Who Needs Kanbans?

Who Needs Kanbans?

[Tl;Dr: Which elements of the way the work works in your organisation exist to serve a real need of an actual person? All elements which do not are waste.]

I don’t intend this as a rhetorical question. But rather as an opportunity to consider the Antimatter Principle via a practical example.

Note: This is a revision of my “Who Needs Retrospectives” post, for all the Kanban folks out there who may find the idea of per-sprint retrospective less than relevant.

Make Work Visible

By “kanbans” I’m meaning (here) the visible boards, cards, etc. that Kanbaners typically use to make the work visible.

On the face of it, Kanban teams often choose a kanban of some sort in order to help them make their work visible. Making the work (more) visible is one of the key practices (a.k.a. rules) of all the various flavours of Kanban. Visualising the work offers opportunities for the team to better understand their work, and how they’re handling it.

Making the work visible can be quite handy for those teams where folks have found they have a need to better understand their work; how it arrives, how it flows through the team, where the sticking points and issues are, and so on.

Aside: Some teams may have been ”told” to make their work more visible, and so have a need for a kanban to keep their employers happy. We might imagine that – in this case – the need is someone else’s. A higher-up, somewhere. A need often poorly articulated and maybe not well understood. Other teams may have decided themselves that making their work more visible affords them an opportunity to meet their intrinsic need for learning and improving the way they handle their work. Others again may have embraced the new frame of the Antimatter Principle, and become aware of the need to make more visible how well – or poorly – they’re doing, day to day, with getting everyone’s needs met.

No Need

But often, teams have no such needs. These teams may be in organisations where a shared understanding of the work is not a priority. Or the folks in these teams may not have found any intrinsic need to understand their work. Or they may not have yet embraced the Antimatter Principle. If no such needs exist, then any attempts at making the work more visible will never be anything more than “going through the motions”. In other words, a cosmetic exercise, busywork with no purpose. In such situations, how likely is it that anything of value will emerge from making the work more visible?

Of course, so-called kanbans may be serving other needs, such as a salve to higher-ups, who may have a need to be comforted by seeing one. Or folks’ need to understand more about kanbans, or their need to make their resumes look more attractive. Camouflaging these needs under the label “making the work more visible” may be necessary in certain organisational climes. But in these circumstances, these artefacts are kanbans in name only.

So, in your organisation, whose needs are the kanbans serving? Maybe if you can find out who, you can go ask them just what their need is, and thereby come up with some outcomes that your kanbans can deliver. Otherwise, you’re just expending wasted effort in making the work visible – or pretending to – without any impact.

– Bob

2 comments
  1. So just ask the question: Who benefits from what we do?

    Of course, that means we have to know what we do. Toyota, for example, expects to create and have handy a full description of every task to be accomplished at every site in the company, if I recall correctly. That would seem a natural place to identify the beneficiary of each task. This is a part of identifying the stakeholders. Apparently, the anti-matter principle is about including the workers among those stakeholders whose needs we are trying to satisfy.

    Notice that the purchaser, owner, and user of a product may all be the same or all be different. And the seller has needs and wants as well, many of which are not specific to the design and manufacture of the product.

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