Underpants Gnomes in Kanban


… or, no good joke goes unpunished

Kanban offers a lot of potential for targeted, specific, incremental change, but you will need to have or create a problem-solving culture to avoid stalling out.

Earlier this year I made the wisecrack around the office that my problem with Kanban is, it feels too much to me like the Underpants Gnomes:

  1. Visualize work
  2. ???
  3. Process improvement!

Northwest Cadence just got cheekier. You're welcome.

Steven, who thinks I’m funny, ran with it just a bit.

Last night at the ALM Summit, we had a great breakout (“Open Space“) session at which some serious agile luminaries held forth on the theories underpinning both Scrum and Kanban and process improvement in general.  Steven outed me and my joke, so now I think the heat’s on.  Can I unpack this idea and turn it into real learnings, or was it just a cheap shot?

Well, let’s put the obvious out there first.  Although Kanban does literally mean just “visual card” or “visual board”, Kanban in the context of software development process improvement doesn’t just say visualize work.  That’s only the first step.  There are supposed to be other steps after that.  Right?

Aren’t there?

This is where, for me, we start to run into issues.  I’m not being theoretical or cheeky here.  In my former organization, my team ran Scrum (-but) for 2.5 years; another nearby team made the decision from the executive level to implement “Lean-Kanban” instead.  They expressly agreed with something I’ve heard Kanban proponents advance as a strength: unlike Scrum, they could adopt Kanban without changing any of their existing process.  (They seemed awfully excited about that.)

They got great, in-depth training (which they kindly invited me to sit in on).  The following week, huge Kanban boards went up to visualize their entire portfolio.  The first thing they “learned” (unnecessary quotes because everybody on the team already knew it) was that they were massively overloaded: at least three times more work underway than they could possibly complete on time.

When a 12-person team’s Kanban board fills all the walls, floor-to-ceiling, of a 40-seat conference room, it’s covered in 3×3 post-its, and each team member needs four to six laminated South Park avatars to identify all the work they’re doing at any one time, they don’t need a high-priced consultant to tell them where the dysfunction—sorry, “opportunity”—is.

And how’d they address the dysfunction?  As far as I know, they didn’t.

Why not?  Honestly, I don’t know.  Kanban calls for teams to limit work in process (WIP) and it’s a fairly obvious next step in this case, in some form.  I know they learned about limiting WIP, because I was in their training classes.  It was easy for my friends on the dev and BA teams to blame upper management and stakeholders for failing to act, but I don’t know if they really fought for WIP limits or just rolled over.  I’m certain no one at any level sought out or embraced the pain of significant change.

A year and a half later, the Kanban-wallpaper was still up, and the team still said they were “doing Kanban”.  At a local Lean-Kanban conference, I got a chance to sit down with some of them during a break and asked how the process was going for them.

“It’d be fine if the BAs would quit dragging us developers into their ATDD meetings.  It takes up all our time and we can’t get enough code written.”

“Hey!  What do you expect when you’re so slow delivering code that we have nothing to UAT?  We don’t have anything else to do but work on future requirements.”

I gather that they still haven’t implemented WIP limits, at least not properly, and they’re not managing their queues in or out.  We’re sitting at a Kanban conference and these attendees are still near the point of food fighting because they’ve decided the dysfunction is each other instead of their process.

And that’s why I think the Underpants Gnomes are not just a one-liner in Kanban, but a real risk that should be taken seriously and planned for.  What happens when…

  • the team doesn’t know how to find the root cause of a dysfunction?
  • the team can’t agree on what the dysfunctions even are?
  • the team identifies a dysfunction, but doesn’t know how to solve it?
  • the team tries to solve a dysfunction but just replaces it with another?
  • the team’s organizational culture doesn’t support problem-solving?
  • the team isn’t empowered to make the changes they think are needed?

A team full of highly motivated problem-solvers with great communication and teamwork skills will probably get good results with Kanban, but honestly aren’t they all too busy building carbon-nanotube space elevators while curing cancer?  Or writing the book on process improvement?  Seriously, teams that natively possess awesome diagnosis and problem-solving skills, are they even having this conversation?

... and it's a Big Visible Display, too!

The rest of us need to pay attention to the Underpants Gnomes when we’re getting started in Kanban.

What’s your plan for Phase 2? Can you do it on your own or do you need help getting there?

Note: if you are/were on the team I’m talking about and I’ve gotten any of the story wrong, please send me additions or corrections or perspectives so I can update!

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2 thoughts on “Underpants Gnomes in Kanban

  1. Pingback: Retrospective: Northwest Cadence at ALM Summit 2011 | Where Technology Meets Teamwork

  2. Pingback: Hacking getKanban version 2

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