Kanban for improving the flow of value across the organization

Companies are full of hidden, often contradictory, flows of requests and information. Kanban fixes this.

Kanban for improving the flow of value across the organization
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com

Whether Kanban is applied at an individual, team, department or organization level, the intention and principles are similar. As Alexandra Bigas correctly pointed out in a comment to me, lockdown makes everything harder, starting with communication. However, as we’ll see in this article, I believe that the problem has less to do with communicating priorities and more to do with agreeing on value.

For instance, I have my own Kanban to help me

  1. work on what is important: in my case, creating value for the lean community (spreading lean thinking)
  2. avoid starting too many things at once and not finishing anything quickly
  3. avoid ‘crunch mode’ days that can affect my motivation, efficiency and health; and
  4. take a step back to understand if what I’m doing is having an impact.

Fatigue or routine sometimes makes me drop the ball, but as soon as I do problems start popping up. Fortunately, when I pick it up again, I regain my sanity: my Kanban is like a compass that tells me where to go whenever I get lost or sidetracked. I have organized my deliverables in a heijunka board which looks like this:

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This board tells me that I have two important deliverables for this week, as materialized by the two Kanban cards in column “week of 4/27”. The first column is my “launcher”, i.e. it represents the actual work that I will perform in the order of the production priorities. This week, I need to write a post and several pages of the book I’ve been working on. Next week, I will need to write an article and organize a new meetup for one of the communities I facilitate, but I don’t need to worry about that now. The pace of production is set by various clients, some of whom have their own heijunka boards aligned with our lean community mission and objectives. So they regularly send me production Kanban cards, which I add to my own board.

Notice that I try not to exceed two pieces per week, to avoid overburden and limit context switching. This is easier to do when the production flow is regular, i.e., when Kanban cards arrive at a regular pace. Since this is not always the case, I also try to level my workload by producing certain pieces early if I anticipate an increase in future demand. If I get an ad hoc, unplanned request, I either reassess priorities with my colleagues or request help. Ideally, I always have one item of each category on hand (in my “shop stock”) so that I can publish it easily on D-day and avoid the risk of unforeseen circumstances preventing me from delivering the piece in time. I don’t always succeed! When I slip, it forces me to think about how I can organize my time differently, simplify my work, or pull the andon cord sooner.

You might be thinking that this is overkill since it’s not the end of the world if I don’t publish a LinkedIn post or an article. After all, I don’t always have to pay customers waiting for my deliverables. But I still consider it a serious problem, because my colleagues count on my contributions to meeting our collective goals. Kanban helps me work on what is key to the mission and helps me organize my work autonomously. In a department or company, the idea is exactly the same. First, it is vital that everyone in the organization understands the shared mission and objectives, so they know where their contributions matter. Second, a Kanban system helps each part of the company (a person, a team, a department…) organize their work autonomously while remaining aligned with the whole.

So why doesn’t everyone practice Kanban? One reason is that when a company starts growing (as it reaches 20 to 30 people), it also starts to develop “big company” diseases: people focus more on making processes work than on satisfying customers, and they fight for local goals and priorities instead of collaborating to achieve company goals, they try to control people’s actions instead of encouraging initiatives and creativity, and they protect legacy decisions for fear of change even if it pulls them backward. These diseases slow progress and create a toxic work atmosphere.

Let’s look at an example of how Kanban can help. I know a company with just over 40 employees that is already feeling the symptoms. Management is complaining because they have the impression that projects are not getting completed, even though the list of projects is not very long and the work is apparently not very complex. When we looked more closely, we saw that everyone was working extremely hard. However,

  1. they weren’t always working on the most important thing
  2. they worked on many things at the same time, so progress was slow
  3. they were responding to every internal request even though many of them would end up forgotten or put on the back burner.

When we dug a little further, we saw that the project teams were receiving dozens of requests under the radar from various entities, including the CEO himself, and also that some people on those teams were more solicited than others. Setting up a Kanban system in this context helps

  1. clarify for everyone what is really valuable to work on
  2. focus on what needs to be produced today and not worry about what comes next
  3. ensure that the workload is balanced over the whole organization (not just falling on those who were too polite to say “no”)
  4. prevent the pushiest managers or departments from making unwarranted requests to achieve their local missions.

More specifically, we are asking people to fill out a Kanban card every time they want someone to produce something for them. The goal is to visualize the flow of these requests throughout the company, and evaluate the importance of each one (Is it creating real value for customers? Does the requested delivery time make sense?) We are also limiting the number of requests that one person can have on their plate at a time to 3 (like the limit of 2 pieces per week that I set for myself). This organization allows everyone to see stagnating Kanban cards, notice when a colleague is running into difficulties, and provide help whenever needed.

What’s more, we set this up right before and during the lockdown period, with everyone working from home. Getting back to Alexandra’s comment, was communication more difficult? Certainly. But was difficult communication the source of the enterprise’s problem? Not really. Once the Kanban got started, it made the priority and underlying value of tasks more obvious to everyone. This does not mean that no one is complaining but it is giving people the opportunity to have more meaningful discussions around value. This is eliminating the need for a lot of useless communication: under-the-radar requests, negotiations over priorities and responsibilities, a multitude of online meetings, and so on. Even with everyone working from home, it makes it easier to communicate because people are starting to have a shared understanding of priorities.

I’m not saying that setting up a Kanban system at the enterprise level is a piece of cake. And it’s probably more difficult to do in a large company. Actually, the hardest part about Kanban is maintaining it over the long haul, but I believe that the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. Whatever the type and size of our organization, we can always start a Kanban system at our own level: for ourselves, our team, or our department.