Pedestrian Kanban

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
– Ernest Hemingway

When I was an Engineering undergrad, one of my more embarrassing moments was the feedback a tutor gave me on an assignment I had submitted. As he handed me back my assignment with a barely passing grade, he remarked – “In future Mr. Leong, I’ll need to see more than just a pedestrian effort”.

It was his way of saying my effort was lackluster and without any novel insights or imagination. I wasn’t engaged in the assignment and only did the minimum required. I was just going through the motions. I was parroting the concepts without fully understanding or appreciating what I was doing. Rather than actively playing, I was passively watching.

When I look at some Kanban boards and how they’re being used, that same word – “pedestrian” comes to mind. All Kanban boards start off with the best of intentions. The Kanban system is designed and a board is created with a fresh set of stickies to prime the backlog ready to be pulled through to done. The team eagerly gathers around the board on a regular basis to review the work, share what they’ve done, plan to do and any impediments in their way. But over time, the flow of work items starts to slow and bottleneck. People start missing standups as their curiosity wanes. Those that do show-up seem disinterested and pre-occupied with their device of choice. A general sense of malaise settles in.

We’ve entered the Pedestrian Kanban Zone!

Here’s a sample of tell-tale Pedestrian Kanban signs:

  • The board is a confusing mass of stickies.
  • There are so many tickets on the board that in some areas, tickets are piled on top of each other giving the effect of older tickets fermenting and sprouting newer tickets on top of them.
  • There are as many tickets fallen on the floor as there are on the board.
  • Some tickets are illegible and those that are make no sense.
  • There is no visible distinction between epics, user stories and tasks on the board.
  • There is no obvious connection between epics, user stories and tasks on the board resulting in many orphaned tasks.
  • When orphaned tasks fall off the board – no one seems to remember or care.
  • All tickets are treated the same regardless of class of service or cost of delay.
  • Every stand-up starts late and is preceded by a search party looking for missing team members.
  • Team members give personal status reports with no intent to coordinate work with others on the team.
  • There is no connection between what team members are sharing at standup and what’s on the board.
  • There is no movement or flow of tickets from one standup to the next.
  • Failure of teams to go beyond the personal Kanban workflow of ‘To Do’, ‘Doing’ and ‘Done’.
  • There’s a strong urge to bypass a physical board and go straight to virtual e-boards.

Which ones have a familiar ring for you? Would love to hear your examples of Pedestrian Kanban.

I could’ve called this Zombie Kanban based on the oft-memed Zombie Agile. But unlike zombies, pedestrians have some level of cognitive executive function remaining. Just barely though. It’s Kanban on life-support. How do we raise the energy level and get your Kanban back into the game?

Back to basics

We could start by asking ourselves what purpose the boards were meant to fulfill. You may be surprised by the variety of answers you hear.

Remember the six core Kanban practices? Why not assess how well your current board and related ceremonies incorporate those practices. Does your board and ceremonies…

  1. Visualize the work, workflow and business risks?
  2. Limit WIP?
  3. Manage flow?
  4. Make policies explicit?
  5. Implement feedback loops?
  6. Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally?

Any ‘No’ answers may be the areas to start focusing on to pull your Kanban back from the abyss.

Personifying your board

At the recent Toronto Agile Community Conference, two of my friends and fellow Agile practitioners Martin Aziz and Fernando Cuenca presented a couple of very thought-provoking talks on Kanban. Their ideas inspired me to think of going beyond the basics to amp up your Kanban.

What if you were to treat your board like a person with human qualities?

You could open your eyes and ‘listen’ to see what it was trying to tell you. Extraordinary Kanban boards like long-lost friends would have much to share. Pedestrian Kanban boards like weary souls would be mute.

You could stand back, observe and ask your board questions such as

“Board, board on the wall… “

  • How are you feeling today?
  • Why do you look so sad?
  • What are your worried about?
  • Can you tell me who’s working on what?
  • Can you tell me what are the different things we work on?
  • What work is blocked?
  • What needs to be true before I can move this ticket to the next column?
  • What tickets are connected?
  • What should we work on next?
  • How does work flow for different things?
  • How long does it take for things to get done?

How would your board answer you, if at all?

When practicing Kanban, sticking to the basics is a start. Respecting your board as you would a person could take your Kanban to the next level. It may even alert you to any changes in its affect or mood. By doing so, you can avoid entering the Pedestrian Kanban Zone.

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