach to help coach a team from a “me” to “we” mentality, and, ultimately, to become a systems thinker which helps the organization itself mature.

Low maturity teams in their early use of Kanban often start by simply combining their individual work items on to a single Proto-Kanban board.  Usually, these early visualizations of the work use swim lanes to differentiate each individual team member’s contributions.  This simplistic approach provides transparency and visibility into the work being done, as well as the opportunity to illustrate if an individual is overburdened.  But it does not typically provide much insight into how a team is working together, or how the system is delivering.  As such the teamwork focus at this stage is quite limited.

As a team matures, however, their use of a Proto-Kanban board should also evolve to reflect this growth.  A common next-step would be to either remove the swim lanes or to start placing Work In Progress (WIP) limits on individuals.  This evolution of the board becomes the starting point towards teams thinking about collaboration; team members can see how their own individual activities relate and contribute to the work the rest of the team is doing.

A team’s continued evolution should also be reflected in their Kanban board, which should place even more focus on the work at the system level rather than the individual level.  Removal of swim lanes is usually common by this point.  During stand-ups, most conversations at this point should move towards reviewing the overall work being done and not the individual’s activities. This would be reflected as commitments from the team to limit WIP across the board rather than as individuals.  This approach should, in turn, drive team member behaviours to collaborate on work to finish it, rather than taking action to satisfy individual needs, desires and egos.

As a team matures even more, their Kanban board should further evolve, moving towards a focus on the flow of value throughout the entire system.  Visualization of teams interacting with other teams should begin to appear on boards, and conversations about the queues of work between such teams should reflect this.  In every instance, this maturing of the board is both a driver towards collaboration as well as a reflection of how the team is maturing as a collaborative unit.  In turn, this evolution serves to help not only the team grow and become more collaborative, but the system should also evolve as organizational maturity increases.

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Berteig Consulting

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Bruce Power
Capital One
Equitable Life of Canada
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