Joshua L. Roberts

Agile / Lean Enterprise Transformation Coach

Week Six – When Will Kanban Save Us?

By Josh Roberts | July 13, 2014 | 0 Comment

This past Tuesday (7/8), the three teams practicing Portfolio Kanban gathered around their boards to hold their first weekly Retrospective. They started on Tue (7/1) and, subsequently, chose Tuesday as the day to hold their weekly Retrospective; due to vacation/holidays, it’s always good to avoid Mondays and Fridays. In fact, the Fourth of July holiday cut our first week of Kanban short.

The goal of the weekly Retrospectives is continuous improvement. With a Kanban system, the team is focused on improving the flow of value to the customer. According to LeanKit, your Retrospective questions should include:

  1. Is there any missing work in progress (WIP) that we haven’t gotten on the board yet?
  2. Can we identify any impediments to the flow of work?
  3. Are we tracking work at the right level of granularity?
  4. Are there queues or buffers in your workflow that aren’t represented on the board?

Since we’re just getting started with our Kanban systems, it has been a very intense week of building and populating the boards. As such, to start the Retrospective, I asked each of the team members to share “One Word” that represented their experience to date with Kanban. This is a good technique to generate conversation and below are the words shared by the team.


While the general consensus was very positive, many questioned, “When will we receive benefit from Kanban?”  More specifically, when would the teams get more focus, fewer interruptions, reduced wait times, and greater attention on impediments?  The boards hadn’t solved any of these problems yet and, in fact, it was a little disheartening to stand in front of a giant, overloaded board of work each day. Before Kanban, the teams had already felt overloaded and now they had all this work staring them directly in the face.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a Kanban man that will swoop in and save the day. I don’t often make it through a post without talking about “culture” and this post will be no exception. As I have always experienced, Agile/Lean practices tend to expose and accelerate issues that were always present in an organization. Improvement requires a culture of Kaizen (continuous improvement).  The Kanban boards help us visualize these issues in a collaborative way, but it will take action/change on the part of the teams and management to improve.  We must all work together.


Kaizen is Japanese and means to Change for the Better. I really like the Wikipedia definition that states, “Kaizen is a daily process, the purpose of which goes beyond simple productivity improvement. It is also a process that, when done correctly, humanizes the workplace, eliminates overly hard work, and teaches people how to perform experiments on their work using the scientific method and how to learn to spot and eliminate waste in business processes.”  A few of the key principles of Kaizen are as follows:

  • Say “NO” to status quo
  • Don’t look for excuses, look for ways to make things happen
  • Empower everyone to take part in the problems’ solving
  • Better the wisdom of 5 people than the expertise of 1
  • Never stop improving

In the spirit of continuous improvement, the goals we set for the upcoming week were to focus on 1) sizing our work, 2) using waiting queues, and 3) capturing unplanned work. I find it a good practice to post the goals on a piece of paper next to the Kanban boards as a visual reminder.  In the spirit of focus and small improvements, it is also good to limit your goals/actions to 3, or less.

retro goals

These 3 simple goals will move us closer to implementing Work in Progress (WIP) Limits. While our visual task boards are already promoting collaboration, better decision making as a team, and a focus on removing impediments, establishing WIP Limits will further empower everyone to take action toward improving the flow of work.

Of the 3 goals, sizing our work in the Backlog is a key next step. We will be using consensus-based techniques for estimating a Relative Size (points) for each piece of work. One such Relative Sizing technique is Planning Poker.


By bringing together multiple expert opinions, the team benefits from “the wisdom of 5 people over the expertise of 1”. Through their discussions, the teams naturally cross-train and decompose work (i.e. smaller batch sizes). Remember, we can achieve greater flow by reducing batch sizes which, in turn, reduces variability.

Once the work is sized, we will set WIP Limits using our estimated points. Over the course of time, our goal is to adjust our WIP Limits to shorten the Lead Time of requested work. Lead Time is the time it takes a piece of work to move through the entire Kanban system from request to deployment. Using a whole system approach, we will be watching for bottlenecks and making adjustments to our WIP Limits to smooth out the flow of work. To see the bottle necks, we will start capturing metrics to produce a Cumulative Flow diagram like the following.


Setting your initial WIP Limit is not an exact science.  Like most Agile/Lean techniques, WIP Limits are continually adjusted through experimentation; adjusting based on how the flow of work is impacted.

For each team, we will be setting WIP Limits for 3 types of work, or queues.  As such, we need to think about how these lower-level WIPs will impact the overall WIP for the team as a whole.  We will probably start by setting WIP Limits as follows:

  • Major Enhancements:  WIP Limit = 1 (goal is to promote decomposition)
  • Minor Enhancements:  WIP Limit = number of developers (goal is to promote collaboration)
  • Production Support: WIP Limit =  number of developers (goal is to promote overall focus)

We will convert our WIP Limits to points by taking each of the 3 WIP Limits set above and multiplying by the average size of work (in points) for the corresponding backlog (Major Enh., Minor Enh., or Prod. Support). By using a similar size of points across all queues (recommended by one of the teams), we can even establish a WIP Limit for the entire team by summing all the points.

In the spirit of Kaizen, establishing our initial WIP Limits is just one small step in our quest for continual improvement.


Josh Roberts

Agile / Lean Transformation Coach - Passionate About Delivering Value!


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